4 – His Work Was Ruined By an Idiot Emperor
Kaiser Wilhelm died in 1888 and was replaced by Freidrich II. The new monarch reigned for just 99 days as he succumbed to cancer of the larynx. Bismarck did not have a plan in place to deal with Friedrich’s replacement, Wilhelm II, as he assumed he wouldn’t live long enough to serve under the impetuous Kaiser.
Wilhelm’s beliefs were completely at odds with those of Bismarck. The relationship between the two was a disaster from the beginning as the Kaiser opposed his Chancellor’s foreign policy and preferred one of German expansion to make the empire great again. The slow, careful and fruitful diplomacy of Bismarck was replaced by direct confrontation with Germany’s enemies. The monarch quickly marginalized Bismarck and forced him to retire from his office in 1890. In later life, Bismarck wrote that Wilhelm’s reckless policies would endanger the empire and, a crash would come within 20 years if things carried on as they were.
The new leader of Germany pursued an aggressive program of expansion and acquired territories in China, Africa and south-east Asia. Under Bismarck, the German navy remained small and relatively insignificant as a means of appeasing the British. Under Wilhelm II, the German navy expanded dramatically and built 17 dreadnoughts. The British were alarmed at this sudden growth and felt under threat. They retaliated by expanding their own naval program.
Bismarck had barely left office when his delicate system of alliances began to fall apart. The Reinsurance Treaty with Russia was not renewed in 1890 which presented Germany with a serious problem in the event of war. The Iron Chancellor was not yet done with politics and was elected to the Reichstag as a National Liberal in 1894. However, Bismarck was so embarrassed that he was taken to a second ballot by a weak Social Democrat that he never took his seat. He divided his time between his estates at Varzin and Friedrichsruh and waited in the faint hope that he would once again be called upon to help his nation.
The summons never came although Wilhelm II did visit him in 1897 and Bismarck once again warned him of the consequences of his actions and made his eerily accurate 20 years prediction. In the same year, he famously said that a European war would one day come from “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” Bismarck’s health deteriorated rapidly from 1896 onwards and he died in 1898.
His prediction of war proved to be correct as Wilhelm’s aggression angered Germany’s neighbors and resulted in the dissolution of the alliances Bismarck tried so hard to protect. Russia joined France and Britain in the Triple Entente of 1907. This was Germany’s worst political nightmare; three of Europe’s most powerful nations had combined against it. The panic-stricken Wilhelm created the hasty Triple Alliance with Italy and Austria-Hungary but was still in a disadvantageous position. By 1914, the Great War had begun and all of Bismarck’s careful maneuvering and diplomacy was for naught.