Bismark's turn to Imperialism

Was The Change To Imperialism In Bismark’s Germany Because Of International Or Domestic Considerations?

The late Nineteenth Century was a very dramatic time for the European powers and their relations with the rest of the world. This was especially true in Germany, where unification created a strong and successful state in the centre of Europe, tipping the Balance of Power. For the first few years the new German state did not expand its overseas empire - but in the 1880s this changed dramatically. Still only in its second decade of unity, Germany started to create protectorates and colonies throughout the world, bringing it into competition with the other European colonial powers. It was suddenly at the heart of the partition of Africa, hosting the Conference of Berlin in 1884-85 which laid down the ground-rules for the partition. This expansionistic nature was not lost after the fall from power of Bismark, who was very much the master of Germany at the time this change took place, and can be seen continuing through to the Twentieth Century, to 1914 and even 1939. The transformation of Germany into an expansionistic power was one of the most important events in recent European history, and if this element in the character of Germany can be traced back to the leadership of Bismark, then the reasons for his change of policy are very significant.

For a long time the dominant explanation, accepted by many historians and the public, was based in foreign relations - the relative positions of the competing world powers and the effect of this on the explosion of colonialism in the 1880s and 1890s. This has recently been overtaken by an emphasis on reasons within Germany for the change in policy, but we must still look to the foreign situation to see how much the international situation affected the drive for colonies.

Within years of the unification, Germany was already one of the most powerful states in Europe. Her land armies had proved themselves in the defeat of France and her economy was rapidly industrialising. However, Germany lacked one thing which her main competitors possessed - an Empire. This was seen as an important feature of a successful European state - the strength of Germany’s competitors, especially Great Britain, was often ascribed at least partly to their Empires, and yet Germany, as the largest and increasingly one the most powerful state in Europe, did not have possessions through the world. Therefore there was an increasing feeling in Germany that there should be a "redistribution" of the world to reflect the changing power situation. In a world where the advanced nations competed with each other, Germany had to catch up and establish possessions outside Europe. Because of the lack of space within Europe, this was the way to expand, and keep up. Therefore colonies would have the dual value of being good ways to expand and also to increase the prestige of Germany on the world stage.

Evidence shows that Germany used the issue of colonies as part of her foreign policy with European nations - using possessions as bargaining counters. Because of her central position in Europe, Germany had the overriding aim of keeping the major powers of Europe from uniting against her, especially Britain and France. In the Kissingen Dictate of June 1877 Bismark stated that one of the key aims of German foreign policy was the "separation of Britain from a France still hostile to us because of Egypt and the Mediterranean." - this became in the 1880s the policy of a rapprochement with France.The policy of reaching a compromise with France was to be achieved by helping her to expand her own empire. The German Ambassador in Paris, Prince Hohenloho, was issued a directive in April 1880 - "Our understanding with France extends from Guinea right through to Belgium and covers all the Romance lands." In an interview with the French ambassador to Berlin in 1884, he said that the idea of a European Balance of Power was obsolete - but that the idea of an "oceanic balance" - a world Balance of Power - was not obsolete. That colonies were used by Bismark as part of his diplomacy with the rest of Europe is shown by a very famous quote from German explorer and colonial enthusiast, Eugen Wolf. He claimed that after giving Bismark a detailed description of the situation in Africa and Germany’s interests there, the Chancellor replied "Your map of Africa is all very fine, but my map of Africa lied in Europe. Here is Russia and here - pointing to the left - is France, and we are in the middle; that is my map of Africa."

Before the 1950s the idea that the German expansionism of the 1880s and 1890s was caused by foreign considerations was the accepted historical view as far as most people were concerned. Historiography remained based for the first half of the century on Ranke’s famous statement that the internal structure of any state is conditioned by its foreign relations. The first serious dissenting voice against this was Eckart Kehr, who in the 1920s made himself a dissident by writing instead of "the primacy of domestic policy" in the reasons behind German colonialism. His arguments that the reasons for German colonialism came from the domestic situation rather than the international one went generally unnoticed at the time and National Socialism in the 1930s made discussion of his ideas unacceptable. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s his ideas were rediscovered and discussed when Fritz Fischer stirred up discussion of the topic with his controversial ideas. He had set out to reconsider German foreign policy just before war broke out in 1914 - but his ideas affected thinking about the domestic situation in Germany from the 1870s and its effects on the Twentieth Century.

The effect of Fischer’s ideas is that the domestic situation of Germany’s economy and society in the late Nineteenth Century is now seen by most as being at least of partial importance in change of policy in Germany to expansionism. Fischer and those who took up his ideas have argued well that the roots of the aggression in 1914 and even 1939 lie in the very formation of Germany, with the "revolution-from-above" that created institutions too inflexible to cope with the modern age.

Through the 1870s and 1880s Bismark had a great deal of control of both domestic and foreign policy of Germany. It was his decisions that drew Germany into her first colonies and started the process which many would claim would lead to the wars of the Twentieth Century. Bismark had been opposed to the principle of colonies as many were in this period when free trade ideas were still popular. Colonies were seen by him as being far more politically and economically dangerous and unpredictable than expansion through traders spreading through the world. He saw that it was best for formal state control to follow these traders only when it was necessary, to protect those interests - in short, colonies were not the objective, but the means to the objective. He saw as the example of successful expansion without the need for costly colonies and protectorates as being British interests, shown in the 1890s when he said
"I certainly hope that we shall be able to devise in Africa a system similar to the one which has made England so strong in the East Indies. There, the trader is the sole authority."

That he would say this, restating his belief in "informal" expansion, where trading companies take authority over an area instead of the government, after Germany had under his direction expanded her formal empire so much indicates that he still saw colonies as a costly luxury - indicating he did not allow their acquisition because he saw them as valuable for themselves but rather as fulfilling some other objective of value to him.

Of course, Bismark was a politician who did not have a party of his own in the Parliament whose support he could count on. Therefore he had to constantly move with popular opinion and produce successes if he was to maintain the majorities he carefully constructed for himself. Through the 1870s this became even more important as an increasing economic crisis in Germany started to threaten his position. Both industrial and agricultural sectors were being damaged and the ever present threat of Socialism was rising in increasingly poverty-stricken urban areas. The economy was seen by most as producing too much - and this was causing economic and therefore also social problems. Many respected people espoused an export drive, created through the growth of an Empire, as the only way out of the economic crisis and the social tensions it was creating. This would help preserve the political structure that Bismark headed. That this marked a change of policy for Bismark was not a problem - his belief in Realpolitik came from a belief in the force of circumstances - in other words his policies were built to adapt to changes.

Therefore, since exports were needed (and importantly were seen as being needed by many people and groups), Bismark reacted in practical ways - he supported export-orientated industries, giving them special rates on transport systems, he strove for trade agreements abroad - and he sought colonies in the Pacific and Africa. One reason that he acted when he did, in 1883-84, was because he was under increasing pressure from internal forces to act - because of perceived actions abroad. Here we see again the importance of the international scene in deciding policy, as Britain was seen as about to expand her interest in South Africa, East Africa and New Guinea. There was vocal fear in Germany that she would be left behind - the press cried out for action, so Germany is not left out while "other nations appropriate great tracts of territory and the very rich resources that go with them." Therefore Bismark bowed to this pressure, ever-mindful as he had to remain of the dominant opinions and the need to stay with them, as well as to guide them when needed. He still remained happier to follow German trading interests round the world but became quite prepared to go where there were none, because of the need to pre-empt rivals.

He himself saw the economic value of the expansion - even if they would cost more to run than they would ever bring in from increased trade they would increase confidence in the economy, which would help the economy itself recover. Such a recovery was needed to strengthen his own position, which electorally was crumbling at the start of the 1880s, and this recovery would be furthered by a policy of expansion which met with widespread support from all the middle class parties in the Riechstag. Therefore, domestic economic factors and pressures are important in Bismark’s change in policy.

However, a drive to help the economy by increasing exports was not the only way in which Bismark sought to re-establish the popularity of the government and his own position. He brought in a variety of conservative measures, such as corperative legislation and the anti-Socialist law in an attempt to reduce further possible social upheaval. All of this was not however very popular with the mass of the German people and he saw he needed a dramatic policy to regain the initiative and - very importantly - to distract attention away from the reducing freedoms and increasing hardships at home. This is where his overseas policy comes in. Opinion was spreading in the public as well as politicians and industrialists that colonial expansion was a way out of the economic crisis - and its implementation could provide the people with a new hope for the future, that things would get better. An economy based on exports to a world-wide colonial empire could also provide a realistic and coherent alternative to the increasingly popular socialist ideas for the economy.

This popular enthusiasm for an empire can be seen as being closely linked to the poor economic situation by the fact that it started to drop off once the economy picked up again in the later 1880s - people mostly saw colonies as being economically useful to act as a "safety-net" against depression, not desirable so much for the prestige they carried with them. However, for Bismark the policy did its job. The parties who supported him started to improve significantly in the elections and a perceived socialist threat was averted.

Colonies were seen as being valuable for many different reasons, all linked together. The desire for change from the previous policy of government support for essentially independent trading activities through the world came from the growing crisis that was seen as threatening to bring down the system in the 1870s. The crisis was indeed a deep one - there were 6 consecutive years of depression, differences over increasing protectionism and monopolies and rising popularity of Social Democracy. The hope and optimism for prosperity and freedom held by the people, created by unification, had faded in the depression, and the system needed new ways to make itself popular. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the crisis was not as deep as it was thought at the time to be - production continued to rise, and although older, less efficient companies did fail, more modern industries thrived. This doesn’t mean that the problems were not seen as being critical at the time of course. It is also clear to us now that the policy of colonial expansion was not as successful as it was expected to be. The increased trade was not as great as expected, and the areas that fell under German control were generally quite poor. The industries that mainly benefited from the expansion were those who supplied materials necessary for the large army and navy needed to sustain the colonies, such as the steel industry. Other companies actively did not want expansion - more modern and efficient companies would benefit more from peace and free trade as they were already able to compete in the world market. This was perhaps all foreseen by Bismark when he said of colonies that the "advantages are very illusionary".


Fritz Fischer, From Kaiserreich to Third Reich, Routledge 1991

Lothar Gall, Bismark - The White Revolutionary. Volume 2 1871-1898, Unwin Hyman, 1986

Gordon Martel (ed.), Modern Germany Reconsidered 1870-1945, Routledge 1992

Wolfgang J. Mommsen, "Domestic Factors in German Foreign Policy before 1914", Central European History, 1973

James J Sheenan (ed), Imperial Germany, New Viewpoints, 1976

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