Weltpolitik lacks diplomatic ingenuity
It is Sunday 14 February 1915. It is the 34th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
Germany declares only to discontinue its war zone if the British stop their blockade of the German ports.
The French start the attack on almost the full length of their front, but only record a slight profit at Verdun and in Artois, Champagne and the Vosges.
On the eastern front the fighting in the Carpathians and Galicia continues.
Albanians are driven across the Serbian border.
A new French-British air raid on the Flemish seaside towns of Zeebrugge and Ostend is undertaken.
The two zeppelins which bombed the English east coast in January are forced to make an emergency landing in Denmark.
An imposing English-French navy bombs Turkish fortresses at the entrance of the Dardanelles, which marks the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign.
The Germans gain some territory at Ypres.
The Austrian conquests, notably of Czernowitz, are followed by a successful counter attack of the Russians.
And in Rome the Germans do everything they can to keep Italy away from the allies, which is a special job for former chancellor Bernhard von Bülow.
Kaiser Wilhelm II is an unpredictable man, to which also Bernard von Bülow can testify. In 1917 he stood a good chance to succeed Von Bethmann Hollweg as chancellor. The latter was dismissed because he was too soft to the liking of the military. But Wilhelm did not want to have anything to do with Von Bülow, the man whom he had cherishingly called ‘my own Bismarck’ years before.
Von Bülow served the kaiser as chancellor nine years, from 1900 till 1909. It was the same Von Bethmann Hollweg who had come to take over from him in 1909. The liberal-conservative block that Von Bülow had managed to keep together for a long time, eventually came to grief on the budget. Von Bülow had very nearly been forced to pack his bags already a year earlier. The reason was a rather unfortunate interview his emperor had given to the London Daily Telegraph. Wilhelm had planned to talk firmly to the English. What got into their heads to refuse his gestures of friendship time over again. This made it very difficult for him to remain a good friend of England. The Prussian chest-beating transcended the British newspaper columns.
In England they were not amused. But in Germany the article was not welcomed either. Von Bülow wanted to take his responsibility for the diplomatic damage by resigning. The interview had been presented to him for checking, but he had put it aside on his desk because of busy work.
Von Bülow, however, had to stay. In parliament he subsequently said he was confident that the kaiser would understand that he had to express himself more prudently in future in order to avoid damaging the unity of policy and the authority of the crown. Wilhelm II would indeed keep quiet in the time to come, but the kaiser’s love for his chancellor was over.
Even before the Daily Telegraph affair Von Bülow had been very busy dealing with the impetuous kaiser, but in 1907 the chancellor himself was staring in the full glare of the spotlights. In a pamphlet a man called Adolf Brand had argued that the German chancellor was blackmailed with his homosexuality. Von Bülow started legal proceedings for defamation. Brand, who could not provide evidence for his statement, was convicted to eighteen months’ imprisonment.
The affair did not appear out of the blue. It was part of the scandal around Philipp zu Eulenburg, a confidant of both the kaiser and the chancellor. Another writer, Maximilian Harden, had painted a homosexual picture of the highest circles in the empire, with Eulenburg as the lecherous key-figure. At the end of his life none less than Bismarck himself was to update Harden over a glass of wine on the love for men which was rampant around the kaiser. According to Harden’s analysis it was small wonder that German foreign policy so hopelessly derailed with all those effeminate protagonists at the top.
It did not help publicity either that a senior military figure, Dietrich Graf von Hülsen-Häseler, had died of a heart attack in the presence of the kaiser when doing a little dance dressed in a tutu. Ottokar von Czernin, an Austro-Hungarian diplomat who was to become Foreign Minister in the second half of the First World War, saw the kaiser himself panic: ‘In Wilhelm II, I saw a man, who for the first time in his life, with horror-stricken eyes, looked upon the world as it really was.’
Wilhelm was hardly informed by Von Bülow about all the spicy innuendo in the press. It was Wilhelm’s son, the crown prince, who had to convince his majesty of the seriousness. Embarrassed by the situation, Wilhelm decided to dismiss Eulenburg. This is how a true anglophile was removed from the kaiser’s entourage, somebody who had repeatedly urged the kaiser to engage in friendly relations with England.
When Von Bülow took on the office of chancellor, he seemed to fit in perfectly with the selfish ambition of Wilhelminian Germany. As far as that is concerned he would certainly not come forward as the new Bismarck. After all the Iron Chancellor had adopted a conservative political attitude after the proclamation of the German Empire was announced in 1871. The new Germany had better guard the status quo on the European continent first. But the young kaiser, who had climbed on the throne in Bismarck’s later life, wanted more than just mind the store.
It was Von Bülow who expressed as foreign minister the ambitions of imperial Germany in 1897 as follows: ‘We wish to throw no one into the shade, but we demand our own place in the sun.’ Gone were the days when the Germans left the earth to one neighbour and the sea to the other, while they only kept the sky for themselves.
Germany’s Weltpolitik really took off in the beginning of the twentieth century. It was especially the spectacular build-up of the navy that testified to this. In Von Bülow’s first year as chancellor the Germans also went to China to curb the Boxer Rebellion with a lot of fuss. In German Southwest Africa the German Imperialism of the days of chancellor Von Bülow showed its ugliest face. From Berlin kisses in the air were blown to the Boers in South Africa and to the muslims in the Ottoman Empire. But then Germany did support Austria-Hungary when it annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 at the expense of the Ottomans.
It is especially the German experience in Morocco which is of importance for the relations with the two biggest European powers on the world stage, Great Britain and France. In 1905 Von Bülow sees an opportunity to play a nasty trick on the eternal enemy France. The French have a problem in unruly Morocco, where the sultan tries to forward from under the shadow of Paris. A year earlier the French were more or less given a free hand by the English in Morocco. In exchange for this Paris promised London to relinquish any claim on Egypt. This bargaining forms the basis of the Entente Cordiale, the affectionate commitment between England and France
Von Bülow now hopes to drive a wedge between the two by promising Germany’s support to the Moroccan sultan. The climate is favourable as Russia, the closest ally of the French, is lying in the corner, knocked out after the defeat against Japan.
The kaiser himself may deliver the message. On 31 March 1905 he moors his yacht in Tangier. Von Bülow has arranged a beautiful white horse on which the kaiser can ride through the packed streets of Tangier. ‘I landed because you wanted me to in the interest of the Fatherland’, Wilhelm will later tell his chancellor. ‘I sat upon a strange horse despite the riding problems my disabled left arm causes, and I came within a centimeter of that horse taking my life. I had to ride against Spanish anarchists because you wanted me to and because it was your policy to gain from this.’
It was certainly not a masterstroke of Von Bülow. The international turmoil around Morocco resulted in the Algeciras Conference. It was decided that France could continue to consider Morocco as its protectorate. The German point of view on international control was only taken over by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.
In 1911 the Second Morocco Crisis takes place when German gunboat Panther enters the Moroccan port of Agadir. By then Von Bülow has already left as chancellor. And again Germany exits by the side door. England appears to stand foursquare behind France, which can also rely on Russia. After the pathetic Panther-leap of Agadir, Germany finds itself alone against the rest of Europe.
Einkreisung is the right word for this sentiment. In his time Von Bülow tried to escape this encirclement by strengthening the Dreibund. It is quite alright between two of the three, Germany and Austria-Hungary. The third partner, Italy, however, is not always in line. It even fails to inform both friends when it suddenly invades Tripoli in 1911. But the French appear to be at peace with the Italian presence in that part of North Africa.
This is an important omen, as at the outbreak of the First World War the Italians do not feel duty-bound to help their two Dreibund-partners. On the contrary, very soon Italy threatens to tilt over to the allied camp. In order to defuse this calamity, the German government calls on an ‘old’ veteran in the diplomatic profession, Bernhard von Bülow. During his time as chancellor he had been granted the title of prince, Fürst.
He is also married to a princess, who is a piano student of Franz Liszt. She is also of Italian descent. The German government hopes this will be an advantage in Rome. But the charm offensive fails. Von Bülow will not bring his diplomatic job as special ambassador to a successful end.
On 3 August 1914 Italy had emphatically declared itself neutral, but on 24 May 1915 it moves to the side of the allies in the war. Could this have been prevented? In any case, in the first months of the war Germany urges Austria to engage with Italy as constructively as possible. Rome develops a deep-rooted grievance against Vienna, which has to do with the Italian fight for freedom from the nineteenth century. The Austrians have thrown the necessary spanners in the works in that period. And then there are of course the terre irredente, territories in the Austria-Hungary empire that according to the Italians belong to them. The allies will eagerly start accepting these claims.
From the beginning the Austrians trod cautiously on the eastern front, so there would have been strong arguments to stay friends with Italy. But ingenuity and a sense of reality happen to be scarce qualities in the circles around kaiser Franz Joseph. Vienna does not wish to pay a high price for Italian neutrality. Then Von Bülow of course will have to tell the Italian government that war with Austria-Hungary also means war with Germany. But this threat perishes in the nearly erotically charged desire for battle, which has meanwhile taken possession of the Italian people.
Would Bernhard Fürst von Bülow have looked back with satisfaction on a full political life when he died in 1929? It is difficult to imagine. During the Von Bülow years Germany got bogged down in international isolation deeper and deeper. What he sold as Weltpolitik, proved to be the prelude to a Weltkrieg.
Next week: Rosa Luxemburg
Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)