Treaties and Alliances. The Nikolsburg agreement of July 26, 1866 (D1) effectively ended the diplomatic contest between Prussia and Austria for supremacy in German-speaking Central Europe. Four years later, the Germans’ victory over the French was described by Benjamin Disraeli as constituting a revolution in Europe whose consequences affected every other Great Power (D2). For the next two decades, Bismarck’s policy was one marked by caution and the consolidation of German power, both internally and externally. That policy was guided by core principles from which the Chancellor never wavered. First, he sought to reassure Europe and the world that Germany was a “satiated” nation, dedicated to peace. Second, his “nightmare of coalitions” (D4) – the fear that two or more Great Powers would ally against Germany – required that he isolate France diplomatically. To that end Bismarck encouraged France to redirect its feelings of revanche over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine into colonial expansion while, third, keeping Russia friendly to Germany – or at least friendly enough to prevent it from joining an opposing alliance (D5, D6, D7, D8, IM2, IM4, IM5, IM6). Fourth, the Chancellor consistently propped up the power and prestige of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with which Germany concluded a formal alliance in 1879.
With the benefit of hindsight, students are often tempted to conclude that Bismarck’s track record – his three successful wars between 1864 and 1871 and his mastery of Realpolitik – makes him an unqualified “genius.” This ascription of genius also seems warranted when we compare Bismarck’s accomplishments to the zig-zagging policies pursued by the Foreign Office after 1890, when we consider the transformation of the Anglo-German rivalry into estrangement and animosity following Kaiser Wilhelm II’s decision to station a battle fleet in the North Sea, and when we consider that the unwinnable two-front war Germany faced in 1914 was the single greatest threat that Bismarck managed to avoid during his term of office. It may be true that Bismarck offered the world forty years of peace and was a gifted diplomatic tactician, for example when he played the honest broker at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 (IM3). Such hindsight, however, is not twenty-twenty. It ignores the aggressive expansionism and fearsome loss of life that were instrumental to his Realpolitik between 1862 and 1871. At the end of his term of office, too, both Bismarck’s genius and his long-term goals can be questioned. In particular, he appears to have underestimated the power of nationalism both at home and abroad. Nationalism undermined the diplomatic and military value of his single steadfast ally,