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Entangling Alliances

The colonization of Africa unfortunately coincided with a period in European history when each power was doing everything it could to enhance its European status. The English and French tried to hang on as Germany and even Russia tried to climb to the top of the heap. As the nations competed for land, power, and status, they often quietly arranged strategic alliances with other nations to get a leg up on more immediate rivals.

What resulted was a system of ridiculous treaties and alliances, jealousy and envy, and hurt feelings and egos, along with genuine military hostilities. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (see Chapter 18) often receives much of the credit as well as much of the blame for what developed. On the one hand, Bismarck helped defuse the ticking time bomb of Africa. On the other hand, Bismarck initiated a system of tricky networks and alliances that would not end well.

Ground Rules for the Land Grab

Perhaps the two most important early events in the scramble for Africa were the British occupation of Egypt and the Belgian affairs in the Congo. In the Congo, Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909) established his own private state by pretending to send a scientific team to explore the region. He actually had a company establish a colony that he later used to control the region.

Bismarck knew something had to be done to keep these shenanigans from happening again and to keep the European powers at peace while they gobbled up Africa. He called representatives from Germany, France, Britain, the United States, Austria- Hungary, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, and Sweden to a conference in Berlin. Known as the Kongkonferenz in German, or the Congo Conference, the meeting often is remembered as the Berlin Conference. The delegates assembled in Berlin in 1884 and 1885 to get some things straight about how they were going to carve up Africa.

Would You Believe?

The exploration of the terra incognita, or the last unknown and unmapped territory, of Africa's Congo River Basin in the 1870s by Sir Henry Morton Stanley led to Leopold's interest in the Congo.

The conference concluded in 1885, having resolved a number of issues. First, under the General Act of the Berlin Conference, the delegates agreed to allow Belgium to keep its state in the Congo. This was a huge success for the tiny Belgium. Second, the delegates agreed that free trade in Africa was in everyone’s best interest. Therefore, Africa was to be a free trade region and the Nile and Congo Rivers were declared free for shipping. As for the actual grabbing of land, the delegates agreed that a nation could claim land only if it possessed land. In other words, a nation’s representative could not land on the coast and claim the land from the coast to the African interior. A nation had to have settlements or colonies on the land to have a legitimate claim. Furthermore, once a nation claimed a piece of land, it had to officially notify all the other nations present at the conference. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the delegates agreed to prohibit the international slave trade.

Too Many Treaties, Allies, and Enemies

If Bismarck had not been bent on maintaining peace in Europe, things would have fallen apart on the continent much sooner. Bismarck created a powerful German state and was satisfied. Despite some land-grabbing in Africa, Germany had no desire to do as Napoleon had tried to do (see Chapter 15). Bismarck decided that the best policy for Germany, as well as for the rest of Europe, was for Germany to use its leverage to maintain peace on the continent.Bismarck planned to do this in a few ways. First, Bismarck wanted to prevent France from getting any crazy ideas about revenge for the Franco-Prussian War (see Chapter 18) and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. He also wanted France to have as few allies as possible. Second, Bismarck wanted to keep eastern Europe as stable as possible. Austria-Hungary and Russia had separate interests in the Balkans, especially with the Ottoman Empire fizzling out. Bismarck created the League of the Three Emperors in 1873 to accomplish both goals.

Things changed by 1879, and Austria and Russia were again at odds over the Balkans. At a conference in Berlin, Bismarck worked with Austria-Hungary to make sure they got the upper hand in the Balkan region. This infuriated the Russians. Just to be safe, Bismarck forged a military alliance with Austria against Russia. A few years later, Italy joined that alliance because of tensions with France; this alliance became known as the Triple Alliance. In 1881, Bismarck brought both Austria and Russia to their senses and all three signed a treaty forming the Alliance of the Three Emperors, kept secret from Europe. In 1887, Russia dropped out of the Alliance over issues in the Balkans. To keep his alliance with Russia, Bismarck worked a deal between Russia and Germany only.

For 20 years, Bismarck worked round the clock to keep peace in Europe through treaty after treaty. However, things took a bad turn in 1890. Kaiser Wilhelm II, also known as William II (1859-1941), dismissed Bismarck as chancellor; he hated Bismarck’s friendly relationship with the Russians and favored an expansionist foreign policy.

Define Your Terms

Kulturkampf means literally “culture fight"; this was Bismarck's attempt to reduce Catholic influence on German politics in the early 1870s. He eventually joined Catholics in a fight against socialism.  

Bismarck left a fascinating legacy. Despite his Kulturkampf attacks on the Church and other political opposition and his “blood and iron” style of getting things done, he deserves credit for unifying Germany for the first time and for maintaining a tenuous European peace after German unification. 

After Bismarck’s forced resignation, Wilhelm II refused to renew the alliance with Russia in 1890. France saw the chance to finally get an ally, so the French courted Russia. The two nations signed a treaty to remain allied as long as the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy remained intact. At this point, Europe stood divided into two sides. All eyes were on Britain, which remained uncommitted. No one really liked Britain at this point; the other nations resented the ever-expanding British Empire that sprawled across the globe. At the same time, nobody wanted Britain to be on the opposite side.

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