The German-Austrian relationship and alliance was a central piece of the foreign policy of the newly created German Empire after 1871. That being said, the alliance was the beginning, not the endpoint, of German foreign policy thinking. As we have discussed, the central tenet of German policy in the decades after 1871 was flexibility and the prevention of alliances that would encircle the nation. In order to ensure that Germany would not step on too many toes, its Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had preferred to keep Germany out of the complicated affairs of colonial politics, which he saw as creating great tensions between the other European powers. For Bismarck, and thus for Germany when he was in charge, the central issue was always European balance of power—a balance that was tipping in a favorable direction for the new empire. But Bismarck’s hold on power was slipping and by the 1890s new thinking was guiding German foreign policy. In short, the new thinking posited that since Germany was a preeminent world power, it was entitled to all the trappings of power that the other powers had acquired. This meant power and influence beyond Europe. It meant controlling a network of far-flung territories in Asia and Africa. It meant sitting at the table of world affairs eye to eye with the French, British and Russians.
The assertion of German power on the world’s stage put it into direct conflict and tension with France, Russia, and England. The anti-Bismarck faction let the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia expire, setting the stage for France and Russia to seal an alliance. It bolstered its military readiness in response to this alliance. It alienated Britain by asserting itself into African colonial affairs and by dramatically increasing its naval budget with the stated purpose of challenging British hegemony at sea. Indeed, there was perhaps no greater sign of the shift in Germany policy than the massive naval expenditure bill, which passed the German Reichstag in 1898. The policy reflects the overall mood of an assertive, confident, perhaps even belligerent Germany, a mood summed up nicely by Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Bernhard von Bülow a year earlier in 1897. “The times,” he said, “when the German left the earth to one of his neighbors, the sea to other, and reserved for himself the heavens where pure philosophy reigns – these times are over. We don’t want to put anyone in the shadow, but we too demand our place in the sun.”