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11-08-2015, 16:02

Tensions in Central and Western Europe

In central and western Europe, the great question of the era was the future role of Germany. United only since 1 87 1 , imperial Germany had rapidly emerged as the dominant industrial and military power on the continent. By the close of the century, leaders in Berlin were committed to play an equally great role in European naval affairs and in the world of empire outside Europe. This created a potentially explosive situation. As recently as 1 870, France had considered itself—and had been considered by others—the leading military power of Europe. Its defeat by Germany in 1 87 1 in the Franco-Prussian War meant a lasting antagonism, although one that would ebb and flow over the following decades. French acceptance of the new reality of power was unlikely. This was especially so since Germany's military superiority took geographic form in the seizure of the entire French province of Alsace and part of a second province, Lorraine. For Great Britain, concern over Germany came later. Germany's insistence on intervening in colonial issues, ranging from Samoa to South Africa to Latin America, challenged a pattern existing for more than a century in which Britain had the main voice in such matters. More immediate was the related German threat to Britain's control of the seas: by the start of the twentieth century, Germany was creating a first-class navy. The fleet was the most obvious and dramatic illustration of Germany's surging power in many spheres. Since 1870, the new country's industry had grown so rapidly that this part of Europe, which had supplied immigrants to the Western Hemisphere for more than a century, now imported labor from Poland. From higher education and scientific research to the develop merit of a system of social insurance for its working class, Germany could pride itself on being a world leader. Industrialists anxious to protect their maritime links to a world market and ambitious military leaders like Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, dreaming of a successful naval war against Great Britain, looked to German power on the sea. They found a crucial ally in Kaiser Wilhelm II. The embodiment and often the director of his nation's restless energies, Wilhelm saw the fleet serving several important functions. "The young German Reich needs institutions in which the unitary idea of a Reich is embodied. The navy is such an institution," he declared to Prime Minister Arthur Balfour of Britain in 1902.2 But he saw it as a tool of external power as well. Against countries like Britain, Germany's army could make no impression. As Wilhelm's leading biographer has put it, "Only with a fleet could Germany be able to elicit from the British the esteem Wilhelm II believed to be his due."^ Tirpitz aimed not at British esteem but at British subordination to a dominant Germany. The German fleet taking shape at Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven on the North Sea coast put its emphasis on battleships. These were the most powerful individual weapons of the time, and they were clearly designed to meet the British navy within the confines of the North Sea. Thus, the German navy intended to challenge Britain's control over the oceans, the lifeline of the island nation's existence.