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The Reinsurance Treaty, in effect 1887 to 1890, was a top secret agreement between Germany and Russia. Only a handful of top officials in Berlin and St. Petersburg knew of its existence. The treaty was a critical component of Bismarck's extremely complex and ingenious network of alliances and agreements, designed to keep the peace in Europe, and to maintain Germany's economic, diplomatic, and political dominance. The treaty provided that each party would remain neutral if the other became involved in a war with a third great power, though this would not apply if Germany attacked France or if Russia attacked Austria. Germany paid for Russian friendship by agreeing to the Russian sphere of influence in Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia (now part of southern Bulgaria) and by agreeing to support Russian action to keep the Black Sea as its own preserve. When the treaty was not renewed in 1890, a Franco-Russian alliance rapidly began to take shape.
It was set up after the German-Austrian-Russian Dreikaiserbund or League of the Three Emperors, collapsed in 1887. The League collapsed because of competition between Austria-Hungary and Russia (Alexander III) for spheres of influence in the Balkans. In early 1887, a Russian diplomat went to Berlin to propose a treaty whereby Russia would be a friendly neutral in case of a war between Germany and France, and in return Germany would recognize Russian dominance in Bulgaria, and promise friendly neutrality if Russia seized the Straits from the Ottoman Empire. Bismarck was a strong supporter, but Czar Alexander rejected the plan until he was convinced by his Foreign Minister Nikolay Girs that in the absence of French friendship, was the best Russia could do. Bismarck refused Russia's request that Germany would stay neutral if Russia went to war with Austria. explaining how Berlin had an ironclad Triple Alliance with Vienna.
Bismarck's long-term goal was peace in Europe, and that was threatened by the growing competition between Russia and Austria–Hungary for dominance over the Balkans, Bismarck felt that this agreement was essential to prevent a Russian alliance with France--it was always Bismarck's policy to keep France isolated diplomatically in order to avoid a two-front war with Germany fighting both France and Russia. Bismarck risked the expansion of the Russian sphere of influence toward the Mediterranean and diplomatic tensions with Vienna.
The treaty signed by Bismarck and the Russian Foreign Minister Nikolay Girs was in two parts
- Germany and Russia agreed to observe benevolent neutrality, should the other be involved in a war with a third country. If Germany attacked France or Russia attacked Austria-Hungary, this provision would not apply. In those cases, the distinguished bilateral alliances could come into effect. The Reinsurance Treaty only applied when France or Austria-Hungary were the aggressors.
- In the most secret completion protocol, Germany would declare neutrality in the event of a Russian intervention against the Ottoman control of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.
As part of Bismarck's system of "periphery diversion", the treaty was highly dependent on his prestige. When Bismarck was ousted from office in 1890, Russia asked for a renewal of the treaty. Germany refused. Bismarck's successor, Leo von Caprivi felt no need to mollify Russia. Germany's foreign policy establishment was unanimous in rejecting a renewal, because it contradicted so many other German positions with Austria, Britain, Romania, and Italy. For example, the Reinsurance Treaty contradicted the secret treaty of 1883 in which Germany and Austria promised to protect Romania. Russia knew nothing of that treaty. Kaiser Wilhelm II was still highly influential in foreign policy and believed his personal friendship with Tsar Alexander III would be sufficient to ensure further genial diplomatic ties. His higher priority was building better relationships with Great Britain. Anglo-Russian relations had long been strained by Russia's quest to take control of the Straits linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. London feared that Russian expansion to its south would threaten British colonial interests in the Middle East. France, desperate for an ally, report financial help to rebuild the Russian economy and successfully developed the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1894, ending French isolation. The dismissal of Bismarck, the erratic temper of Wilhelm II and the uncertain policy of the men who succeeded Bismarck were joint causes of a growing international instability.
In 1896 Bismarck, in retirement, caused a huge sensation when he revealed the existence of the treaty to a German newspaper. He blamed his successor Count Caprivi as responsible for the non-renewal in 1890. Bismarck said the failure of the treaty made it possible for France and Russia to draw together. Historians agree that the Reinsurance Treaty itself was not of great importance, but that its failure to be renewed marked the decisive turning point of Russia's movement away from Germany and toward France, and thus was one of the multiple causes of the First World War.
- A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918. (1954) pp 316-19.
- Norman Rich, Great power diplomacy, 1814-1914 (1992) p 230, 252
- Bury, J. P. T. (1968). The New Cambridge Modern History: The Shifting Balance of World Forces 1898–1945. XII (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 112.
- Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: a life (2012). pp 460-62.
- Rich, pp. 260-62, 317, 371.
- Eyck, Erich. Bismarck and the German empire (1968) pp 289-98.
- Rich, Norman. Great power diplomacy, 1814-1914 (1992) pp 244-62
- Taylor, A.J.P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918. (1954) pp 316-19.