Germany and the Causes of the First World War

By Mark Hewitson | Go to book overview

7

Imperialism and Conceptions of
Diplomatic Relations

Both Fischer and his opponents have contended that the achievement of world power became the decisive question for the leaders – and, indeed, public – of the German Reich in the two decades before the First World War. New conceptions of diplomatic relations based on the idea of 'world empires' supposedly upset the nineteenth-century notion of a balance of power within the concert of Europe or pentarchy Germany, as F.H. Hinsley wrote shortly after the publication of Griff nach der Weltmacht, 'at last approached a degree of material primacy in Europe which no power had possessed since 1815 – and did so at a time when her power beyond Europe was negligible and when the prospects of enlarging it there were rapidly diminishing'.1 Fischer, who had made the putative choice between world power or decline the title of a book (Weltmacht oder Niedergang?) in 1965, argued that Germany already occupied a hegemonic position in Europe and implied that German leaders' aspirations for the status of a world empire were the consequence of a catastrophic act of self-delusion and domestic manipulation, as the Reich government sought to deflect attention from political deadlock and social stasis at home.

Schöllgen and other critics of the Hamburg school have countered that the predicament faced by Bülow and Bethmann was real, not imaginary: Wilhelmine statesmen had good grounds for believing that the Reich needed to become a world power in order to guarantee access to raw materials and markets during a period when Germany was increasingly reliant on exports, yet any attempt to gain power on the world stage, either in Europe or beyond it, met the resistance of the traditional Great Powers, whose leaders feared that the European balance of power would be overturned.2 Sönke Neitzel, in particular, has sought to show that the notion of world empires had been widely accepted by the turn of the century, not just in Germany,

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