The future Reich Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, still Minister of Foreign Affairs, heralded the period of the German World Politics with his speech of 1897. Germany thought it was ready for its role as Weltmacht.
“We don’t want to put anyone in the shade, but we too want a place in the sun.”
The pragmatic Realpolitik of Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was replaced at the end of the nineteenth century by the aggressive Weltpolitik of Wilhelm II. Tactical diplomacy gradually gave way to expansionism. As a result, tensions on the European continent ran high. The conflicts began to pile up in such a way that in the end, one bullet turned out to be enough to start a world war. How did it get this far?
Bismarck’s Colonial Expansion as a Textbook Example of Realpolitik
Germany was a relative latecomer to the colonial scene. Nevertheless, it managed to catch up impressively in 1884. That year it started without overseas possessions. By the end of that year, it had succeeded in becoming a full-fledged colonial powerhouse. After Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, Germany had the world’s largest colonial empire. It managed to conquer contemporary Tanzania, Cameroon, Namibia, and Togo, among others in Africa.
Bismarck was initially against the gathering of colonies. According to him, this would endanger the German economy and foreign policy. “As long as I am president,” he stated in 1881, “we will not engage in colonialism.” 2 Nevertheless, he changed his mind in 1884, mainly for diplomatic reasons. Bismarck was terrified of revenge from his hereditary enemy France. About fourteen years earlier, he had made the French even smaller.
If he conquered overseas territories, he thought, there would be no French retaliatory action. The colonial expansion could even underlie a collaboration with the French. Bismarck unanimously thought he could form a front against the colonial leader: Great Britain. As an outspoken Anglophobic, this seemed like a great idea. This deliberate diplomatic move was typical of his Realpolitik. Nevertheless, it was also a prelude to the conflict with the British, which only really flared up later, in the era of the German Weltpolitik.
The Krugertelegram: the start of a fiery conflict.
On January 3, 1896, Wilhelm II sharpened relations with England. A telegram from the emperor to Paul Kruger, the Transvaal president, drastically deteriorated the relationship between the great powers. Wilhelm II congratulated Kruger on his victory over the British. This was because of a raid led by Sir Leander Starr Jameson (1853–1917), the so-called Jameson Raid, knockdown. Wilhelm II commended Kruger for defeating the British without the help of his allies.
They, in turn, did not appreciate this. The British saw the Transvaal as their own sphere of influence where the Germans had to stay away. Moreover, by speaking of an alliance, Wilhelm II suggested that Germany rally behind Kruger in a new conflict between Great Britain and the Transvaal. British public opinion, therefore, turned strongly against the Germans. In London, German sailors were attacked, and the windows of German shops were smashed.
The Boxer Uprising and propaganda about Germans eating babies
Wilhelm II’s speech in the Bremerhaven a few years later, in 1900, offered the British the opportunity to turn their feelings of hatred into a true demonization of their enemy. The emperor’s speech has entered the history books as the ‘Hunnenspeech.’ He was at the heart of British propaganda during World War I when stories curved about German huns cutting off the hands of Belgian babies and, in some cases, even eating babies. Wilhelm II owed this propaganda to himself.
In his speech in Bremerhaven at the Boxer Uprising, he announced that the Chineseinsurgents like Huns would be stored. The reason was not to the liking of many. Bismarck’s more thoughtful diplomacy had given way to Wilhelm II’s aggression.
If Germany wanted to become a real World Power, it also had to respond to the Boxer Uprising. Like many other colonial powers, it had made treaties with China. In Kiachow, they had secured commercial privileges and established a trade monopoly.
This area was the showpiece of the German Empire. A lot of money was invested in modernization projects. Germans showed off their modern port, telegram system, and sewage system there. It was precisely this imperialist infiltration where the Chinese Boxersprotested against. The missionary activities were also a thorn in their side. At one point, the Chinese emperor rallied behind the Boxers, and the imperial superpowers decided to act against the insurgents.
As a country that also owned territory in China, German interference was bound to happen. After the murder of Clemens von Ketteler, the German ambassador in Beijing, Wilhelm II, sent troops to China. When he saw off the troops, he then delivered his infamous Hunnenspeech.
When the German troops arrived in China in the spring of 1901, they were actually too late. The other great powers had already conquered Beijing. Still wanting to underline its status as an imperial superpower, Germany held punitive expeditions in China.
It wanted to ‘pacify’ the ‘rebelling’ provinces. In practice, this resulted in a brutal and senseless massacre of the Chinese population. Alfred von Waldersee led such a punitive expedition. Because he led a European force, Germany eventually managed to emphasize its status as a world power. The massacres were therefore not completely meaningless for Germany.
The maritime arms race as a feverish escalation
To conquer its place in the sun, Germany had to show its muscles. It, therefore, had to crack down on the rebellious Chinese. It also needed a strong fleet. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had already submitted a plan in 1897 to expand the German fleet.
This plan was approved in the Reichstag the following year. At the time, Von Bülow, still Minister of Foreign Affairs, thought that he could deter the British with a larger fleet and thus avoid a military conflict. This was an incorrect estimate. The British did not withdraw out of fear but instead began to rest better. Very costly arms race follow the. The maritime industry developed at a feverish pace during this period. In 1906, the British thought they had designed a type of battleship that the Germans could not cope with.
The British Dreadnought heralded the beginning of a new generation of battleships. However, British maritime superiority was short-lived. Contrary to the expectations of the English, the Germans managed to build a similar ship. The sense of threat grew steadily among the British.
Britain also had reason to fear. As an island, it was very dependent on its fleet for its trade. The expansion of the German colonial fleet, therefore, posed a direct threat to the British economy. Fearing the Germans, Britain settled the conflicts it had with France and allied with them in 1904.
The contours of the Triple Entente began to emerge. The treaty between the French and the British stipulated that they would leave each other alone in their colonies. Britain was to exercise its authority in Egypt unimpeded, and France was free to run its course in Morocco. However, peace in Morocco was short-lived.
Bold Diplomacy: The First and Second Moroccan Crises
The Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain did not please Germany. To improve its own position, it wanted to put these two superpowers against each other. The only question was how it could do that. German nationalists had long believed that Germany should conquer Morocco. While the German government and industry favored a liberal ‘open-door policy,’ a group of influential nationalists (the Alldeutscher Verband ) wanted to turn Morocco into a German settlement colony. 3Trade with Morocco was of great importance to Germany.
Their conviction contributed to Von Bülow’s change of mind. He saw his chances and put pressure on the emperor. On his initiative, he traveled to Tangiers in 1905 and recognized the sovereignty of the sultan there. This was against the sore leg of the French.
By recognizing Morocco’s self-determination, Von Bülow thought he was driving a wedge between Great Britain and France. If he managed to get several other nations to support Morocco’s independence, Britain might also change. This was quite possible because the British traded a lot with Morocco and therefore benefited from an independent Morocco.
If England did not explicitly oppose the German initiative, the Entente Cordiale might already break. The Algeciras conference was organized in 1906 with this aim. In the end, only Austria-Hungary sided with the Germans. Great Britain explicitly joined the French. Apparently, the allies did not just let themselves be drifted apart.
Much more muscle was shown in the second Moroccan crisis. In 1911 a revolt broke out in Morocco against the sultan. For France, this provided an opportunity to strengthen its grip on the colony. It sent troops to quell the rebellion there.
With this invasion, France violated earlier agreements. Under the guise of protecting compatriots, however, it thought it could intervene without hindrance. This turned out not to be the case. For Germany, the French invasion was a reason to send a warship, the SMS Panther, to Adagir. This macho behavior has entered the German history books as ‘Panthersprung Nach Agadir.’ For a moment, war seemed very close. Secretly, Germany hoped to conclude a deal with France to receive a part of Congo.
In which Germany had an uninterrupted area from the East to the West Coast, central Africa was the dream of many nationalists. However, this one did not materialize. Both sides signed a treaty stipulating that Germany would receive only part of French Congo. With that, the conflict was settled, and it fizzled out.
To understand the rising tensions in Europe, the battle for the colonies must also be taken into account. The quarrel over overseas possessions and the accompanying display of muscles contributed to the First World War outbreak. Economic interests, lobby groups, and diplomatic considerations all played their part. Establishing a Mittelafrika was also an important objective of the Germans during the First World War.
If it had defeated Belgium in Europe, it thought it could take Belgian Congo without too much trouble. The opposite happened. Germany hit with the Treaty of Versailles have just lost colonies. Although the Germans, therefore, only owned overseas territories for thirty years, their colonial ambitions played a major role in world history. They had to give up their place in the sun, but they have more than earned their place in the history books.