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Weltpolitik vs Realpolitik in Germany

Updated on July 24, 2016

German Foreign Policy From Bismarck to Wilhelm II (1870 - 1914)

The German foreign policy from 1870 to 1914 can be summed up as weltpolitik vs realpolitik. The term "realpolitik" is associated with the policy of Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany from 1870 to 1890. "Weltpolitik" is the aggressive foreign policy followed by Wilhelm II, the last German emperor. It is starkly different from the former.

These polices and the men behind have influenced the European and world politics and history to a great extent in the late 19th to first of two decades of the 20th century, The ultimate result of these policies were the World War I.

Realpolitik of Bismarck

Auto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany was a genius in diplomacy. For about three decades he controlled Europe just by using his skills of negotiation and his sharp wit. The historians have compared him with "a juggler who could manage to perform the skillful feat of juggling five balls at a time, the two of these being always in the air".

His realpolitik is the policies based on pragmatism and practical situations. He was interested only in the interest of Germany. It was not influenced by any prejudice, ideals or even morality.

Goals of Realpolitik

Bismarck's realpolitik can be summed up by its goals as stated below:

1) Keeping Peace in Europe

Bismarck wanted to keep peace in Europe. He knew that war is harmful for newly unified Germany which has been created by devastating wars and bloodshed. So, he tried to keep balance between the powerful European nations which were inimical to each other.

2) Isolation of France

The unification of Germany was completed with the total defeat of France in 1870. It had gained Alsace and Lorraine provinces from France in that war. Bismarck knew that France will try to get revenge. So, he kept that country isolated from other powers in Europe by his diplomatic skills.

3) Balance Between Russia and Austria

Russia and Austrian empire were competitors in the Balkan area. He tried to keep friendly alliance with the both to keep them away from France. That is why he formed "dreikaisarbund" or "League of three emperors", an association of three powers Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia in 1873.

The association was broken soon because of the Balkan conflicts. The Germany - Russia relationship became sour due to Bismarck's role to minimize Russian gain after the Russian victory over turkey in 1878. However, he managed to make a secret treaty with Russia to get the assurance of Russian neutrality in future war with France. Similar treaties were also made with Austria and Italy.

4) Lack of Colonial Interest

Bismarck has no interest in making colonies like other European powers in far away lands of Asia and Africa. He did not believe that the colonies would be helpful to make Germany powerful. He also knew that to his country lacked a powerful fleet required to be a colonial power. He also did not wanted to be in conflict with Britain, the greatest naval power of that time. But he was forced to consent German colonial adventures in Africa in 1884-85 by public and royal family pressures.

5) Avoiding Conflict With Britain

Britain was the true world power at that time with its vast colonial empires. It has little interest in the politics of the continental Europe. Bismarck wanted to keep a good relationship with Britain. That is why he was not interested to build colonies in Asia and Africa. He also never encouraged to build a strong navy to not to make the British hostile towards Germany.

Auto von Bismarck
Auto von Bismarck | Source

Weltpolitik of Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last emperor of Germany and king of Prussia had changed the German foreign policy of Bismarck. His policy is known as "weltpolitik" - the policy of aggressive expansion of German territory and naval power.

Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck from the office of the chancellor in 1890 and also ended his "realpolitik". Wilhelm was a militarist who dreamed over creating a large German colonial empire just like England.

1906 Punch cartoon about Entente Cordiale
1906 Punch cartoon about Entente Cordiale | Source

Entente Cordiale

Entente Cordiale is the friendship treaties between France and Britain in 1904. These two nations were almost always in war for about 1000 thousand years. Both parties tried to make their relationship better by means of mutual understandings and resolving colonial conflicts. German policy of "weltpolitik" pushed these two powers to form that alliance against Germany.

Aims of Weltpolitik

German Colonialism

Bismarck was not interested in making colonies in Europe and Africa despite of growing support for it in home. German intellectuals and militaristic politicians wanted to expanse German territories by means of colonialism. They wanted their "place under the sun" for the growing population. They also wanted to create ready made markets for German industries. Kaiser Wilhelm was also a great supporter of that theory.

Germany gained some colonies in Africa and the Pacific under him. But these colonies were not profitable at all. There were also constant revolts against German rule their.

Not Maintaining the Balance of Power

The aggressive policy of Wilhelm II has destroyed the balance of power in Europe. He was not interested in intricate diplomatic game of check and balance of Bismarck. As a result, France no longer remained isolated. A powerful coalition of Britain, Russia and France was formed which ultimately resulted in the fall of his Reich in the World War I.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife Auguste Viktoria
Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife Auguste Viktoria | Source

Naval Expansion

To be major colonial power Germany needed a strong navy. So, Wilhelm decided to construct a massive naval force. He appointed a talented officer named Alfred von Tirpitz for it. That plan of expansion was too costly and it harmed German economy. The British did not like the idea at all. So, they came into alliance with France and Russia to form an alliance against Germany.

Competition with Britain

Wilhelm wanted to be a global power. He viewed England as his only obstacle to built a powerful worldwide German colonial empire. His zeal to gain colonies and expansion of the navy made the British inimical towards Germany.

The Kaiser send a telegram to Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic for success against the British army in the Boar war. That 'Kruger telegram" incident of 1896 made the British people and press angry.

So, by comparing the both foreign policies of Bismarck and Wilhelm II we can see the similarities and contrast between the two. Actually the differences are more than the similarities. We can say that there were a policy reversal after Bismarck.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia | Source

Realpolitik vs Weltpolitik

By Otto von Bismarck
By Kaiser Wilhelm II
Making Germany an European power
Making Germany a global power.
Not interested in colonialism
Enthusiasm about colonial expansions.
Growth of German colonial interest led to arms race in Europe.
Keeping freidnly relationship with Russia and Austria.
Not maintaining good relationship with Russia.
Russia joined with France and England in a coalition.
Avoiding two front war by diplomacy
Not caring about two front warefare
Germany was defeated in the World war I due to that reason.
Keeping France alienated in Europe
Not caring about alienation of France.
France, Britain and Russia made a very strong group of powers.
Does not caring much about public opinion in foreign policy
Foreign policy dominated by popular demands
Not interested in a strong navy.
Expansion of the German navy to compete with Britain
Expansion of the navy ruined German economy.
Keeping good relationship with Britain
Direct competition with Britain for global supremacy.
Driven by pragmatism and realism
Driven by nationalism and social Darwinsim

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Otto von Bismarck was the main architect of the unification of Germany. He wanted to make it a powerful country in Europe. His policies of realpolitik was followed from 1870 to 1890. I was reversed by the weltpolitik by Wilhelm II in 1890. The rise of extreme nationalism of the weltpilitik resulted in the first world war of 1914 with millions of deaths and nationwide destruction.


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