Germany’s foreign policy changed in many ways from 1890 to 1990, despite underlying themes of nationalism, the need for “living space”, and the urge to become a World Power, able to compete with even the mighty British Empire. These desires and beliefs were tackled in different ways and with different degrees of intensity throughout the century, as is evident when studying the succession of periodic changes Germany went through with Bismarck and Wilhelm, the Weimar republic, the Nazi era, and the division of the country in 1945-1990.
Multiple key turning points can be picked out from these periods which can attempt to explain the metamorphosis that Germany’s foreign policy underwent, most notably Weltpolitik in 1897, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the employment of Gustav Stresemann in 1924, the depression in 1929, Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, and the division of Germany in 1945. Before considering the change between 1890 and 1990, it’s important to understand the system of foreign policy conducted by Chancellor Bismarck, who was in charge of German foreign policy from 1870 to his dismissal in 1890.
His goal was a peaceful Europe, based on the balance of power, with Germany playing a central role- and his policy was a success. * Bismarck made clear to all that Germany had no wish to add any territory in Europe, and he tried to oppose German colonial expansion. Instead he formed the League of the Three Emperors in 1873, an alliance of the Kaiser of Germany, the czar of Russia, and the emperor of Austria-Hungary; together they would control Eastern Europe, making sure that “undesirable” ethnic groups such as the Poles were kept in control.
In this manner, Bismarck aimed to gain a higher international authority by joining forces with the other World Powers- a far more peaceful method that contrasts drastically with that of his successors. Kaiser Wilhelm ousted Bismarck in 1890 and developed his own aggressive foreign-policy. The Kaiser rejected the Russian alliance, and Russia in turn turned to an alliance with France. ** Foreign policy in the Wilhelmine Era turned away from Bismarck’s cautious diplomacy and was marked by a shrill aggressiveness.
Brusque, clumsy foreign policy was damaged further by increased armaments production, most notably the creation of a large fleet of battleships capable of challenging the British navy which made the rest of Europe uneasy, and by about 1907 German policy makers had succeeded in creating Bismarck’s nightmare: a Germany surrounded by an alliance of hostile neighbours–in this case Russia, France, and Britain–in an alliance called the Triple Entente.
This aggressive form of diplomacy was called Weltpolitik (World Policy) and was a huge turning point from Bismarck, but arguably was a step back to Germany’s former intentions rather than a step in a new direction- it put emphasis on overseas colonization, the creation of the navy, and aggressive tactics in order to become a world power,**** rather than Bismarck’s more peaceful and political approach through friendly alliances- in fact with Weltpolitik, these alliances were seen as a weakness, a hindrance, and were thus destroyed by Wilhelm.
Weltpolitik firmly implemented these policies into the minds of the German population, and could be seen as the foundation by which all future attempts at aggressive German expansion were developed. After the First World War, Germany was left crippled by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which not only put the blame and responsibility for WWI solely on Germany, but also made them pay astronomical reparations, lose all of their colonies, restricted their military by limiting the army to 100k men and forbidding them to have an air force or navy.
These terms clearly forced German Foreign policy to change and adopt a more peaceful regime- however this was so fragile and temporary that it cannot really be seen as a turning point. However, in addition to destroying the German economy, it also completely undermined this desire for Weltpolitik and the blame placed on Germany was seen as an insulting blow to their national pride which formed a key component of German ideology.
These factors combined to create an unparalleled resentment and dissatisfaction with the Treaty across the entire German population, which subsequently created a vast pool of support for Hitler who despised the Treaty of Versailles, and made its destruction a priority among his policies.