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Bismarck’s Foreign policy was a Success Essay

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The balance of power in Europe had been suddenly altered after the German victory over France in 1871. The resultant German Empire, with its large population great economic power, strong army and extensive resources, looked clear to be an important factor in international relations. However, even for Bismarck this looked set to be a challenge, due to the need not only to establish the Empire as a nation, but to also found an external security that would prove to be vital throughout his reign as Chancellor.

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Although was this set policy an overall success?

Bismarck’s main objectives in the proposal of the instituted policies were to isolate France in Europe; maintain the balance of peace on the continent – particularly between Austria and Russia, who Bismarck feared would come to blows over the escalating problems in the Balkans – as well as maintaining his secured German territory; avoid fighting a war on two fronts and the Chancellor also desired, perhaps greedily, to have the control and power of two other powers in Europe as well as in Germany. The ideal for Bismarck was to establish a run of successful policies to achieve these goals and thus substantiate Germany as both the most powerful and influential of the Great Powers in Europe.

The immediate problem in Bismarck’s international relations appeared to be the threat of the new French Republic. The government still viewed Bismarck’s German Empire with resentment after its defeat, and then the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, to Germany, which for the state not only meant the loss of valuable territory, but also represented the demise of French supremacy in Europe. However, France was in no real state to seek her revenge alone and knew, just as well as Bismarck, that an alliance was her only hope.

Furthermore not only did Bismarck need to deal with this to ensure success in his foreign policy, but he felt that there was great diplomatic value in being able to count both Austria-Hungary and Russia as friends. Yet once again this was not without its difficulties, as the sensitive situation in the Balkans had led to rivalry between the states as to who would eventually gain power in the area after the demise of the Ottoman Empire. This in turn led to the declaration of a series of both lucrative and ineffective policies.

In answer to his search for friendship with Austria and Russia to deal with both his desire for friendship with the two Great Powers and aid his plan for the isolation of France, Bismarck met with the state leaders and an agreement for the ‘Dreikaiserbund’ (Three Emperors League) was set in 1873. Although quite vague, the bill was a short-term success for Bismarck, as it allowed him to isolate France without causing suspicion and meant he could avoid making a choice between Austria and Russia. The powers had agreed that matters of common interest would be consulted, which was also of great interest to Bismarck as it meant a better understanding between the nations had been instituted causing Bismarck to believe that in the case of a war with France he would have the support of Austria and Russia.

Further successes for Bismarck in terms of foreign policy were the Dual Alliance of 1879 and the Three Emperors Alliance of 1881. In response to Russia’s rejection of the Three Emperors League, Bismarck negotiated an alliance with Austria. Such a grouping strengthened both the nations power in the case of a war with Russia, although Austria agreed that in the case of a war with France she would remain neutral, thus resulting in the isolation of France but the reinforcement of German power.

However, although the Chancellor decided it was best kept secret from Russia – though they did discover the details of the arrangement – he did not regard the alliance as a final choice between Austria and Russia. Therefore the alliance in fact meant more to Austria who had finally escaped the diplomatic isolation she had suffered since the Crimean War. On the other hand, after Russia’s discovery of the Dual Alliance, and the realisation of her isolation in Europe, she turned back to Germany and the result was a more specific revision of the past Dreikaiserbund. Once more this was successful for Bismarck in that it isolated France and prevented the situation of having to choose between Austria and Russia.

The final of Bismarck’s foreign policies also secured successes for the Chancellor. The Triple Alliance of 1882 between Germany, Austria and Italy reassured Bismarck that unless a Franco-Russian alliance was formed then the prospect of war from either nation whilst standing alone could be easily contained. This alliance was, from Bismarck’s viewpoint, aimed directly towards the segregation of France, as he was aware that she could not, and so would not attack Germany single-handedly.

However, yet again the Dreikaiserbund was destroyed in 1885 due to further problems in the Balkans, and it became clear that disputes in this area were unlikely to ever be fully resolved. This time Bismarck needed to desperately to avoid the prospect of a war on two fronts. This concluded in the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887, which tried to localize the problem by assuring Russia that Bismarck would not support Austria in a clash over the Balkans territory. By documenting that in the case of a war between two of the powers that the remaining power would remain neutral, Bismarck succeeded in both preventing a war on two fronts and obtaining the neutrality he desired.

Lastly, Bismarck’s final foreign policy, the Second Mediterranean Agreement of 1887, was mainly successful for due to the fact that he merely sponsored the act and did not become involved in its negotiations. By encouraging the agreement Bismarck managed to restrain Russia from assuming a provocative position in the Balkans, thus preventing both the possibility of a war between Austria and Russia as well as Bismarck from perhaps having to choose between the two.

However, these policies only ensured short-term successes for Germany and perhaps from the failures we can see that some of the long lasting effects of Bismarck’s policies were more serious.

The first major failure in Bismarck’s foreign policy was in his handling of the ‘War in Sight Crisis’ of 1875 when the French recovery and rearmament provoked Germany into a diplomatic crisis, this then escalated out of control, with the Chancellor prohibiting any trade with France and the papers predicting war. Finally Bismarck himself raised the spectre of war, which resulted in condemnation from Britain and Russia, and the realisation for Bismarck that a war on two fronts remained a possibility and that the other powers were suspicious of him and would not tolerate a growth in German power. The incident also failed in that Germany was forced to reassure France war was not a possibility, thus not only failing to isolate France but causing Bismarck great diplomatic humiliation throughout the continent. This is furthermore evidence that the Three Emperors League failed Bismarck, as it did not give him the support from Russia he had believed would be obtained from such an agreement.

Further humiliation for Bismarck came in 1878 in the form of the Congress of Berlin. Russia was forced to choose between a war with Britain or a revision of the proposed San Stefano Treaty concerning the Balkans. Although Germany remained neutral throughout the conference, this resulted in the Dreikaiserbund being dissolved, as Russia had hoped she could rely on Germany’s support, which was denied. Russia later blamed Bismarck for her diplomatic defeat and referred to the fiasco 1″ a coalition of the European powers against Russia under the leadership of Prince Bismarck”. Yet this was not the Conferences only failure as Bismarck had also failed to maintain the peace within Europe, thus making an enemy of Russia, and in the long-term the problems in the Balkans remained unresolved.

While successful in some ways for Bismarck’s foreign policy, the Three Emperors League was only short-term and failed to secure solutions to the enduring difficulties in the demising Ottoman Empire. This is also similar of the effects of the Triple Alliance, Reinsurance Treaty and Second Mediterranean Agreement, which though too had their success failed to obtain any long-term solutions.

The Triple Alliance failed to prevent a war on two fronts from Russia and France, as Italy was not a strong military ally able to match the combined forces of France and Russia, thus leaving Germany in a vulnerable position. The Reinsurance Treaty was very similar in that it was only short-term as France and Russia did eventually join in the ‘Entente’. Bismarck further created himself problems, as the Second Mediterranean Agreement left him with no alliance to Russia, and so creating possible problems for the future.

Finally by the end of Bismarck’s office in 1890 France still viewed Germany with contempt and searched for revenge, while the situation in the Balkans continued to flare as did the tension between Austria and Russia. This leads me to believe that although Bismarck’s foreign policy was successful in achieving his main objectives and solving problems in the short-term, all they did for the long-term was to simply delay the problems rather than resolving them. The Chancellor in fact made it difficult to maintain neutrality over the Balkans crisis in the long-term and it could even be said that too many alliances were made in an effort to obtain his goals, that it became too difficult to retain such a documented relationship with the other powers, and that perhaps Bismarck did not leave himself enough loose ends to play with the policies in the way he saw fit.

Conclusively, it was probably an advantage for Bismarck that he left office in 1890, as it left Kaiser William II with the resulting problems to resolve and he was able to leave behind the tangle of long-term problems he had created.


* The Unification of Germany 1815-90 – Andrina Stiles

* Challenging History – European Powers 1815-1890


Intro – Germany’s political and economic situation in Europe post unification – 1871

Paragraph 1 – Bismarck’s main objectives in foreign policy and immediate problems he faced in Europe i.e. French desired revenge desire to isolate France etc

Paragraph 2 – Success in foreign policy e.g. prevented having to choose between Austria and Russia due to Dreikaiserbund

Paragraph 3 – Failures in foreign policy e.g. Congress of Berlin caused breakdown of Dreikaiserbund

Conclusion – Was Bismarck’s foreign policy a success? NO – only solved problems in the short-term and created further problems for the long-term

1 Challenging History – European Powers 1815-1890

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