German Great-Power Relations in the Pages of Simplicissimus, 1896-1914

By Hugill, Peter J. | The Geographical Review, January 2008 | Go to article overview
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German Great-Power Relations in the Pages of Simplicissimus, 1896-1914


Hugill, Peter J., The Geographical Review


In the period leading up to World War I, roughly the British Edwardian period, international relations shifted with great rapidity, making this one of the most significant transitional periods in world history. Two polities, the United States and imperial Germany, pulled level with Great Britain on the world stage and began to challenge British primacy for two main reasons. Both began this drive in the 1860s. Once in charge of Congress, in 1862 the American Republican Party declared a form of economic "war" on Great Britain by passing a stiff protectionist tariff against largely British manufacturers. Paul Kennedy dated the start of the Anglo-German rivalry in the early 1860s as coming from "different perceptions of how domestic policies and external strategies should be arranged" (1980, 8). Imperial Germany imposed its own protectionist tariff in 1879. Both challenger polities, their economies driven increasingly by the second industrial revolution and protected behind increasingly steep tariff walls, began to challenge the global manufacturing dominance Great Britain had achieved in the first industrial revolution. Both began to reach economic parity with Great Britain in the 1880s. The second challenge came through global power projection. In the 1880s neither the United States nor imperial Germany could project power globally, because neither had a blue-water battle fleet. Alfred Thayer Mahan's work on the link between seapower and history made a very clear case that the only way to global power was to have a blue-water battle fleet (1890, 1892), and both Germany and the United States took notice. In the United States Theodore Roosevelt wrote approvingly to Mahan within forty-eight hours of his first book's publication and, in Atlantic Monthly, he published one of the first reviews of Mahan's work (Karsten 1971, 589). As president (1901-1909), Roosevelt oversaw the creation of the United States's first global battle fleet. In Germany Kaiser Wilhelm noted in 1894, "I am ... not reading but devouring Captain Mahan's book.... It is on board all my ships and constantly quoted by all my captains and officers" (quoted in Herman 2004, 474). German actions followed in 1898, with the passing of the First Navy Law to build a High Seas Fleet that also became known as the "Risk Fleet," a fleet powerful enough to ensure that Great Britain would not risk war with Germany. The Second Navy Law of 1900 doubled the size of the German fleet (Hobson 2002, 7). "No issue was as likely to turn Great Britain into an implacable adversary as a threat to its command of the seas," yet the navalist pressure groups in Germany "developed a vested interest in tensions with Great Britain to justify naval appropriations" and used the series of crises in odd parts of the globe from Samoa on to do precisely that (Kissinger 1994, 185).

Both economic and military challenges to primacy are conventional parts of international relations theory and well understood. Aaron Friedberg elaborated these in The Weary Titan as challenges based on shifts in relative economic power, financial power, sea power, and land power, all forms of calculative or "hard" power (1988). But this transitional period also saw a third challenge, one that arose out of perceptual or "soft" power: the extent to which a given polity could be said to have a "will to power." Great Britain had long had a clear will to power, and a key, but generally seriously understated, element of international relations theory is the extent to which this was lost by Great Britain in the late 1800s at the same time as it was being gained by the United States and imperial Germany. After summarizing the various realist theories, Friedberg noted that they "leave important unanswered questions. What are the internal characteristics that determine how a state will respond to external pressures?" (p. 6). In the perceptual model of power, "statesmen are seen to deal in less precise but more lingering images, both of other countries and of their own .

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