Germany and the Causes of the First World War

By Mark Hewitson | Go to book overview

4

The Politics of War: Parties, the
Press and Public Opinion

Public opinion', as contemporaries were all too aware, had come to play an important role in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy by the mid-1900s. Deference and unquestioning support for the state in the diplomatic sphere had diminished, overturning the practices of the Bismarckian era. Although in many respects vociferously nationalist, significant sections of an expanded German public were prepared to criticize the conduct and limit the scope of the Reich government's external policy. By the mid-1900s, as outside observers noted, public opinion had been transformed, partly as a consequence of a feeling that foreign affairs had been mishandled by the Kaiser, Chancellor and Foreign Office.1 Thus, during the first Moroccan crisis, Ernst Bassermann, leader of the National Liberals and a long-standing supporter of the administration, had warned the government of his intention to discuss foreign policy in the Reichstag on future occasions.2 By November 1911, during the alleged fiasco of the second Moroccan crisis, the liberal leader was even more forthright, arguing that 'we have just seen that foreign policy cannot be pursued with complete disregard for popular feeling. That is what those in charge of our foreign policy have failed to understand, and that is the reason for the justifiable discord in the country'.3 Public opinion, then, as Mommsen, Förster and Eley acknowledge, had not merely become more vocal; it had also become more independent, to the point where Bethmann believed that it was almost impossible to influence.4 Much of the discord between the government and the public derived from differing images of the Reich's neighbours and from divergent understandings of Germany's international position.

Contrary to Mommsen's claims, however, the growing prominence and independence of public opinion (pffentliche Meinung) were not largely the result of radical nationalist and imperialist critiques of government amongst Germany's middle and upper

-61-

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