This essay will set out to judge, whether or not William II’s foreign policy increased tensions in Europe during his the years of 1890-1914. The Kaiser’s policy will be judged according to its results, however planned or unplanned they might have been. Germany, after its unification in 1871 and its rapid industrialisation, presented itself as a near model nation, being modern, rich and powerful. Yet, German national pride maintained that to be a truly great nation, Germany had to catch up other imperial powers on the matter of colonies.
This, frankly speaking, was more an issue of German conscience, rather than fact, since German economic exploits of Central Europe more than made up for the lack of colonies. William II, assuming power in 1890, set Germany on a Williamite New Course, which in short, involved steering the country from a Europe oriented foreign policy to a world oriented one (Weltpoltik). The only polemical matter of this policy was implementation by the new Kaiser. William II, as head of state, lacked the necessary skills of effective and thought-through diplomacy.
Furthermore, he tended to be guided by emotions, due to a lonely childhood (brought up by the clergy, not by parents), during which he committed all his energy to overcoming his handicap of a useless left arm and deafness in the left ear. As an adult he desired to be appreciated and loved by his people, which would make up for his love-lacking childhood. In addition, the Kaiser had a soft spot for the military, which will have an effect on his foreign policy, further on.
This combination of no diplomatic skills (along with the demise of all experienced ambassadors, diplomats, advisors, who made their name under the hated Bismarck) and emotional guidance inevitably pushed William II into making terrible political decisions. These decisions had extremely negative and unexpected (for the Kaiser) effects on Germany, which further stimulated him into making other desperate, rash, ill-taken decisions, which turned the process into a vicious circle. During William II’s reign the first matter addressed by him was Russia.
When the time came to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia (a policy pursued by the despised Bismarck), the Kaiser advised by the new and inexperienced experts on such matters, and guided by his hatred of all things related to Bismarck, decided to reject signing it. He was convinced that the Reinsurance Treaty was incompatible with the terms of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Germany), and moreover, it presented Germany with too few advantages to be worth his signature.
Furthermore, be refused to lend credit to Russia for its industrialisation process. Russia, left on its own in a situation such as this, with no obligations to Germany, turned to isolated France for help. France, more than eager to come out of isolation, aided Russia. Such a partnership was reaffirmed by the Franco-Russian Friendship Alliance in 1893 and later, by the Franco-Russian Military Alliance in 1894. Germany was left without an ally on the eastern flank.
After his unwise move with Russia, William II, untouched, turned his attention to Great Britain, with which he believed he could create an alliance. With nothing but reliance upon his family ties with the Royal Family as his justification of striving for an alliance with Britain, William II signed a favourable, to the British, colonial agreement of 1890 with her (which was worthless from the point of view of Germany) in an attempt to draw the two countries closer.
This, however, did not make Britain any keener on a closer partnership with Germany; nor did William II’s later telegram to the Boer president (which was part of the Kaiser’s policy of participating in the Weltpolitik or world oriented policy), congratulating him a victory over a British raid in the Transvaal (the so called Jameson raid in 1895), and his decision to build a Berlin-Baghdad railway in 1899.
These actions were seen by the British as German interference in their sphere of influence. These events completely alienated Britain from Germany. Simultaneously, alienating Britain drew her closer to the other Powers – France and Russia. In 1904 an Anglo-Franco Entente was signed, which recognised Egypt as a British sphere of influence and Morocco as a French sphere of influence. William II had not been consulted on the matter by either of the Powers and felt left out of world affairs.
He called for an international conference in Tangiers (1905) to discuss the situation of independence-stripped Morocco in an attempt to make German presence felt if only to disrupt the ameliorating relationship between France and Britain. The conference, contrary to the Kaiser’s expectations proved to be Germany’s major diplomatic defeat. France and Britain attained international backing of Russia, USA and Italy and thus opposed Germany, sided by Austria-Hungary.
Germany came out defeated from the conference and lost much of its international prestige, but what is more important: this was the first demonstration of political power (during William II’s reign), evidently showing growing tensions between the Powers. Germany was opposed on this count, due to the previous alienation of Britain (numerous interferences in colonial matters before), Russia (refusal of partnership by signing the Reinsurance Treaty and lending money for industrialisation) and by France (in whose matters William II interfered for the first time).
What’s more: Italy sided with the Franco-British camp, thus presenting itself as an untrustworthy ally to Germany and Austria-Hungary of the Triple Alliance. Due to the Kaiser’s interference, Europe was divided into two opposing camps (this time only politically and on the issue of colonies), which will become more and more distinct with time and William II’s further intrusions. For this, Europe did not have to wait long.
In 1911, when the French occupied Fez, the capital of Morocco, the Kaiser sent a gunboat to its coast maintaining that the French intrusion was allegedly against the Algericas agreement. Once again William II opposed the international coalition on this matter, but this time in a provocative military maneuver. This is evidence enough that international negotiations, on whatever issues, were raised in their aggressiveness from diplomatic to near military measures. Such demonstration of military power was present nearer to the borders of the two Powers, as well.
William II combined his love of the military and the fulfillment of his need for the nation’s affection and appreciation in one provocative long-term (probably the only long-term plan of his, unlike his rash actions in the world of politics) commitment – the build-up of the German navy. He convinced his people that the country would not have international prestige if it did not have a battle fleet. After gaining approval of the nation, he set out to produce a fleet which was to be superior even to the one of Britain. Nevertheless, this fleet was nothing but a luxury, a sign of wealth and prestige of the Germans.
The British, however, did not view the German amassment of ships this way; it saw it as a threat to its own navy, which pushed her into joining the Triple Entente, together with France and Russia. This British move made the division within Europe even clearer and escalated the already taut tensions even more. William II’s lack of political and diplomatic skill, along with emotional guidance pushed him into making rash, provocative decisions (and short-term ones to that) all in the aim of satisfying his people with a ‘great’ Germany.
His desperate need of fulfilling this mission, through short-sighted and ill-thought-through decisions, presented Germany as a negative diplomatic partner (Italy siding with the Franco-British camp) and moreover a dangerously unpredictable one (the British had no idea what William II wanted to achieve through the sudden build-up of the navy), along with the alienation of almost every Great Power, stimulated the other countries to unite against the potential threat.
This swift unification of three of the Great Powers is proof enough (especially of the ever reluctant Britain to involve itself in European affairs) of elevated tensions caused by William II.