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Captain's Log Entry 1: An Anglo-German Alliance

Posted February 13th, 2017 at 01:15 AM by Junius

This article covers the time period from 1890 until about 1914. It highlights the main reasons why an alliance between Britain and Germany did not take place and how such an alliance could have changed the course of world history and politics. In my mind, it proved impossible to marry the surprisingly convergent interests of Britain and Germany due to the following factors:

1. The German Navy- Wilhelm may have had sound strategic reasons to establish a navy (such as Germany's huge and burgeoning merchant marine), but it only served to alarm and alienate the British establishment. Although it became the world's second-strongest fleet by World War 1, the navy could never catch up to the Royal Navy and the surface fleet gave a remarkably inept performance against the British fleet. The German High Seas Fleet made only one major sortie during the entire war, resulting in the inconclusive Battle of Jutland. The submarine force fought on doggedly, but unrestricted submarine warfare brought the Americans into the war and spelled Germany's doom. The navy siphoned off resources that the Army could have made better use of and significantly enhanced the threat German power posed to Britain. This threat outweighed even the French threat to Britain's African possessions or the Russian threat to India. It endangered the British Home Islands and directly led to the formation of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and her hated rivals for imperial dominance.

2. Colonialism- I would argue that German colonial possessions in themselves did not directly lead to enmity with Britain. In fact, the opposite may well be the case; while German colonies were mostly miniscule and unimportant (mainly because other powers had already cherry picked the best lands), the acquisition of Zanzibar enabled Chancellor Leo von Caprivi to acquire the island of Heligoland from Britain, just two hours' sail from Hamburg and important for the latter's defense. The real reason I listed colonies here is that it led to a change in German strategic ambitions. Wilhelm II could launch his global foreign policy only because of the colonies Bismarc hadk grabbed in Africa and the Pacific Ocean. Germany ended up sitting on the fence in terms of orienting their policy to either Europe or the world. One look at a map will show you how Germany, hemmed in by France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and a coastline divided by Denmark, could not ignore her destiny in Europe. Careful management was required in order to avoid a 2-front war, and to this end, Wilhelm had failed spectacularly by 1914. Bismarck encouraged French colonization efforts in order to distract her from Europe, but Wilhelm confronted her in Morocco even when France had the backing of the rest of Europe. He welcomed setbacks to British ambitions in South Africa such as the Kruger Telegram., thus leading Britain to view Germany as a global- not just European- rival.

3. Wilhelm II himself was a major factor in Germany's inability to woo Britain. Just about the only Royal who viewed him favorably was his grandmother, Queen Victoria. Her successor, King Edward VII, particularly loathed his nephew; the Kaiser returned both feelings with compound interest. It is claimed that the Kaiser suffered from several mental disorders, especially an inferiority complex stemming from his epileptic left arm. Whatever the cause, the effect was that Wilhelm was hated and prone to making embarrassing comments, such as his 1908 Daily Telegraph interview or the Hun Speech of 1900. The Great Powers, Britain included, disliked his bullying and bombastic nature and refused to ally themselves with his Germany. The sole exception was the weak Austria-Hungary, who virtually tied themselves to German power in order to compete with Russia in the Balkans as the sun set on the Ottoman Empire.

4. Splendid Isolation-If the British could have ever allied with Germany, the best time period was until about 1901. The British elite broadly supported Germany against their old French and Russian rivals. The German naval buildup was not yet in full swing and Wilhelm had not yet committed too many major gaffes. Queen Victoria leaned towards her beloved eldest grandson and the German colonies did not pose a threat to Britain. However, at this time Britain adhered to the policy of splendid isolation, whereby she rejected any alliances or European entanglements in favor of intervening periodically in Continental affairs to keep the peace and maintain the overall balance of power. Thus, Benjamin Disraeli and Bismarck helped negotiate the 1878 Balkans Crisis, where the latter especially could effectively act as an honest broker. Bismarck then negotiated the Scramble for Africa in 1884, earning Germany Namibia, Togo, Tanzania, Cameroon and Zanzibar. However, as German power grew and their navy expanded, Britain gradually sought to balance against the rising hegemon in Europe. It slowly but surely abandoned splendid isolation, starting with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902. By the time the Anglo-French Entente was signed in 1905, Britain had become one of the belligerent powers in Europe. Britain and Germany had now been pitted in direct and blatant competition. From here on, war between the two powers was never really in doubt.

I will now seek to speculate on what could have been had the Germans allied with Great Britain. The year is 1890, and Otto von Bismarck had managed to win the support of colleagues like Karl Heinrich von Boetticher, his de jure deputy and No. 2. They forced Kaiser Wilhelm II to reappoint Bismarck to the Chancellery after threatening to resign en masse, and Bismarck was only able to manage his Emperor with the utmost care and caution. Nevertheless, he obtained the Kaiser' s go ahead to exchange Zanzibar for Heligoland, and stubbornly resisted the navy's expansion. Those resources were instead used to strengthen the Army and Germany's border defenses, especially in Lorraine against the aggressive and revanchist French. Bismarck's Germany was a satiated power, and he did not want to antagonize the other Great Powers into balancing against him.

Bismarck kept Russia happy and moved with alacrity to renew the Reinsurance Treaty, even though Wilhelm stubbornly opposed it. Britain was satisfied by Germany slowing down her naval expansion and increasing her trade with Britain, slowly becoming her largest trading partner. The United States, with her huge agricultural production, also provided many of the raw materials that German industries needed, and both Anglo-Saxon powers felt relatively unthreatened by Germany's benign rise. France remained the only dissatisfied power, although on the back of extensive loans and their geopolitical situation, she slowly pulled Russia towards herself.

However, Russia and Austria still feuded bitterly over the Balkans. Bismarck's policy was to walk the tightrope between the two powers and balance their conflicting interests, but Russia was constantly reminded that Germany was obligated by treaty to defend the Austrians should Russia be the aggressor in any war between, something that the Reinsurance Treaty between Germany and Russia explicitly highlighted. He was also fundamentally committed to perpetuating Turkish control over Constantinople and the Bosporus, further ingratiating himself to Britain. However, in the remaining time Bismarck had, there were to be no major land grabs attempted by either power, and Europe remained tranquil and quiet. Bismarck's primary concern was now to train a successor who would both continue his policies and ascend to the Chancellorship only on Bismarck's command.

By 1895, Otto von Bismarck had reason to feel satisfied with his 35 years of service. He had kept the fragile balance of power in Europe and Leo von Caprivi had performed efficiently, although not necessarily spectacularly, as Minister-President of Prussia, the Chancellor in waiting. Almost out of the blue, however, the burden of office had its way with Otto von Bismarck, who succumbed to a stroke while sitting peaceably at his study on February 28, 1895.

His death was mourned throughout Europe, and the Kaiser called for a national holiday to properly mourn the Iron Chancellor. Leo von Caprivi was appointed Chancellor, and proved to be a capable manager of Germany's affairs, although he undoubtedly enjoyed less influence than the Kaiser and exerted nowhere near the power Bismarck wielded in foreign affairs. Wilhelm now had much control over foreign policy, and his careful observation of Bismarck's methods did much to lighten his touch. Together, this formidable duo kept Germany stable and stubbornly resisted the expansion of the navy and colonies, even though they held a great allure to the half-British Wilhelm.

However, this idyllic state of affairs was not to last. The immediate crisis was the possession of Fashoda, a small village in Eastern Sudan. This would present a clean and unbroken line of control from one coast of Africa to the other. As a result, both Britain and France needed it to ensure complete domination of Africa by the Cape-Cairo Line (Britain) and the Dakar-Djibouti Line (France). On September 18, 1898, a British force led by Sir Herbert Kitchener clashed with a French expedition led by Jean Marchand. The expulsion of Marchand's men and the subsequent British control over Fashoda and Sudan had the French in arms.

Click the image to open in full size.

Simultaneously, the Ottoman Empire was going through another crisis, a revolt of the Christians in Armenia. They were brutally suppressed after much difficulty, and like the last major Ottoman Crisis in 1877, there was severe condemnation from most of Europe (although once again the British and German governments were surprisingly reticent). Russia, the protector of Orthodox Christians around the world, demanded that the Turks cease killing their Orthodox brothers and sisters. The Turks responded by denouncing Russian intervention in their domestic affairs and refused to accede to any Russian demands.

Unlike 1853 or 1877, when the British intervened sluggishly or half-heartedly, Britain rushed to support the Ottomans and threatened Russia with war if they were to press the Ottomans any further. France in turn warned Britain that if she fought Russia France would retaliate. Germany and Austria initially sat on the fence, but eventually Wilhelm II publicly supported Britain and Turkey, especially since Anglo-German friendship was Bismarck's main foreign policy goal after 1890. Russia ignored the British ultimatum and invaded Armenia, convinced that once again the British would eventually back off and award her substantial concessions. Besides, the Ottoman war machine was regarded as a joke and Russia was extraordinarily confident of a swift and easy victory. Britain declared war on Russia with alacrity, and France retaliated by declaring war on Britain. Germany and Austria then declared war on France, bringing about World War I...

Alas, war is extremely difficult to predict, and even that only applies to the result. No one can gauge the different campaigns waged and the theatres of a conflict, especially when its scope is global. This World War I would vastly differ from the World War I that actually took place in our timeline. In this scenario, Germany would have several substantial advantages that it lacked in our timeline, which I believe would be enough to grant it victory even though it would still have to fight a nightmare two-front war.

First, Great Britain has obviously shifted its support to the Central Powers instead of the Franco-Russian entente. Additionally, I would wager that Germany would stay on the defensive overall. This is because there would be considerably less pressure on them for a quick victory than on the Entente. The Central Powers would have a huge navy, excellent finances, the ability to bear the cost of a long war, and a greater population base than the Entente. Thanks to the marked improvement in technology taking place during this time, any attacker would suffer a remarkable disadvantage, especially because German border defenses were extremely elaborate and tough to breach. British reinforcements and supplies would only bolster Germany’s advantage, making it extremely unlikely that a breakthrough into Germany would take place (although Austria is another issue).

Russian and Austrian weakness would also come as an unpleasant surprise. Russia would have to fight in the Balkans, Poland, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Persia, and Afghanistan. These distances remain so staggering that the Russians would need to commit substantial forces to each front with a limited possibility of reinforcement in order to stave off disaster. Vilnius (the capital of modern-day Lithuania) and Odessa (in Ukraine) alone are separated by a staggering 1,200 km of countryside, which in the Tsarist Era were traversed by an appalling road and rail network. Vilnius to Termez, Uzbekistan (the end of Tsarist lands) is an astonishing 4,500 km, with roads in even worse shape than in the European part of Russia.

The size of the Russian Empire might thus work to its detriment, since its enemies would therefore be likely to triumph in at least one front, which is especially likely in Afghanistan. Huge British forces would be on veritable standby mode in the North West Frontier Province (or NWFP) of British India (now Pakistan). If Japan also attacks Russia in order to avenge their perceived humiliation at the hands of Russia after defeating China in 1894, Russia would be in serious trouble and in my mind guaranteed to lose at least the Far East. More likely, in trying to defend each front with adequate troops and balancing their forces, Russia would probably have insufficient numbers and fail on multiple fronts. The entire Tsarist regime might collapse due to its ineptitude on the battlefield, leading to revolution in the streets of St. Petersburg, although Bolshevism is far from inevitable or even likely. Nevertheless, Russia could not possible fare well in such a scenario.

France would be a much tougher nut to crack, but the British would begin by blockading Metropolitan France and waiting for it to bite, especially since France depended on the colonies for their produce and labor. French Indochina would be lost quite soon, especially if a major expedition were sent from Singapore or India, where the British enjoyed near-total dominance. Africa would probably be able to hold out for quite some time, but without supplies or reinforcements from the mother country, like Canada in the Seven Years War, French Africa would eventually fall even if the British suffered several early setbacks.

The only hope for France would be to strike hard and fast. Unlike the British, they could not blockade the enemy and hope to starve them or reduce them to impotence in other corners of the globe. It would need to invade the Rhine River quickly and somehow neutralize the German border forces. There is also the consideration that a flank attack through Belgium is notoriously difficult on invading eastward, given the forests and hills that make up the Belgian-German border, limiting French grand strategy in such a scenario. A Napoleon would be needed for European success, and unfortunately, Napoleon was France's last Napoleon. Their financial system would break down under the strain of war before Britain's, and Germany would probably have enough resources to beat France in a 2v2 duel (France and Russia vs. Britain and Germany). Even in our timeline, Germany came within an ace of winning World War I when outnumbered tremendously by Britain, France and Russia. Only the entry of the USA and the resulting desperate gamble in the spring of 1918 pushed Germany past the brink and brought the war to an end.
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