Bismarck's Impact on Foreign Policy Term Paper

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This decision was preceded by intense diplomatic activity between Austria, Russia and Germany, none of whom could afford, for different reasons, to have the balance of power in Europe upset by instability in the Balkans. Austria feared a growth in Russian influence in the Balkans; Russia similarly wished to weaken Austria's role in the region; Germany needed both Russia and Austria and did not want open conflict between them. Bismarck sought to maintain German neutrality between Austria and Russia for as long as possible but when in October 1876 the Russians asked him straight out whose side Germany would back in the event of a Russian-Austrian clash in the Balkans, he let it be known that in the final analysis Germany would not allow Austria's position to be weakened.

In the event the Balkan difficulties themselves were temporarily resolved by an agreement between Russia, Austria and Turkey, backed by Britain and France, involving the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria. It was when the Russians imposed additional demands on Turkey which the Turks refused that war broke out in 1877. To cut a long and very complicated story short, Russia and Turkey had essentially fought each other to a standstill across Bulgaria and as far as Constantinople by May 1878, and a congress was called to resolve outstanding differences and reassert the balance of power in Europe. It was a mark of the prestige of Bismarck and of his Germany that the congress took place, not in London, Paris, or St. Petersburg, but in Berlin, in June 1878. The ultimate agreement meant a diplomatic defeat for Russia, for which the Russians blamed Bismarck.

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From this experience Bismarck took a clear lesson: that informal arrangements and agreements without teeth must be replaced by formal commitments backed by the promise of force:

The years 1879 to 1882 mark a decisive change, when the European states system moved from the loose, almost anarchical arrangements of the 1870s to a system in which one power and its satellites were clearly preponderant, a system that lasted until the mid 1890s.

Term Paper on Bismarck's Impact on Foreign Policy Assignment

The first clear evidence of this was the transformation of the Three Emperors' League of 1873. Russian indignation at Bismarck's "betrayal" of their interests at the Congress of Berlin meant that the tripartite agreement was effectively dead in the water. Bismarck accepted that the Russians were in a position where they would always have irreconcilable differences with the Austrians over their competing spheres of influence in south-eastern Europe, and determined to strengthen his alliance with Austria. The result was the Dual Alliance of October 1879, which lasted until November 1918. This alliance was popular in many sections of the German population but was deeply disliked by the Kaiser, to whom the personal alliance between the ruling imperial houses of Russia and Germany was of the greatest importance. Only the threat of Bismarck's own resignation ultimately brought the Kaiser around to accepting what he saw as an estrangement of Russia -- although in reality Bismarck never saw the Dual Alliance as anti-Russian, and hoped to restore the triple alliance for as long as he remained in power.

The Russians themselves, however, were increasingly looking to France as their natural security partner and guarantor of their role as leaders of Slavic Europe.

Bismarck's priorities remained the same in the late 1870s and early 1880s as they had been ten years earlier: to embed Germany in a system of alliances and ensure security through the maintenance of a balance of power backed by the promise of military force. The difference was in the clarity and cohesion of the alliances he forged, and his determination to secure Germany's interests in southern Europe as much as in the north. The Dual Alliance with Austria was expanded (despite the latter power's reluctance) to a Triple Alliance including Italy in 1882, in an agreement which was a model of the kind of interdependent commitments sustained by military preparedness that constituted what could be called the "Bismarck Doctrine":

Germany and Austria promised the Italians their assistance in case of war with France, and Italy was to reciprocate in case of a Franco-German war. Italy was to be neutral in an Austro-Russian war, but would come to the aid of her allies if they had to fight a Russo-French combination. For the rest, the partners assured each other of the maintenance of the status quo in their respective countries.

With the creation of such alliances Bismarck was playing his part in establishing the network of interlocking diplomatic commitments that would pave the way to war in 1914 -- ironically, as an effort to avoid any necessity for European armed conflict of any kind. "By1882," comments a modern historian, Bismarck "had so enhanced Germany's position that Berlin was now regarded as the diplomatic capital of Europe. But ... The system that he had elaborated to give Germany security was a very complicated one, and in its complications were the germs of future trouble."

The 1880s were a period of stability in German foreign affairs and Bismarck turned his attention to colonial expansion, determined as he had been in European matters to secure Germany's position in relation to the other great powers. Colonial expansion may seem out of step with Bismarck's non-expansionist views of Germany's interests in Europe, but the extension of German rule in Africa and the Pacific was a very different matter to the open challenging of other European powers on European soil, and Bismarck showed himself very ready to combine military, political and commercial interests in the securing and protection of German territories overseas.

Domestically, however, his star was fading; he was an old man, and he was appearing increasingly out of touch on the domestic political stage. The accession of Wilhelm II as Kaiser in 1888 was the beginning of the end; the young Emperor wished Bismarck dismissed, Bismarck wished to stay, but despite his Machiavellian manoeuvres Wilhelm had the last word, as the monarch in the German constitution Bismarck himself had created inevitably must, and Bismarck resigned in March 1890.

In conclusion, Bismarck left behind a better legacy in foreign affairs than in domestic matters, in which his determination to disregard party politics and his unyielding conservatism left him increasingly out of touch and ineffective. In foreign affairs he successfully established, and protected, Germany's position as one of the pre-eminent powers of Europe, and preserved the peace of Europe. The tragedy is not Bismarck's achievement, but its fate in the quarter-century after his dismissal.


Stefan Berger, 'Historians and nation-building in Germany since reunification', Past and Present, no. 148 (August 1995), pp. 187-222.

F.R. Bridge and Roger Bullen, The Great Powers and the European States System, 1815-1914 (London: Longman, 1980).

Gordon A. Craig, Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

George O. Kent, Bismarck and his Times (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978).

Chris Lorenz, 'Beyond good and evil? The German Empire of 1871 and modern German historiography', vol. 30, no. 4 (October 1995), pp. 729-765.

H.P. Meritt, 'Bismarck and German interest in East Africa, 1884-1885', Historical Journal, vol. 21, no. 1 (March 1978), pp. 97-116.

J.M. Roberts, Europe 1880-1945 (London: Longman, 1967; 2nd edn. 1989).

George O. Kent, Bismarck and his Times (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), p. 104.

F.R. Bridge and Roger Bullen, The Great Powers and the European States System, 1815-1914 (London: Longman, 1980), pp. 112-113.

Stefan Berger, 'Historians and nation-building in Germany after reunification', Past and Present, no. 148 (August 1995), p. 197.

Bridge and Bullen, The Great Powers, p. 113.

Kent, Bismarck, pp. 47ff.

Kent, Bismarck, p. 104.

Gordon A. Craig, Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 103.

Kent, Bismarck, p. 101.

Chris Lorenz, 'Beyond good and evil? The German Empire of 1871 and modern German historiography', Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 30, no. 4 (October 1995), p. 731.

J.M. Roberts, Europe 1880-1945 (London: Longman, 1967; 2nd edn. 1989), p. 68.

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