Germany’s Options in the First Moroccan Crisis
This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019. More information about the writing contest can be found here.
The German Empire was a latecomer to the “Scramble for Africa.” Looking for “a place under the sun,” the first Moroccan crisis in 1905-06 presented an opportunity for Germany to further its colonial ambitions and improve its position among Europe’s great powers.
The article is written from the point of view of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II. While representative of the competing views within the German government, the two options presented are somewhat stylized to draw a starker contrast.
Following the Franco-Prussian war and its unification in 1871, the German Empire was a latecomer to the “Scramble for Africa.” Only in 1890 did it adopt Weltpolitik, seeking possessions abroad and equal status among the European imperial powers. On a visit to Tangier in March 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II provoked a diplomatic spat by challenging France’s dominance in Morocco. As the crisis escalated, Germany called up reserve units and France moved troops to the German border. In early 1906, a conference in the southern Spanish town of Algeciras sought to resolve the dispute.
The Entente Cordiale of 1904, a series of agreements between Great Britain and France which saw a significant improvement in their relations, marked a major setback for German efforts, perfected during the Bismarckian period, to manipulate the European balance of power in Berlin’s favor. The Entente not only threatened Germany’s colonial ambitions, but also its predominant position on the European continent—a vital national security interest. The Algeciras conference presented an opportunity to fracture the Franco-British rapprochement. In hindsight, it arguably also offered the best off-ramp for Europe’s diplomats to avert locking in the alignment patterns that contributed to the unraveling of the European order only eight years later.
Option #1: Germany weakens the Entente by seeking closer relations with France (and Britain). This option required a constructive and conciliatory stance of Germany at Algeciras. (This option is associated with Hugo von Radolin, Germany’s Ambassador to France.)
Risk: Rebuffing French bilateral overtures, Germany had insisted that a conference settle the Moroccan issue from the beginning of the crisis. Appearing too compromising at Algeciras risked undermining German credibility and status as a great power determined to pursue legitimate colonial interests. Alignment with France (and Britain) also jeopardized Germany’s relations with the Russian and Austro-Hungarian monarchies and could further increase domestic pressure for democratic reform.
Gain: A successful pursuit of this option promised to alleviate Germany’s security dilemma, located between France to the west and Russia to the east, with the British navy threatening its sea lines of communication. This option would also reduce dependence on Austria-Hungary and Italy, who were seen by some as rather unreliable allies, and could eventually facilitate the emergence of a continental block—with France and Russia—against Britain’s maritime primacy. Moreover, this option could improve relations with the United States, a rising great power and increasingly important player in colonial affairs.
Option #2: Germany weakens the Entente by pressuring France. This required a bellicose negotiating stance and raising the specter of war to deter Britain from coming to France’s aid. (This option is associated with Friedrich von Holstein, the Political Secretary of the German Foreign Office.)
Risk: While consistent with Germany’s heretofore assertive opposition to France’s dominance in Morocco, leaning on France too hard at Algeciras risked escalating a peripheral diplomatic dispute to major war in Europe, for which public support was less than certain. It could also precipitate an arms race and alienate the other delegations, especially since Germany had already secured concessions from France, including the dismissal of a disliked foreign minister and the conference itself. Furthermore, it was uncertain whether even a total diplomatic victory for Germany at Algeciras could weaken the Franco-British rapprochement, as the status of the Entente itself was not part of the negotiations, or even strengthen their resolve in the face of German adversity.
Gain: Successfully pressuring France promised not only greater influence in colonial affairs in North Africa but also exposure of the hollowness of the Entente Cordiale. Without British support for either France or Russia—Britain had sided with Japan during the Russo-Japanese war—Germany’s position on the European continent would improve considerably, particularly since Russia and Germany had discussed a defense treaty the prior year. Separately dealing with the challenges at land and at sea would also make it easier for Germany to contest Britain’s maritime primacy at a convenient time, perhaps even with French support as the end of the Entente might reignite Franco-British competition. Domestically, humiliating France yet again could be expected to increase popular support for the Kaiser and the conservative elites.
Other Comments: Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow ultimately instructed their representatives at the conference to pursue Option #2.
With Britain, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United States siding with France, however, Germany was largely isolated and, at last, had to accept an unsatisfying settlement. Germany’s actions in 1905 and its combative posturing at the conference failed to fracture the Entente. To the contrary, rival blocks began to consolidate which severely limited the room for diplomatic maneuver in subsequent crises. Worsening tensions between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy (Triple Alliance) on the one side and Britain, France, and Russia (Triple Entente) on the other, ultimately led to the outbreak of general war in August 1914.
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 Anderson, E. N. (1930). The first Moroccan crisis, 1904-1906. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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 Jones, H. (2009). Algeciras revisited: European crisis and conference diplomacy, 16 January-7 April 1906 (EUI Working Paper MWP 2009/01). San Domenico di Fiesole, Italy: European University Institute.