Two German states, one growing problem
On this date in 1879, Otto von Bismarck got too clever by half. Or maybe he had that problem all along. But on October 7 of 1879, his plan to keep Germany from being isolated by isolating France and Russia began to mature with the signing of the “Twofold Covenant” between Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Now you might think the alliance between these two central European states was natural, precisely because they were central European states, whatever else you might think of it. For instance that the Central Powers were the aggressors in World War I, or that land powers tend to lose to sea powers in big geopolitical showdowns, or that attacking the Anglosphere is a bad idea no matter how carefully you prepare, or that Austria-Hungary was a useless ally for anyone to have. (Incidentally Hitler shared this last view, calling Austria-Hungary “this mummy of a state” in Mein Kampf, and while he was indescribably evil he was regrettably prone to strategic insights including about the defects of Germany’s first attempt to conquer the world, which is why he got as far as he did and did as much harm as he did before finally being stopped. Mind you, he chose to be allied with Mussolini’s Italy so maybe he wasn’t that smart.)
In any case, there was real genius in Bismarck’s successful alliance with a nation his own Prussia had fairly recently humbled, in 1866, in one of the wars in rapid succession that created a mostly united Germany. Minus some of the German-speaking bits Hitler went about accumulating on his way to aggression, genocide and ultimate defeat. Moreover Germany's unification and neighbour-attacking was generally driven or at least justified by nationalism, which the Austro-Hungarian rulers rightly saw as a deadly threat to a state whose very name indicated the presence of several important and very self-conscious minorities and which, indeed, was the figurative trigger behind the literal trigger whose pulling killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and in turn set off the cascading series of threats among members of the rigid yet rickety European alliance system that plunged the world into World War I.
That alliance system was, in turn, Bismarck’s great achievement or at any rate his doing. True, he was gone by the time the great crisis of 1914 came, and those who controlled Germany were lesser lights than his. But his light shone in the wrong direction and put them where they found themselves tempted to strike fast and hard to solve dilemmas Bismarck’s alliance system had made worse not better.
It was Bismarck’s obsession with keeping Germany from being isolated that created a menacing sense of isolation among almost everyone else, even his supposed ally Italy and certainly France on the west side and Russia on the east side of his central European bloc. Indeed, the “Twofold Covenant” of 1879 specifically provided that Germany and Austria-Hungary would support one another if either got into a war with Russia, while they would maintain benevolent neutrality if either got into a war with somebody else or should I say quelqu’un d’autre.
Bismarck then proceeded to sign treaties with just about everybody else including Russia. But everybody thought he was up to something and that something would involve German troops crossing their border, which is why France and Russia gradually created an alliance that was formalized in 1894. And why Britain and France created one in 1904, and added Russia in 1907.
Now the wise course for Germany would have been to give up the notion of attacking everybody until it achieved “Deutschland über alles” whose original lyrics speak of Germany stretching from the Memel river (in Belarus) to the Meuse (in France) and from the Adige (Etsch) in Italy which created understandable anxiety or perhaps more exactly angst in the nations suddenly and musically informed of the need to start either German lessons or military training. Unfortunately Bismarck was clever rather than wise.
Too clever by half. With appalling consequences.