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The European Great Powers

The drive for overseas empire by the European Great Powers between 1890 and 1914 was a means of consolidating conservative rule at home.’ Discuss with reference to one or more powers. From 1890 Europe began to see a change in its political spectrum. The age of authoritarian conservative rule was being challenged by a demand for socialist democracy. This was illustrated clearly in Germany between 1890 and 1914, which saw a shift in political sympathy towards the social democrats.

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As a result of this historians have argued that Germany’s vicious foreign policy was just a means to retain conservative hegemony at home. Nevertheless it has also been argued that Germany’s expansionist war aims were nothing to do with its domestic situation but a reaction to its ‘encirclement’ and increased remoteness. Initially this essay will look at how drive for an empire was a means of consolidating conservatism. Then the argument that Germany’s war aims were a reaction of isolationism and a desire for ‘a place in the sun’ will be analysed.

Before looking at the argument that war was a means to consolidate conservatism it is important to look at the context of the country in question. Germany in 1890 saw the end of Bismarckian rule and the introduction of William II and his hostile foreign policy. However, what was most noticeable was the industrial and economic advancements at the time. ‘Output of coal between 1880 and 1913 rose more than fourfold, even steel production had far outpaced Britain.’1

The significance of this was the rise of the industrial working class and shift away from conservatism towards social democracy. ‘By 1912 the SPD had become the largest party in the Reichstag with 110 deputies.’2 The problem that the old conservatives had was how to retain power. Historians have agued Germany used the drive for overseas empire to deal with this issue. This is visible not only as it was the only viable option but is also illustrated by Germany’s foreign policy actions at the time.

Firstly we will look at how war was the only plausible escape for conservative decline. It is true that the protection of the 1870 Bismarckian constitution left the crown relatively untouched throughout the growth of the SPD. Further to this William II possessed exclusive army command and the ability to declare war. Nevertheless the problem was that ‘it was not inconceivable that the Reichstag would assume these privileges too’3 due to its growing mass support and the demands for political change. Therefore it can be argued that war in 1914 was the only ‘legitimate means of carrying out political conflict.’

It was believed that war ‘if waged in time offered a chance for victory, providing the Reich with the continental platform which it had failed to gain since 1912.’5 Therefore the internal struggle would have be solved as done by Bismarck in the 1860’s, using elections quickly following a victorious battle to sway people back to conservatism. Conservative elites were completely unwilling to accept the need for political change due to the belief any change was for the worse resulting in action being taken for a quick war to regain control.

To justify this war to uphold conservatism the German elites needed to gain the support of their own people. ‘The great majority wanted a Germany overwhelmingly, asserting by means of this strength a place in the sun.’6 The problem was however was that the German masses wanted a glorious Germany without war or even military domination.’7 However this did not fit into the conservative programme of regaling domestic control. Therefore the vast amounts of propaganda released in Germany stating the war was forced upon them it noticeable. The ruling elites persuaded the German mindset into a state that war was inevitable and defensive.

This affectively meant that the social democrats, the enemy as it were, were fighting the war of conservatism. Other pre-war actions also push towards the idea that the conservatives were setting up Germany for war in the summer of 1914. ‘Capital levy was raised and spent, the Kiel Canal opened for dreadnaughts and gold reserves were at their highest level.’8 Germany was prepared for war, a war which would preserve status quo and expand their territories. Nevertheless other historians have argues that war was forced upon Germany by encirclement and that the domestic state was so horrid that Germany never even had the capability to mastermind a war to preserve conservatism.

To counter the argument that conservatives masterminded the war of preservation it has often been thought that Germany was in such a state domestically that it did not have the capability to plan such a war. There is an ‘absurdity of being able to dominate Europe when they haven’t dominated themselves.’9 The question must be asked ‘Can one really expect a political leadership which suffered from a profound loss of reality and among which rationality and reason found it so difficult to assert themselves to plan a major war systematically and many years in advance’10 The answer was no.

Germany was a mix of economic power and political disaster. It is true that the conservatives pushed for war to some extent but the fact was that military conquest was now necessary to second the economic advancement. It was believed that further economic advancement would appease people and correct the domestic tension. Therefore it must be seen that the war was to some extent begun under the pretence to preserve conservatism. But to give the elite credit in planning the timing to perfection seems ludicrous in the context of its dire state. As a result historians have offered a more realistic argument. The drive for overseas expansion was less to preserve conservatism but a result of Germany’s aggressive foreign policy.

Since the turn of the century Germany had pursued a relentless foreign and armaments policy that had increased its isolation. The 1890’s saw Germany embark on a naval race with Britain which poorly concealed anti-British orientation. ‘Agricultural protectionism, on the other hand, was partly aimed against Russian producers and thus pushed the Tsarist Empire into an antagonistic posture.’11 Further to this the 1909 threats of war, rather than causing the withdrawal of powers as was in Bismarck’s day strengthened bonds between Britain France and Russia. The result of this was ‘ the turn of Germany diplomacy against both Britain and Russia and the subsequent confrontation with the Triple Entente was the root cause of the war.’12

It is therefore possible to argue that the drive for overseas empire was not a result of domestic tension but simply inevitable. If a country is provoking others it is unsurprising if some conflict was going to arise. Therefore it seems sensible to argue that war was not just a means of consolidating conservatism but a possible gain war had to offer other than just economic and land benefits. This appears to be the most convincing argument but there is a more radical possibility that must be considered. It has been contended that Germany did not drive for war of any sort and there actions were merely misunderstood.

Historians have made the case that Germany did not intend war nor even want it for reasons such as consolidating conservatism or for ‘a place in the sun’13 It has been argued that all the suspiciously warlike actions pre 1914 were just a reaction to Germany’s inadequacy. Economically, Germany industrialised later than the other continental powers, therefore huge production increases can be explained by a drive to catch up and be on par with the other major countries.

Militarily, Germany was not as strong as it had been in Bismarck’s day. No longer did ‘countries surrender at the threat of war,’14 thus the 1890’s naval race can be viewed not as an action of provocation but Germany’s inadequacy being played out. Finally, even in the political spectrum Germany was holding to its old ways and unwilling to change with the more liberal times as Britain and France were. Thus to preserve the status quo and appease the people Germany was embarking on a ferocious economic and military policy.

(Here, it is important to point out that no matter which point of view is taken on this question the domestic social tension was central to all. Without the internal rifts and unwillingness to change it is likely war would not have occurred due to the general view that it was a last resort.) Therefore it has been contended that Germany’s foreign policy was a case of mistaken identity. Externally rival powers saw Germany as becoming a threat and grouped together, leading to Germany’s feeling of isolationism. As a result Germany felt the needed to escape this and embark on war. Internally the German people saw the armament and economic expansionist policy as preparation for war.

This resulting in a demand for overseas empire and finally ‘a place in the sun.’ As consequence it has been argued that Germany was forced into war due to its surrounding pressures. Therefore it was neither to preserve conservatism nor for an explicit want of an empire. Nevertheless this view proves to be very contentious, it is hard to believe that right until 1914 Germany was not preparing for war whatsoever. It seems more likely that at first war was not expected but became viable as time wore on due to the factors mentioned above. Once again it is more plausible that war was a means to appease and solve all German problems.

In conclusion it can be seen that there is both a case for and against the argument that Germany’s drive for an overseas empire was merely a means to consolidate conservatism domestically. It is true war was the only way to preserve the status quo at home with hope that glory would sway people’s opinion back to conservatism. But Germany’s armaments policy inclines towards the fact that Germany were always edging towards war from the period of 1890 to 1914.

Therefore it can be concluded that Germany did not set about its foreign policy due to issues at home but merely that domestic tensions set the time at which war was to take place. By 1914 pressure in Germany was to such an extent a victorious war was the only outlet. Therefore the drive for overseas empire was just a result of domestic strain but more importantly set up the time frame for it to be carried out.


Berghahn, V.R, ‘Modern Germany’, ed.2, (1987), pp1-38 Berghahn, V.R, ‘Germany and the approach to War in 1914’, (1993), pp 175-196 Taylor, A.J.P, ‘The Course of German History since 1815-1945’, pp 150-175 Fischer, Fritz, ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’ ed. 2, (1967), pp 50-95


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