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The Reinsurance Treaty, in effect from 1887 to 1890, was a top-secret diplomatic agreement between Germany and Russia. Only a handful of top officials in Berlin and St. Petersburg knew of its existence. The treaty played a critical role in Bismarck's extremely complex and ingenious network of alliances and agreements which aimed 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 (part of present-day southern Bulgaria) and by agreeing to support Russian action to keep the Black Sea as its own preserve. When Germany declined to renew the treaty in 1890, the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1891/1892 to 1917 rapidly began to take shape.
The Reinsurance Treaty originated after the German-Austrian-Russian Dreikaiserbund (League of the Three Emperors) lapsed in 1887. The League ended because of competition between Austria-Hungary and Russia (Emperor 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 were to seize the Straits from the Ottoman Empire. Bismarck strongly supported the idea, but Tsar Alexander rejected the plan until his Foreign Minister Nikolay Girs convinced him that - in the absence of French friendship - this was the best that Russia could do. Bismarck refused Russia's request that Germany stay neutral if Russia went to war with Austria, explaining that Berlin had an ironclad Triple Alliance with Vienna.
Bismarck had a long-term policy of preserving the peace in Europe, and the growing competition between Russia and Austria–Hungary for dominance over the Balkans threatened that peace. Bismarck felt that an agreement with Russia was essential to prevent a Russian alliance with France - he always had the policy of keeping 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 had two parts:
- Germany and Russia each agreed to observe benevolent neutrality should the other become involved in a war with a third country. If Germany attacked France or if 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 Kaiser Wilhelm II removed Bismarck 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 regard to 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, still highly influential in foreign policy, believed his personal friendship with Tsar Alexander III would suffice 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, offered 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[which?] agree that the Reinsurance Treaty itself was not of great importance, but that the failure to renew it 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 which broke out in 1914.
- 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.