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"The Nightmare of Coalitions": Bismarck on the Other Great Powers (1879/1898)

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In the forecast of the future relations of Austria and Germany an essential element was the imperfect appreciation of political possibilities displayed by the German element in Austria, which has caused it to lose touch with the dynasty and forfeit the guidance which it had inherited from its historical development. Misgivings as to the future of an Austro-German confederation were also suggested by the religious question, by the remembered influence of the father confessors of the imperial family, by the anticipated possibility of renewed relations with France, on the basis of a rapprochement by that country to the Catholic church, whenever such a change should have taken place in the character and principles of French statesmanship. How remote or how near such a change may be in France is quite beyond the scope of calculation.

Last of all came the Austrian policy in regard to Poland. We cannot demand of Austria that she should forgo the weapon which she possesses as against Russia in her fostering care of the Polish spirit in Galicia. The policy which in 1846 resulted in a price being set by Austrian officials on the heads of insurgent Polish patriots was possible because, by a conformable attitude in Polish and Eastern affairs, Austria paid (as by a contribution to a common insurance fund) for the advantages which she derived from the holy alliance,* the league of the three Eastern Powers. So long as the triple alliance of the Eastern Powers held good, Austria could place her relations with the Ruthenes in the foreground of her policy; as soon as it was dissolved, it was more advisable to have the Polish nobility at her disposal in case of a war with Russia. Galicia is altogether more loosely connected with the Austrian monarchy than Poland and West Prussia with the Prussian monarchy. The Austrian trans-Carpathian eastern province lies open without natural boundary on that side, and Austria would be by no means weakened by its abandonment provided she could find compensation in the basin of the Danube for its five or six million Poles and Ruthenes. Plans of the sort, but taking the shape of the transference of Romanian and Southern-Slav populations to Austria in exchange for Galicia, and the resuscitation of Poland under the sway of an archduke, were considered officially and unofficially during the Crimean war and in 1863. The Old-Prussian provinces are, however, separated from Posen and West Prussia by no natural boundary, and their abandonment by Prussia would be impossible. Hence among the preconditions of an offensive alliance between Germany and Austria the settlement of the future of Poland presents a problem of unusual difficulty.

* “Holy Alliance”: Alliance between Russia, Austria, and Prussia (1815) –ed.

Source of English translation: Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, 2 vols. New York and London: Harper & Row, 1899, vol. 2, pp. 255-58, reprinted in Theodore S. Hamerow, ed., The Age of Bismarck: Documents and Interpretations. New York: Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 269-72.

Original German text reprinted in Otto von Bismarck, Gedanken und Erinnerungen, vol. 2. Stuttgart: Verlag der J.G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung Nachfolger, 1898, ch. 29, pp. 233-36.

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