The 1879 Dual Alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany proved initially fortuitous for both signatories; Austria-Hungary gained validation and support, and the new German nation gained a vital ally in its ever-complicated quest to isolate the revanchist French and garner international standing. But after the removal of Otto von Bismarck from the Chancellorship in 1890 – commemorated in Punch with the famous illustration entitled ‘dropping the pilot’ – this balance began to go awry. Bismarck’s successor, Caprivi, referred to the alliance as the ‘cornerstone of our foreign policy’ and this state of affairs began to favour Austria-Hungary more than her northern neighbour. Finally, the alliance served to damage and destroy both powers in the European maelstrom of the First World War.
When Bismarck conceived of the Dual Alliance, it was for him a single arm of a patchwork of interdependent treaties and alliances and agreements; it was not meant to serve as an essential alliance, one to be pursued at all cost and without a thought for the consequences. In this the alliance initially served its purpose well, giving Germany an ally in the aftermath of her crushing victory over France in the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War and allowing her more international traction as a result; the 1881 Dreikaiserbund – which formally aligned the emperors of Austria, Russia and Germany – would not have been possible without this earlier act of diplomatic endorsement. Similarly, it can also be seen that the Austrian government benefited greatly from this alliance. After a defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866, the Dual Monarchy suffered for her weaknesses; an alliance with Germany, a power which was in ascendency, was exactly what Austria-Hungary – which was later referred to by Gottlieb von Jagow, a German diplomat, as ‘the crumbling constellation of states on the Danube’ – needed. She was threatened by the likelihood of Balkan conflagration, and the concept of Bismarck’s consultative diplomacy (which sought as its essential aim a European system in which the participants talked to each other) was an added bonus. Both powers’ interests were well served by the initially alliance.
Things began to go wrong for Germany after the end of Bismarck’s term in office. He was a master statesman, a titan of European diplomacy, but his elaborate alliance system could not survive his fall from grace. Caprivi, his successor, embarked upon a New Course (Neuer Kurs), which determined that Bismarck’s way of doing things was too rigid and self-limiting. At about that time there were powerful demands for Germany to have her ‘place in the sun’; carefully balancing the power in Europe no longer looked so appealing. Thus Caprivi began to refocus the alliance and to look ever more at closer relations with Austria-Hungary. The Russian decision not to reissue the Reinsurance Treaty was created largely from his diplomatic inattention; it was tremendously contrary both to Germany’s immediate interests and her more long term goals. The policymakers of Austria-Hungary, however, remained pleased that their country still mattered in international affairs; the Dual Alliance was a sign that she was worth allying with at all. At this point the alliance began to favour the Austrians more than their Teutonic counterparts.
Though let it not be said that the story of this alliance was entirely one of German disadvantage and Austrian benefit. In the early 20th century there were examples of Austria-Hungary helping, or attempting to help, Germany achieve her wider aims. The most prominent is the 1906 Algeciras conference, in which Austria-Hungary was the only major power to back the German proposal for Morocco. (Morocco also supported Germany; but, to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, they would, wouldn’t they?) It was a token of support, but it came to naught; the French won a strategic victory, and Germany’s interests were certainly harmed by the experience. Indeed, German pursuit of her own interests was often directly contrary to the spirit of the Alliance – the 1903 ‘Pig War’ is a perfect example of this: Austria-Hungary attempted to place economic sanctions on Serbia, but Germany could not do without its Serbian porkers; Germany supported Austria’s enemy, and the commitment between the two nations was weakened somewhat. Similarly, German plans for a Berlin to Baghdad railway could be seen to be an example of Berlin prioritising her own economic interest over that of the alliance. At that time, the Dual Alliance benefitted Austria-Hungary most when both nations adhered to its principles; German backing in the 1908-9 Bosnia Crisis was essential in forcing the Russian government to stand down. (The Kaiser rather ruined the mood when he tactlessly referred to himself as a ‘knight in shining armour’ when in Vienna, but he was essentially correct.)
After that, the consolidation of this alliance helped to divide Europe into what increasingly resembled two armed camps. According to Christopher Clark, this diplomatic situation, which changed the geopolitics of Europe fundamentally, was one of the major causes of the First World War. This set up, which began to reflect a bipolar state of affairs, did not serve Germany’s long term interests of isolating France and avoiding the horror of encirclement; on the contrary, it forced France and Russia into an alliance of convenience, which only solidified bi-polarity. Austria-Hungary’s interests were still fairly well served; she was guaranteed protection against the aggression of Russia and its proxies, and her status was further enhanced by being seen as Germany’s partner. Germany was beginning to experience the pain of, in a commonly expressed sentiment of 1916, being ‘married to a corpse’.
The July Crisis represented the beginning of the destruction of both powers. Germany ended up with a war she neither wanted nor could win – the fearful ‘nightmare coalition’ of Bismarck’s deepest fears – and Austria-Hungary failed in her attempts both to pacify a southern neighbour and to remain extant. The rash German ‘blank cheque’ – itself a direct contradiction of Bismarckian Realpolitik – tied her to the vacillations of a dithering ally, one whose eventual decision to go to war in Serbia was prefaced by over four days of Russian military preparations, allowing the eastern giant to enter the war at the same time as France, thus confirming German fears of encirclement. It could also be argued that the blank cheque served the interests of neither power; the Austrians felt as if they had to make war on Serbia rather than to appear weak, and the Germans were confined by the alliance into offering support they did not wish to honour. There is an argument, made by Fritz Fischer in particular, that Germany wanted a war in 1914; the evidence for this includes the gung ho September Programme of 1914, but it is not terribly convincing. And even if Germany had wanted a war – and Austria-Hungary had served her interests in precipitating one – that does not diminish the spectre of defeat and destruction which hangs over the next four years. Short term Austrian interests were met (she needed support in order to justify going to war with Serbia), but Germany’s diplomats and civilian and military leaders – as described in Sean McMeekin’s July 1914 – were broken men by the end of the July Crisis. They knew that the coming war, one which involved Bismarck’s worst nightmare, brought the possibility of catastrophe closer than any of them had ever wanted.
It can therefore be observed that there was a change in the nature of this alliance over the period in question. While the initial alliance served the interests of both nations, the political demise of Bismarck precipitated a collapse of his intricate European system, which in turn led to German overdependence on her only remaining ally. Austria-Hungary was perfectly happy with this state of affairs, and her interests were consistently well-served by the alignment. But it left her overconfident when dealing with Balkan matters; this was the final – and ultimately devastating – effect of the alliance: it set in motion the mechanism which created two armed camps in Europe. This set the tone for increasing confrontation with France, Russia and latterly Britain, and it set the course from the powerful days of Bismarck’s diplomatic mastery, via the confinement of a particularly proscriptive alliance, to the ensuing European cataclysm.