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Bismarck Tells the British Ambassador that Germany has Achieved its Legitimate Objectives (February 11, 1873)

The text below is an excerpt from a letter by Lord Odo Russell (1829-1884), Britain’s ambassador to Germany from 1872 to 1884, to the British Foreign Secretary Lord Granville. Russell was allegedly “Bismarck’s favorite Englishman,” and this account suggests the closeness of the two men’s rapport. In this piece of correspondence, Russell describes Bismarck’s efforts to quell any notion that Germany desired further expansion or intended to build up a naval force. This was in accordance with Bismarck’s frequent statements that Germany after 1871 was a “satiated power.” One wonders, however, whether Russell himself believed the many disingenuous claims Bismarck made during this conversation, including the obvious lie that he preferred the system of ministerial responsibility that England enjoyed.

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Berlin, 11 February 1873.

Dear Lord Granville,

Prince Bismarck asked me this evening after dinner to come and smoke a Pipe with him in his sitting room. I did so, and found him alone. He said he wished to talk to me on various subjects but as he preferred in his dealings with me to speak with perfect freedom instead of with that diplomatic reserve which the dread of our Blue Books imposed on Foreign Ministers conversing with English Diplomatists he hoped I would grant him the favour of reporting him privately and not officially. –

In the first instance he wished to solicit my cooperation in contradicting calumny. – It had been reported to him that the Queen of Holland* who, for incomprehensible reasons of her own was a bitter enemy of Prussia and of German Unity, had succeeded during her frequent visits to England in propagating the idea that Prussia sought to annex the Netherlands with a view to acquiring Colonies and a Fleet for Germany [ . . . ].

He neither desired Colonies or Fleets for Germany. – Colonies in his opinion would only be a cause of weakness, because Colonies could only be defended by powerful Fleets, – and Germany’s geographical position did not necessitate her development into a first class Maritime Power. A Fleet was sufficient for Germany that could cope with Fleets like those of Austria, Egypt, Holland and perhaps Italy, – scarcely with that of Russia, but it could not be a German interest so long as she had no Colonies to rivalize with Maritime Powers like England, America or France. – Many Colonies had been offered to him, – he had rejected them and wished only for coaling stations acquired by Treaty from other Nations.

Germany was now large enough and strong enough in his opinion, and even the Emperor Williams insatiable desire for more territory had not led him to covet the possession of the Netherlands.

* Queen Sophie of the Netherlands (1818–1877), consort of Wilhelm III. An excellent source of information on “la reine rouge” is Lady Burghelere, A Great Lady’s Friendships: Letters to Mary, Marchioness of Salisbury, Countess of Derby, 1862–1890 (London, 1933). [Footnote from: Paul Knaplund, ed., Letters from the Berlin Embassy, 1871-1874, 1880-1885. Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1944, pp. 87-89.]

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