Count Otto von Bismarck: Foreign Policies

Figure 1.--

Bismarck was a master of foreign affairs, fashioning the Bismarckian system designed primarily to keep France, who he saw as Germany's mortal enemy, isolated. He fashioned a series of alliances and counter-alliances, one of the most important was with Russia. At the Congress of Berlin (1878) after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, he demonstrated his paramount position as mediator between the then Great Powers such as Britain Austria-Hungary, France, Italy, and Russia. He negotiated the unprecedented Austria-Hungary alliance (1879) which was "the first formal alliance between two Great Powers concluded in peace-time since the outbreak of the French revolution and the end of the ancien régime set a rigid pattern which shaped international relations until the First World War." [Taylor, p. 192.] He then negotiated the Three Emperor's Alliance (Austria, Germany, and Russia) (1881). This was complicated by the smolderinjg Russian-Austrian antagnoisms in the Balkans, leading to the Bulgarian crisis of 1886-87 and the removal of Prince Alexander. Bismarck sought to limit further Russian gains in the Balkans through traties with Sebia (1881) and Romania (1883). The next step was the Triple Alliance (Austria, Germany, and Italy) (1882) which insured Austria that Italy would not attack in case of war with Russia. When the Three Emperor's Alliance broke down, Bismarck masterfully negotiated the Reinsurance Treaty with Russuia (1887). Despite the steps taken against the Russians in the Balkans, the Reinsurance Treaty was a masterful achievement. Bismarck considered it esential to keep the Russians from reaching an alliance with the French which would threaten Germany on two sides.

Isolate France

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) was a significant divide in Bismarkian diplomacy. Before the War Prussia was a power which avoided alliances so that it was courted by other countries. After the War, the new Imperial Germany was a country which had achieved its prinmary national objectives--unification. Almost all Germans, except for Austrains, were within the new Second Reich or German Empire. Now Bismarck saw alliances as imnportant and a way of maintaining the status quo. But Germany now had a mortal enemy--France. Austria had been a rival. France was an enemy seeking an ally. Bismarck primary purpose was above all to keep France diplomatically isolated. Bismarck negotiated secretly with Britain, but to no success. There were many reasons why he failed. Certainly the war with Denmark and the emnity of the Princess of Wales had greatly complicated his efforts. Bismarck's graetest concerns were Austria and Russia. German public opinion virtually demanded an allinace with Austria and Bismarck finally had to negotaite an alliance with them. His problem then became how to maintain friendly relations with Russia and prevent an Russian alliance with France. Family ties between Kaiser Wilhelm I and Tsar Alexander II eased Bismarck's efforts to maintain close relations with Russia. There were various efforts such as the Three Emeperor's League. Prussia had a long undisputed border with Russia and there were no territorial disputes or other issues separating the two Empires.

Alliance with Austria

Bismarck's diplomacy was limited in part because German public opinion felt strongly that Austria was a kinddred German nation. One historian wrote, "The German desire for a union with the Austro-Germans was too strong and two natural an impulse to leave room fior the consideration that only a small minority of the inhabitants of the southern empire were of German blood, that most of the civilians and most of the soldiers who lived and fought undr the Austrian eagles were of other races, spoke other tongues, and were as little inclined to be friendly towards Germany as the French". [Lufwig, p. 536.]

The Congress of Berlin (1878)

Bismarck's problem was that there were significant disputes between Austria and Russia--primarily in the Balkans. These issues were clearly in evidence as war broke out in the Balkans and the issues were assessed at the Congress of Berlin. Bismarck was finding it increasingly difficult to balance the contending interests of Austria and Russia. Russia was unhappy with the results. Tsar Alexander II wrote to his uncle Wilhelm I in August 1879 bringing these issues to the fore. [Ludwig, p. 523.] What Bismarck refused to do was to give the Austrians a free hand in the Balakans. [Ludwig, p. 536.] It was just such a free hand given the Austrains in 1914 by Wilhelm II that led to World War I and the destruction of the German Empire.


Gall, Lothar. Bismarck: The White Revolutionary. 2 vol. (1986).

Hoffman, J.H. Otto von Bismarck, 1998.

Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little, Brown, and Company, 1927).

Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany. 3 vol. (1990).

Taylor, Alan J. Bismarck. The Man and the Statesman.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: September 27, 2002
Last updated: September 27, 2002