German foreign policy in the Wilhelmine Era (1890-1914) turned away from Bismarck’s cautious diplomacy of the 1871-90 period. It was also marked by a shrill aggressiveness. Abrupt, clumsy diplomacy was backed by increased weaponry production, most notably the creation of a large fleet of battleships capable of challenging the British navy. This new eagerness to fight alarmed the rest of Europe, and by about 1907 German policy makers had succeeded in creating Bismarck’s nightmare: a Germany “encircled” by an alliance of hostile neighbours- in this case Russia, France, and Britain–in an alliance known as the ‘Triple Entente’.
This, among other reasons, affected the status of Britain in foreign affairs making them emerge from their ‘splendid isolation’ policy and becoming more of an active power in Europe. I will consider the factors which brought Britain out of splendid isolation and to what extent was Germany to blame for it. The first brick to fall out of Bismarck’s carefully crafted structure was Germany’s Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. The German Emperor, William (Wilhelm II) and the successors of Otto von Bismarck were accused by Bismarck of criminal stupidity for allowing the treaty to lapse and so making a Franco-Russian understanding more certain.
The two countries formally allied in early 1894. Britain joined them in 1907, even though France and Britain had nearly gone to war over a colonial dispute in 1898. Britain’s main reason for abandoning its usual posture as a detached observer of developments on the continent was Germany’s plan to build a fleet of sixty battleships of the formidable Dreadnought class. Following the dismissal of Bismarck in 1890 the Germans began to steer a ‘New Course’ in the conduct of their foreign policy.
The directions they chose had intense effects on the pattern of international relations, and led to a series of crises in the early Twentieth Century which made many Germans fear for their national security. Caprivi, the new German Chancellor, sought to disengage the Reich from the web of international commitments which had been spun by Bismarck. He wanted a simplified system with a more defined purpose. The most significant taken following the departure of Bismarck was to allow the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to lapse.
Caprivi and the Kaiser were persuaded by a high ranking official, Friedrich von Holstein, that partnership with Russia was incompatible with Germany’s responsibilities with her associates in the ‘Triple Alliance’. Immediately Russia was aware of future consequences. It knew that if the Balkans went pear-shaped and there was a dispute between Austria-Hungary and itself, Germany would support her alliance partner which was not a force for Russia, itself, to wage war against.
By 1894, France and Russia concluded the Franco-Russian alliance, which caused an immense strain on Germany as it would have to fight a two front war if war was to break out in the future. In 1896 the German Kaiser caused great offence in Britain over his response to the so called Jameson Raid in December 1895. In this incident Dr Jameson, an administrator in the British South Africa Company, commanded a force of Company police in the Transvaal State to incite a rising against the Boer Republic led by Paul Kruger.
The conspiracy failed and Cecil Rhodes, the Governor of the Cape Colony, was forced to resign when his complicity in the scheme was revealed. Germany tried to capitalise on the episode by encouraging French and Russian action against Britain. When this failed to occur the Kaiser sent a telegram to the Boer leader congratulating him on resisting the British assault. The Kruger Telegram caused outrage in Britain and took Anglo-German relations to their lowest point for many years. From the mid-1890s German policy makers began to raise their sights and look beyond the confines of Europe.
It seemed to them that Germany had a legitimate claim to a colonial empire in imitation of the other imperial Powers such as Britain. Thus the concept of Weltpolitik was born. This is when great states, that is states which under given conditions regard themselves as great, want to be influential beyond their own frontiers. History confirms this a hundred times. Germany entered an expansionist phase with the decisive goal of an overseas empire to signal her emergence as a world power. The ultimate key to an overseas empire was the creation of a large navy. There were German protectorates established in Africa.
Individual ship-owners, merchants, explorers and adventurers started the process and the new Reich did not think that it could refuse them protection. The German colonies cost far more than they brought in and only provided a few thousand Germans with permanent homes. Britain was aware of the German eyes for expansion however it kept to its own policy and dealt with its domestic and imperial affairs during that time. The German naval expansion program had many domestic supporters. The Kaiser deeply admired the navy of his grandmother, Queen Victoria of Britain, and wanted one as large for himself.
Powerful lobbying groups in Germany desired a large navy to give Germany a worldwide role and to protect a growing German colonial empire in Africa and the Pacific. Industry wanted large government contracts. Some political parties also promoted naval expansion. The chief figure in promoting the naval buildup was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who is considered the founder of the modern German navy. Tirpitz was an effective spokesman for the program and had the ear of the Kaiser and his advisers. In 1898, after the Reichstag passed the first Naval Bill, Anglo-German relations deteriorated.
The Supplementary Naval Act of 1900 further strained relations with Britain, as did a proposed Berlin-Baghdad railroad through the Ottoman Empire, a project that threatened British as well as Russian interests in the Balkans. Two crises over Morocco, in 1905 and 1911 was a plan by the Germans in order to show Britain that France was the wrong country to ally with however, this solitarily drove France and Britain closer together and made for a tense international atmosphere. These actions by the Germans, for naval expansion, were immediately looked up by Britain.
They now were afraid that their two power standard navy could be challenged. Britain had an excellent navy however it had a very poor army and on the contrary, German had an excellent army however a poor navy. The objectives set out by the Navy Bill would allow Germany to have a formidable navy and combined with the great army would be a super power in Europe as no country would be able to match its military supremacy. Whatever the motivation for Weltpolitik, it was inevitable that the Kaiser’s plans to transform the international status of his Empire would impact heavily on the other Powers.
This was particularly true for Britain. Britain had the world’s largest empire which, by 1914, covered a quarter of the world’s land surface area and contained a third of its population. Britain was the world’s major industrial country and led the world in coal and textile production. Britain was the global financial capital. Britain also had the largest navy. In 1889, Parliament passed the Naval Defence Act to establish the ‘two power standard’ with the aim of ensuring that the Royal Navy was larger than the next two largest navies combined.
The Navy Bill passed by the Kaiser in Germany, later on, threatened this. Britain’s position as the world major industrial power was threatened by the USA and Germany, which had caught Britain up in the production of iron and steel. Foreign competition was a major concern for politicians and businessmen, and there were calls for replacing free trade with protective tariffs. Britain had several colonial threats at that time which may have added to the conclusion of the splendid isolation policy.
Russia was a contender for influence in Afghanistan and Britain feared a common border between the Russian empire and the British Indian empire. Britain also feared that the Russian navy might gain entry to the Mediterranean through the Dardanelle and Straits. The other main colonial rivalry was with France in Africa, where France opposed Britain’s occupation of Egypt since 1882. Both countries were involved in the partition of Africa and French naval power was a rival to the British navy in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
By the mid-1890s Britain was the only European Great Power not to be in alliance. The lack of an alliance did not mean that Britain would not sign international agreements, though when it did so the agreements were on specific issues. For example the West Africa Act, 1885 was signed to divide up Africa into separate spheres of influence amongst European nations. The main reasons at that time why Britain wanted to maintain the splendid isolation policy was because Britain’s main interests in the world were outside Europe and its major European interest was maintaining the ‘balance of power’.
Also Britain’s main military defence was the navy and- unlike the other European Great Powers- it had volunteers armed forces and a small army located in India. By the turn of the century it was becoming apparent to politicians and the general public alike that the policy of ‘splendid isolation’ had outlived its useful life. Britain’s relationship with France and Russia were not cordial. In 1898 Britain clashed with France over claims to territory around the town of Fashoda in the Sudan, leaving the French bitter and resentful. In the Far East Britain eyed Russian ambitions in China with great suspicion.
With Germany unprepared to successfully negotiate an alliance with Britain and irritating her still further with a second Navy Law in 1900, it now seemed convenient to negotiate with other Powers for the purposes of security. Accordingly, in 1902 Britain concluded an alliance with Japan in an effort to restrain Russia in the Far East. Two years later Britain and France settled their differences over Egypt and Morocco with the ‘Entente Cordiale’. Although not a formal alliance, this arrangement represented a new direction in Anglo-French relations.
From 1904 rivalry between the two nations was replaced with understanding and mutual diplomatic support. In 1907 Britain and Russia reached an agreement over the influence in Persia, Tibet and Afghanistan. These arrangements produced a so-called ‘Triple Entente’. No formal power existed between the three Powers but as relations between Germany and the Entente partners were worsened, it became convenient to see Europe as a divided continent. In 1899 Britain fought in the South African War. It involved the British Empire fighting the two independent Dutch republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
Britain had a strategic in the city of Cape Town as it overlooked a key point on the sea route from the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. It was acquired by the Treaty of Vienna in 1815. To maintain control of the region confederation of southern Africa was required. In 1877 Lord Carnarvon created a British union of Natal, Cape Colony and the Dutch republic of the Transvaal. It collapsed following the defeat of the Zulus in 1879. The war was caused by several origins such as; discovery of gold in the Transvaal, The Jameson Raid.
Britain abandoned their splendid isolation policy during the early years of the 1900s for a number of reasons, not just the change of German foreign policy. Britain’s involvement in the South African War caused resentment in much of Europe. Britain felt isolated and was fortunate that no European country intervened on the side of the Boers. In 1902, Britain signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, its first military alliance since the Crimean War. Both parties recognised the special interests of each other in China and Japan’s interests in Korea.
Each side declared that it would stay neutral if either side was involved in a war with another power, and agreed to enter a war if either side became involved in a war with more that one power. Japan signed the alliance because it feared Russian influence in Korea and north China. Britain wanted to use the Japanese fleet to protect British interests in the Far East so that the Royal Navy could be re-deployed to the North Sea to meet the German naval threat. Britain stayed neutral in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and Japan joined Britain in the First World War against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 was a colonial agreement over spheres of influence in Persia, now known as Iran. Even after the agreement, Anglo-Russian relations remained tense because of Afghanistan and the Straits. The change in the German foreign policy was partially responsible for the withdrawal of the British splendid isolation policy however, it was not the only cause. Other factors, such as Boer War, South African War, and other countries, such as France, Russia, Japan, also were liable for the departure from the British policy.