The subject of this lecture is March 1890 the month that changed the world. What happened in March 1890? In March 1890 one of the stupidest leaders in German history, Kaiser Wilhelm II fired one of the most brilliant leaders in German history: Otto von Bismarck, the mastermind behind the creation of the German Empire. Now this was more than just a turn for disaster in terms of leadership, which it indeed was. It was a disastrous turn in the entire geopolitical structure of Europe and led directly to the catastrophe of World War I.
GERMAN AND RUSSIAN RELATIONS
So let us look more closely at what exactly happened. It's a big subject, and we can't cover all aspects of it in this short lecture but suffice it to say that Bismarck, who had at one point in time been the German ambassador to Russia, based a good part of his entire policy on good relations with the Russian Empire. Over 100 years before Germany, then Prussia, under Frederick the Great had nearly been wiped out by a joint invasion by Russia, Austria and France. This fact haunted Bismarck and other intelligent people in German leadership circles. So Bismarck understood that he would have to have good relations with Russia if he was to achieve his goals; in particular, uniting the northern German states in what came to be known as the German Empire. In order to do that, there would be an inevitable conflict with the Habsburg Empire. Again, we don't have time to go over the whole details of how Bismarck put what became the German Empire together, but you need to understand that had Russia in any way been hostile, Prussia would probably have been wiped out as a state. It was an extremely dangerous situation which faced the open opposition of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire but also the opposition of Napoleon the third's France and it was a study in masterful diplomacy and masterful geopolitical thinking that this was created.
Now after the German Empire was created in January 1871 in Versailles, after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck set about building a structure of international security for Germany. The first was an alliance between Germany Russia and Austria. However, there were growing conflicts between Russia and Austria and this was very difficult to keep everything straight, so Bismarck then negotiated something very important known as the reinsurance treaty which was a limited nonaggression pact between Russia and Germany. This was an absolutely vital document because it made it very unlikely that Russia and Germany would ever go to war, and it was setting the stage for Germany financing the trans-Siberian railroad and other business ventures in Russia. Now there were tensions on both sides. There was growing nationalism in Russia which was a problem, but more disturbing was a growing war faction, the kind of equivalent of our modern neoconservative lunatics in America going on about war with Russia.
GENERAL WALDERSEE'S CATASTROPHIC IDEA OF INVADING RUSSIA
Bismarck's power structure came from Emperor Wilhelm, War Minister Von Roon and Chief of the General Staff Von Moltke. By 1889 all three of those people had disappeared from the scene and Kaiser Wilhelm II had come to power. Now equally disturbing was the emergence of General Waldersee as a replacement for Moltke who had a crazy idea about a military confrontation with Russia. He even touted the idea as a preventive war. Bismarck correctly observed that his argument made about as much sense as committing suicide as a means to prevent death. Very dangerous ideas. Without going into all the details, the Kaiser and Bismarck didn't get along but the Kaiser was a buffoon who didn't get along with a lot of people.
THE DISASTROUS IDEA TO FIRE BISMARCK
In their last very unpleasant meeting before the Kaiser fired Bismarck, there was a dispute about intelligence reports concerning the views of Czar Alexander III vis-à-vis the Kaiser. Alexander III did not like the Kaiser and a lot of people did not like the Kaiser. He was very obnoxious. He was an obnoxious buffoon who tended to annoy people wherever he went. Now, whether this report was true or not, it was listed in German intelligence, and Bismarck was reluctant to give it to the Kaiser but the Kaiser insisted on seeing it and it contained a quote which I wouldn't be surprised if it was true...of the Alexander III describing Kaiser Wilhelm as a badly brought up little boy. Like many incompetent people, Kaiser Wilhelm was very vain and undoubtedly this affected him in a non-constructive way. Anyway, Bismarck was duly fired. Now in the chaos that followed, and this is a very mysterious event in German history, the Kaiser apparently believed that Bismarck's son, Herbert Bismarck, would stay on and I have never been able to figure out why he did not stay on, if only as a matter of public service, but undoubtedly he was very angry at the treatment of his father. There's rumors that he might have had health problems. But he also resigned. So, immediately you'd had the complete decapitation of the entire foreign policy decision-making machinery in the German government.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER BISMARCK WAS FIRED
The Caprivi regime (which was put in as a replacement) really didn't know what they were doing and gave in to pressure not to renew the reinsurance treaty with Russia. This has got to be one of the greatest disasters in not only German history, not only European history, but the history of the world, because this created an existential threat for Czar Alexander III. It is very understandable that Russia would regard this as an extremely threatening act and this led to a military alliance between France and Russia. This created a geopolitically impossible situation for Germany that ultimately ended up with the disaster of World War I and the total catastrophe of 1918. There was a lot of fatuous thinking in Berlin and the Kaiser was a completely disorganized and idiotic person. There was thinking that maybe they could have an alliance with England but the Kaiser would eventually antagonize the British by a series of ill-conceived public statements and ill-conceived plans to build a great fleet and so on. He would also not only succeed in antagonizing Alexander III he also managed to antagonize Edward VII, the successor to Queen Victoria.
THE ROAD TO WAR
So starting in 1890, Europe was on the road to war and there was a momentum set up for war that was very hard to avoid. Germany was facing a very difficult military situation even in the best of circumstances. So this lecture is done to highlight this particular point and have people understand how one of the main reasons why World War I started. It's also relevant to America today, where you have hysterical anti-Russian forces that pushed America into a confrontation with Russia over American efforts to overthrow the government of Ukraine. This is very similar to when Kaiser Wilhelm pushed Russia and France together. And American policy today is pushing Russia and China together. Hopefully, there will be saner heads in Washington about that situation than there were in Germany in the last decade of the 19th century.