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Posted by Admin on January 30, 2011

“Describe the development of Germany‘s Weltpolitik after 1890 and its effect on the Anglo-American relations. Discuss the implications for the general development of the great powers system in pre-1914 Europe

Table of contents:

Part I: Introduction;

Part II: Aims and development of Weltpolitik;

Part III: Implications of this policy on Anglo-US Relations;

Part IV: Conclusion:

Implications for the general development of the great powers system in pre-1914 Europe:


Part I:

Introduction: Weltpolitik was the name given to Germany’s foreign policy in the years following its unification at the hands of Otto Von Bismarck. (Carroll, 1938, p. 351) In terms of genealogy, it simply stood for ‘world policy’, and was the word given to denote Germany’s policy abroad. Historians, however, attach to this word a significance that goes beyond just its terminology. It is used to refer to aggressive German diplomacy between 1890 and 1914, and was closely related to colonial and economic interests. The need for imperialism was felt both to bolster Germany’s new identity, and to supplement its industrial expansion. (Smith, 1978, pp. 174, 175) Like its cousin, imperialism, Weltpolitik, too was based on the ‘Social Darwinism’ model of racial superiority; its essence was postulated on the belief that expansion of its territories in other parts of the globe was the true indicator of the nation’s fitness. (Hale, 1940, p. 155)

Weltpolitik signalled a stark departure from the policy that Bismarck had applied in unifying Germany less than two decades earlier. (Dawson, 1915, p. 131) If Bismarck had used the concept of Realpolitik, a notion by which its relationship with other countries guided not by sentiment but by practical and result-yielding politics based on interests (Anderson, 1969, p. 302) to unify Germany, the feeling that now ran in the German political establishment was that the newly unified power could harness its energies to gain a position of pre-eminence in world affairs. (Knoll & Gann, 1987, pp. 61-63) The leitmotif of the unified Reich was the development of a strong navy and imperialism. These two, obviously, brought the country into direct confrontation with the leading naval and imperial power of the time, Britain. Germany was heavily obsessed in particular with naval power as an instrument for exhibiting its might. Its naval ambitions were inspired by American Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s path-breaking work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, which was catching the imagination of Europe’s leading nations. (Hale, 1940, p. 155)

Part II:
Aims and development of Weltpolitik: The Kaiser’s newfound zeal towards territorial and naval expansion coincided with Britain’s loss of face following its costly and humiliating win in the Boer War, after which it was keen to reassert itself as a great power on the world stage. With his mischievous Kruger Telegram, he virtually solemnised British hostility, when he sent a telegram congratulating Paul Kruger, the Premier of Transvaal in South Africa for his supposed win over the British. (Ludwig, 1927, p. 189)

Ironically, the Kaiser was a professed Anglophile, since the two countries’ ruling families were closely related by marriage. But this mutual admiration was erratic and patchy, and was not strong enough to override his ambitions. (Wilkinson, 2002) The starting point of the concretisation of hostility with Britain was in the year 1897, when the whimsical Kaiser started a programme of upgrading the nation’s navy to heights that would match that of the British. This was when the policies of the Second Reich took a decisive turn towards militarism. The men he appointed to draw up and direct these policies were the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Count Alfred Waldersee and the better known naval commander, Admiral Von Tirpitz. (Stapleton, 2003) Tirpitz, in particular, convinced the Kaiser of the need to abandon Bismarck’s policy of appeasement of the British navy and instead challenge the world’s most powerful navy head on, (Stapleton, 2003) with his famous dictum, “[w]ithout sea-power, Germany’s position in the world resembled a mollusk without a shell.” (Hale, 1940, p. 156) The Kaiser’s receptivity to these suggestions gave shape to the idea of Weltpolitik, whose aim was also to supplant Britain’s sea power, at least in Europe. (Stapleton, 2003) The Kaiser, once he got converted to this idea, persuaded the German public with highly dramatised and grandiloquent statements. (Dawson, 1915, pp. 134, 135)

However, challenging the British was problematic, since Britain was Germany’s largest trading partner, and her capital was indispensable for the latter’s burgeoning industry. Germany sought to offset these contradictions by building a strong navy and by growing imperially; it was the truculent way in which it sought to carry this out that made Britain turn hostile towards it. (Smith, 1978, p. 177) But it was a little too late in the day that Germany had embarked upon this old idea. Very few areas of the world were left to be colonised; all that it could set its eyes on were some parts of Central Africa and the Pacific Islands. (Smith, 1978, p. 113)

Part III:
Implications of this policy on Anglo-US Relations:  While Germany’s rising imperial ambitions were cause for some alarm for Britain, its naval expansion started happening at a time when another distant nation was taking giant strides towards becoming the world’s leading naval power –America. The US, by the late 19th century was trying to come out of its self-imposed isolationism and was beginning to flex its muscle on the international stage. This period was the beginning of American ascendancy on the world; it, too, like Germany, sought to develop a strong navy as the chief mechanism to achieve its aim. As America was growing in the western hemisphere to challenge Britain’s naval superiority, an episode showed the taste of things to come – the crisis with Britain over the small issue of the border dispute between Venezuela and British Guinea. The Americans intervened and settled the issue with utmost ease, and mocked Britain for not having the ability to solve its problem by itself. This incident hurt Britain. However, it had to swallow its pride and not risk going to war with the US on this issue, mainly because of the emergence of Germany under the Kaiser’s Weltpolitik. Because of this German policy, countering its rise was a more urgent priority, and left Britain with little time to concentrate on another continent against a much stronger opponent, in a confrontation whose result it would have been unsure of. In a sense, this was a tacit British admission of the emergence of American naval might. Thus, indirectly, Weltpolitik made Britain restrain itself against America, and acknowledge its potential rise as the leading naval and industrial nation of the world, (Dobson, 1995, pp. 8-20) a position that continues to this day.

Part IV:


Implications for the general development of the great powers system in pre-1914 Europe: The Kaiser’s fascination with ships was imbibed from a young age; in fact, he had even designed a battleship himself, which performed all functions other than floating! (Wilkinson, 2002) Unfortunately, the damage his obsession caused to Europe and its colonies was not so humorous. To neutralise this new power, Britain entered into alliances with France, with whom it had a history of animosity, and with Russia and Belgium. (Fay, 1958, p. 16) Fearing the prowess of this alliance, Germany, under the Schlieffen Plan, set up Austria-Hungary against Russia, with Italy becoming the other part of the alliance, known as the Triple Alliance. This developed into an all out pattern of alliances, by which action by one country would draw all others. (Bond, 1998, pp. 92-95) Eventually, all it took was the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914 to draw the continent into a spiral of chain reactions culminating in the outbreak of World War I. (Scheff, 1994, p. 83) All of these were a result of the system of alliances, of which the Kaiser’s Weltpolitik was one of the root causes.


Written By Ravindra G Rao




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