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Russia and Germany after 1871 ‘Russian-European Revolutionary Contest’ (1871-1914)

Source: Katehon by Michail Agursky

Even in 1818, Prussia, then liberal, was weighing the possibility of leading a crusade of liberal Europe against autocratic Russia. This idea was enthusiastically supported by Marx and Engels, but it was not carried out because no consensus was reached. The spell of Russian power was too strong.

The Crimean War and the resulting Russian defeat entirely changed the situation. As one U.S. historian, Barbara Jelavich, said, that war “was perhaps the most decisive single conflict of the entire period since Peter the Great, because it created the general conditions that ultimately brought about the national unification of central Europe and a radical change in the European balance.” Russia ceased being a military ogre after its humiliating defeat In 1855, a dismembering the Russian empire was proposed by France, according to which “the allies should call for a general uprising of the Russian subject nationalities in Finland, Poland and the Caucasus.”1 

This idea was rejected by England Contrary to its own proposal, France eventually concluded an agreement with Russia that lasted from 1856 to 1863. During that period and until 1871, France was the main protagonist on the European scene and initiated several extremely important revolutionary processes—encouraging, for example, the unification of Italy. The French-Russian agreement could not remain in force after 1863 because of a Polish uprising, which was Influenced by French foreign policy. Russia once again resorted to its traditional alliance with Prussia, which was stronger under Alexander II because he had married a Hessen-Darmstadt princess. The unification of Germany by Prussia enjoyed Russian support and would have been impossible without it. For Russia, this support was a blind policy that led to disastrous consequences since it helped to create Russia’s own mortal enemy.

Pan-Slavists criticized Russia’s foreign policy. Jelavich said these Pan-Slavists within the court “had deeply resented the place occupied by those of German nationality in the Russian army and bureaucracy.”2 Their favorite target of criticism was the Russian foreign ministry, but they remembered very well the lesson Nikolai I taught Yuri Samarin.

The year 1871 was defined as one of “pivotal change,” and this change was immediately felt in Russian-German relations. Bismarck himself did not want to alienate Russia because he wished to prevent a new Russian-French rapprochement He was also against any war, even a victorious war against Russia. He regarded Russia as indestructible and was afraid that if it were defeated, it would remain a natural and revengeful opponent of Germany, just as France was after its defeat in 1871.

However, it was Russia who had unwittingly initiated the first radical step toward a global military-political confrontation in Europe. Trying to take revenge for the humiliating defeat of the Crimean War and to maintain a consistent expansion into the Middle East, the Russian government launched in 1877 a war against Turkey on the pretext of liberating Slavs from the Ottoman yoke. Russian Fan-Slavism was to a large extent responsible for this war. Leading Pan-Slavists waged a frenetic campaign in favor of the liberation of Bulgaria, and the tsarist government gave in under the considerable pressure of Russian public opinion. Russia won this war, but Austria-Hungary was greatly disturbed by the strong potential challenge thus posed to Austrian hegemony over various Slav nations. Germany was also greatly concerned about the new wave of Russian invasion into Europe.

Roman Rosen'(1849-1922), a pro-German senior Russian diplomat of Baltic origin, regarded the Russo-Turkich War of 1877-1878 as the cornerstone of the future Russian-German confrontation. He said that 

in the seventies of last century began the preoccupation of our public opinion with the idea of the so-called tasks cut out for Russia in the [Middle) East in connection partly with the “Great Slav Idea,” partly with dreams of the conquest of Tsargrad (Constantinople) and the Straits.

The influence of this idea on the direction of our policy had, directly or Indirectly, the following consequences:

“It led to the war with Turkey in 1877-78, the outcome of which, aside from the satisfaction derived from having accomplished an act of disinterested magnanimity in the liberation of Bulgaria from the Turkish yoke, did not give the Russian people anything but disillusionment as to the results achieved at the cost of so much blood and treasure. And this disillusionment, in its turn, created most favourable conditions for the development of the germs of revolution sown by the internal enemies of Russia;

“It was the cause of the attribution to Russia of far-reaching plans in relation to the conquest of the Straits and the bugbear of ‘Pan-Slavism,’ at the same time intensifying the general suspicion with which her policy has always been regarded.”3

Indeed, Russian-German relations deteriorated aa a result of this war. First of all, Germany convened an international congress in Berlin that deprived Russia of almost all its gains in the war. Then Germany concluded a treaty with Austria-Hungary in 1879 that was intended to neutralize the Russian menace in Europe. It is interesting that later Stalin pointed to this treaty as a main starting point of World War I without mentioning the Russio-Turkish War as its historical background. Stalin said that

in that period, when everybody was talking about peace and the false bards were lauding Bismarck’s peaceful intentions, Germany and Austria concluded an agreement, an absolutely peaceful and absolutely pacifist agreement, which later served as one of the bases of the subsequent Imperialist war. I am speaking of the agreement between Austria and Germany in 1879. Against wham was that agreement directed? Against Russia and France. What did that agreement say? Listen:

“Whereas dose collaboration between Germany and Austria threatens nobody and Is calculated to consolidate peace in Europe on the principles laid down In the Berlin Treaty, their Majesties, Le., the two Sovereigns, have resolved to conclude a peace alliance and a mutual agreement.”

Do you hear: dose collaboration between Germany and Austria for the sake of peace in Europe. That agreement was treated as a “peace alliance,” nevertheless all historians agree that the agreement served as a direct preparation for the imperialist war of 1914.4

Stalin was given this view by nationalist-oriented Soviet-Russian historians, and it is interesting to see how two totally different, and in fact opposing, camps regarded the development of the Russian-German confrontation. Russian public opinion was indignant at German and Austrian behavior in this regard; Pan-Slavist tears were vindicated, and Pan-Slavist Influence increased.

After 1878 there was an obvious duality in Russian foreign policy, which was split between fear of Germany, and the natural wish to find allies against it, and the loyal links between the ruling Germanized dynasty and ruling Baltic Germans with the German court, which not only blunted Russian alertness but in fact led to the creation of a powerful German lobby. Although the Pan-Slavists believed in the basic rivalry of Russia and Germany, the Russian-German lobby tried to do its best to prevent this rivalry. The duality led eventually to catastrophe.

Another turning point in Russian-German relations was the ascent of Wilhelm II (1859-1941) to the throne of Germany in 1888. The Kaiser was a committed Prussian militarist who hated Slavs and believed in the fatal Teuton-Slav confrontation. Soon after his coronation, he refused to prolong the routine Russian-German treaty. The growing anxiety in Germany via- 4-vis Russia was partly connected with actual Russian policy and intentions, but in general it was geopolitical, and Russia was regarded by Germany as dangerous per se.

Two factors were responsible for Germany’s anxiety with regard to Russia. The first was the gradual deterioration of the Ottoman empire, which still had a considerable Slav population. Since Russia saw Itself as the main protector of the Slavs, Turkey’s dissolution could easily have encouraged the new Russian expansion, especially if one keeps in mind the perennial Russian quest to control the Strait of Bosporus. The new situation in the Balkans could have posed a serious threat for Austria-Hungary. The second important reason for this anxiety was the rapid demographic change in Austria-Hungary of the balance between Germans and Slavs, especially in Czech areas.During a short period of time, Germans became a minority in all Czech cities, which had previously been purely German. Moreover, Jews moved to the Czech side and accepted the Czech language. The assimilation of Czechs by Germans not only stopped but was reversed, and the threat of Slavization of Austria emerged. Eduard von Hartman (1842- 1906), a well-known German philosopher, forecast a Slavic Vienna in the twentieth century.6

Austria-Hungary was mortally threatened, and vital German Interests were at stake since the collapse of Austria-Hungary could automatically bring Russian influence, if not the Russian army, into the heart of Germany. The Russians were quick to react Alexander III (1845-1894), who ascended the throne in 1881 when Alexander II was assassinated and who was Russian nationalist oriented (he had married a Danish princess, not a German), began to seek an alliance with republican France, in spite of the dramatic differences between the two countries. He was influenced by the ober-procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907). It caused military hysteria in Germany in 1891 but fortunately did not lead to war. Alexander Ш said at that time: “In case of war between France and Germany, we must immediately throw ourselves on the Germans, in order not to give them time to defeat France at once and turn against us. We must correct the mistakes of the past and crush Germany at the first opportunity.”7

In 1892, Alexander III managed to sign a military pact with France in utmost secrecy. The Germany nightmare materialized: autocratic Russia allaying itself with republican France. Every step of one partner in the Russian-German conflict provoked the response of the other. Prussian militarists began large-scale diplomatic and military preparations for “the inevitable Teuton-Slav confrontation.”

In 1894, Alexander III, the only tsar who was more or less strongly Russian nationalist oriented, thed. Germany benefited highly from his death, since his place was taken by the very mediocre Nikolai II (1868-1918), who lacked the will and intelligence necessary for a statesman; not only that, his wife was a German princess with hysterical tendencies who influenced him to fall under the spell of a most bizarre mysticism. There were rumors that Alexander II had thed as the result of incorrect medical treatment given him by his team of doctors, among whom Germans predominated; these rumors acquired an anti-Semitic implication as the only Russian doctor on the team, Grigory Zakhar’in (1829-1897), was suspected of being a secret Jew.8

Nikolai II became an easy dupe of Wilhelm II. The latter was a skillful Machiavellian, far above the standard of such simpletons as Netchaev. Raising as a relative and a committed friend, Wilhelm II started a far-reaching and subversive policy toward Russia in the anticipation of a final battle, and he gave Nikolai II much diabolical advice. This policy had three aims. First, Germany wanted to seduce Russia into putting all its weight into the Far East in order to keep its forces occupied in that area and therefore make it more vulnerable in Europe.9 

The second aim of the policy was to attempt to alienate Russia from France and prevent at the same time any kind of Anglo-Russian alliance through a Russian-English confrontation in the Far East. To this end, one of the best tools was the fostering of anti-Semitism in Russia, since this bias was one of the main obstacles in both Russian- French and Russian-English relations. The more unpopular Russia was in Europe, the better the situation would be for Germany. The third policy aim was to support those revolutionary movements that would weaken Russia, especially national separatist movements.

The French ambassador to Russia in 1914-1917, Maurice Paleologue (1859- 1944), claimed that Germany launched its campaign to thrust Russia to the Far East in 1897.10 However, Germany started this policy almost immediately after the death of Alexander Ш. In 1895, Wilhelm II had sent Nikolai II a symbolic picture in which the European peoples were depicted as looking anxiously at a bloody glow emanating from the east, symbolized by Buddha. The caption read: “People of Europe! Defend your sacred property.”11 Taking into consideration that the Pan-Germanists never regarded Russians as Europeans, this was a clever trick.

After 1897, Wilhelm II brandished the threat of the “yellow peril” as an immediate danger and succeeded in involving Russia in several Chinese adventures. He also tried his best to persuade Nikolai II that Russia should be a dominating factor in the Pacific.12 On April 26, 1898, Wilhelm II told his diplomats that the deeper the Russians would involve themselves in Asia, the less active they would be in Europe.13

Serge Witte (1849-1915), Russia’s prime minister in 1905-1906, wrote in his memoirs, “There is no doubt that German diplomacy and the German emperor did their best to push Russia into the Far East adventure.”14 The German lobby used various justifications to gain this end. The Russian minister of internal affairs, Viatcheslav von Plehve (1846-1904), told Witte, for example, that Russia needed a quick and victorious war in order to prevent a revolution.15

Some Russian officials tried to resist the Russian drive to the Far East, but in vain. The same Witte, while minister of finance, had advanced in 1898 the thesis that China as it was constituted no direct threat to Russia and that “all Russian interests for many, many years must rest in a China which will remain as she is. It is only necessary to guard Chinese territorial integrity and sovereignty.”16 This reasonable idea was rejected, and as a result, Russia involved itself in war with Japan in 1904 and was humiliatingly defeated. Wilhelm II, who was constantly advising Russia not to make concessions to Japan, was at the same time secretly advising Japan to attack Russia.17 Germany could be very satisfied with the results of its policy. As Witte wrote, “The Manchurian war . . . passed the European conductor’s baton . . . into German hands.’’18

In 1912, when Wilhelm II met the new Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov (1860-1927), he immediately advised him to do everything necessary to prevent a new Japanese attack on Russia, and according to Wilhelm II, the only way to do this was to make China militarily powerful. (This was only ten to twelve years after he had himself warned of the “immediate threat” of China!) Sazonov was very surprised and told Wilhelm II what he had already been told in 1898 by Witte, namely, that Russia was vitally Interested in keeping the status quo in China, not in creating a new great power on the Russian frontier.19 Fortunately for Russia, its leaders had tried to improve relations with Japan after the defeat in 1905, and the country was not seduced into becoming involved in new adventures.

One can deduce that only his deep belief in Russian inferiority encouraged Wilhelm II to give such diabolical advice to the leaders of Russia. Germany took advantage of Russia’s weakness to impose on it a highly unfavorable trade agreement in 1904, 20 in 1905, Wilhelm II deliberately arranged a secret meeting with Nikolai II in the absence of the latter’s foreign minister, Vladimir Lamzdorf (1845-1907), and Prime Minister Witte and literally forced Nikolai to sign a treaty along the lines of the Russian-German military alliance. By the terms of this treaty, Russia would be obliged to come to Germany’s aid if the latter were attacked by a third party. Nikolai II signed this treaty in spite of the formal French-Russian military alliance; only after Lamzdorf and Witte intervened did Nikolai II withdraw his signature.21 This German attempt to destroy the French-Russian alliance was therefore a failure.

Another main German objective was to prevent any Anglo-Russian alliance. Militant Russian anti-Semitism, which was permitted and even encouraged by the government, was very beneficial to Germany. At the same time, Wilhelm II also tried to involve Russia in a confrontation with the United States. He gave “friendly’’ advice to Nikolai II to launch a trade war against the United States, which would also have made Russia more dependent on Germany.22 Not content with interfering with Russia’s alliances with the above countries, Germany also did its best to prevent any Polish- Russian reconciliation for two vital reasons: (1) not to encourage a new escalation of the Slav national-liberation movement in Austria-Hungary, which might follow an amelioration of Russian-Polish relations, and (2) not to encourage a Polish national-liberation movement in the German part of Poland.23

Meanwhile, there was extensive German and Austrian penetration into Russian political life. For example, Alois von Aerenthal (1854-1912), the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Russia who became foreign minister, was an intimate friend of the Russian state ombudsman, a Baltic German by the name of Petr Schwanebach (1846-1908), who supplied Aerenthal with classified political information. It is interesting that this same Aerenthal persuaded his friends in the Russian government not to give Russia any constitution,24 but one can easily understand his motivation. First of all, he was afraid of the implications such a step might hold for Austrian Slavs, and second, he thought that any liberalization of Russia would necessarily mean further Russian rapprochement with France, England, and the United States.

In 1908, there was a new crisis in Russian-German relations, once again because of the deterioration of the political situation in Turkey. In July of that year the Young Turks came to power, which had dangerous implications for Austria-Hungary. The latter had long occupied two Turkish Balkan provinces with Slav populations, Bosnia and Herzegovina, but had not had formal sovereignty over them. Afraid of an explosion of Russian-supported nationalist movements in those provinces, Austria-Hungary decided on a quick annexation—an act of despair that in its turn was a challenge to Russian prestige. Russian society was deeply split over the Bosnia and Herzegovina crisis, and the Russian liberal political opposition was decidedly anti-German and Pan-Slavist. Ardently nationalist in foreign policy affairs, it dreamed of Russian domination in the Balkans.25

The leading Russian liberal, Petr Struve (1870-1944), wrote in 1908 that “there is only one way to create the Great Russia: to channel all efforts to the area which indeed is accessible to the real influence of Russian culture. This area is all the basin of the Black Sea and more precisely, all the so-called Middle East.”26 Russian liberals supported Russian expansion in the Middle East without considering the implications of such a drive. Meanwhile, Russian conservative and right-wing circles were decidedly pro- German and did not want to intervene in Balkan affairs. To this day, one can talk of a clear polarization between Russian liberalism, with its Pan-Slavist imperialist inclinations and its orientation toward a dose alliance with England and France, and the pro-German right-wing circles, which preferred Russian expansion in Asia.

The “strongman” of Russia, Petr Stolypin (1862-1911), prime minister from 1906 until his death, came out decisively against Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was also firmly in favor of rapprochement with France and England. Though he was eager to maintain friendly relations with Germany as well, owing to his close connection with Russian nationalists, he anticipated the possibility that the pressure of public opinion would force Russia to enter into a military confrontation over the Balkan issue.27

However, when Russia tried to contest the annexation, Germany threatened Russia with a war for which it was not ready. The annexation was accomplished, and Russia was humiliated, which produced an explosion of indignation among Russian liberals who called for a war against Austria- Hungary in the Balkans. Meanwhile, Stolypin became the target of intensive hatred on the part of the German lobby, and German intelligence reports did not conceal an intensive dislike of Stolypin.28 For this reason, Germany gready benefited from the assassination of Stolypin in 1911.

The English ambassador to Russia during World War I, George Buchanan (1854-1924), wrote later that “his [Stolypin’s] death was an irreparable loss not only to his country but to ours; for had his life been spared and had he been at the head of his government when war broke out many of the disasters which have since befallen Russia would have been avoided.”29 In view of all the mystery that still surrounds Stolypin’s assassination, and in view of the explicit involvement in it of some high-ranking pro-German Russian officials due to criminal negligence,30 one can suggest that perhaps the German intelligence service was involved as well. 

The crisis over Bosnia and Herzegovina in fact caused the formation of blocs in Europe. Germany and Austria-Hungary were on the one side; Russia, France, and England on the other. Their confrontation was almost inevitable and only a matter of time If one takes into consideration the growing deterioration of the Ottoman empire, whose collapse would Invite Russian intervention against Austria-Hungary’s fight for survival.

Meanwhile, all German military, industrial, and political machinery was preparing for the total confrontation. Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916), the German chief of staff, “remains convinced that a European war is bound to come sooner or later and then it will, in the last resort, be a struggle between Teuton and Slav. . . . But the attack must come from the Slavs. Those who see this struggle approaching will be clear that it will call for the concentration of all forces, the utilization of all possibilities, and above all, complete understanding on the part of the people for the world-historic development.”31 On the eve of the war, Wilhelm II had written on a report submitted to him by the German ambassador to England that a European war is “not a question of high politics, but one of race … for what is at issue, is whether the Germanic race is to be or not to be in Europe.”32

According to a senior German diplomat, Matthias Erzberger (1875-1921), the main German goal was to shatter the Russian colossus. A German historian, Fritz Fisher, remarked that there were two threads in Germany’s aspirations in the East- “military-strategic and demographic-political considerations which produced the aim of limited direct annexations, while another school of thought aimed at weakening Russia generally by loosening its structure and dominating it economically, as a source of raw materials and as a market”33 A leading German industrialist, August Thyssen (1892-1926), demanded, for example, the annexation of all Baltic areas and, If possible, the Donets Basin, Odessa, the Crimea, and the Caucasus.34

Sergei Sazonov misunderstood the real background of German geopolitical thinking since he ignored the demographic changes in Europe that were seen as a threat by this obsessive thinking. He said, “Europe started to be reconciled with the thought of the inevitability of its transformation into a German tributary.”35 According to him, if Germany were satisfied with this recognition, it would already be the leading European state. However, Sazonov did not take into consideration the demographic changes in Austria- Hungary that could overthrow the existing balance of power. German political thinking demanded only one solution: absolute German superiority in order to stop dangerous processes in Europe.

Some Russian military warned their government that in the case of a European war, Russia would be helpless. For example, the Russian minister of war in 1898-1904, General Alexei Kuropatkin (1848-1925), submitted in 1900 a memorandum in which he said that “our western frontier, in the event of a European war, would be in such danger as has never been known in all the history of Russia.” “The difference is too enormous and leaves our neighbours a superiority which cannot be overcome by the numbers of our troops nor their courage.’’36


  1. B. Jelavich, St. Petersburg and Moscow (Bloomington, Ind., 1974), pp. 132, 128.
  2. Ibid., p. 133.
  3. R. Rosen, Forty Years of Diplomacy (London, 1922), 2:91-92.
  4. J. Stalin, Works (Moscow, 1952-1955; Stanford, Calif., 1967), 7:181. See also A. Erusalimsky, Vneshniaia politika i diplomada germanskogo imperializma (Moscow, 1948), pp. 32, 137.
  5. Cf H. Mommsen, The Sozialdemokratie und the Nationalitätenfrage im habsburgischen Vielvölkerstaat (Vienna, 1963), pp. 32-33. Cf also Erusalimsky, Vneshniaia politika, pp. 151-152.
  6. Ibid., p. 33.
  7. Jelavich, St Petersburg and Moscow, p. 215. On Fobedonoatsev, see R. Byrnes, Pobedonostsev (Bloomington, Ind., 1968).
  8. Y. Odlnizgoev, Sumerfci khristianstua (N.p., 1922), p. 95; A. Obolensky, “Mol vospominania,” Vozrozhdenie (Paris), no. 47 (1955), p. 81. Concerning Zakhar’in’s Jewish origin, see also S. Paleolog, Okolo vtosri (Belgrade, n.d.), p. 21.
  9. Erusalimsky, Vneshniaia polidka, p. 157.
  10. M. Paleologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs (London, 1923), 3:206.
  11. S. Oldenbourg, Last Tsar (Gulf Breeze, FUl, 1975-1978), 1:121.
  12. S. Witte, Vospominania (Moscow, I960), 2:225.
  13. Erusalimsky, Vneshniaia polidka, p. 527.
  14. Witte, Vospominania, 2:143-144.
  15. Ibid., p. 291.
  16. Ibid., pp. 45-46.
  17. Paleologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs, 3:205.
  18. Witte, Vospominania, 2:406.S. Sazonov, Vospominania (Paris, 1927), pp. 53-55.
  19. Witte, Vospominania, 2:299-320.
  20. Ibid., pp. 469-481.
  21. Ibid., p. 121.
  22. Sazonov, Vospommania, pp. 373-374.
  23. Witte, Vospom mania, 3:455—456.
  24. I. Beetuxhev, Bor’ba v Rossü po uoprasam vneshnei polidici (Moscow, 1961), p. 23.
  25. Ibid, p. 49.
  26. Ibid., p. 80.
  27. G. von Lambsdorff The militdrbevoUmAchdften Kotier Wilhelm II am Zar- enhofc 1904-1914 (Berlin, 1937), p. 278.
  28. G. Buchanan, My Mission to Russia (London, 1923), 1:161; see also M. Conroy, P. Sfoiypin (Boulder, Colo., 1976).
  29. Cf. A. Avrekh, Stolypin i treria duma (Moscow, 1968), p. 376; L Kliatchko, Povtsa proshlogo (Leningrad, 1930), pp. 35, 36, 124; and G. Aronson, Rossia nakanune reuolutsii (New York, 1962), p. 131.
  30. F. Fisher, Germany’s Aims in the Fins World War (London, 1967), p. 33.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid., pp. 109, 113.
  33. Ibid., p. 109.
  34. Sazonov, Vospominania, p. 272.
  35. Quoted front G. Alesdnsky, Modem Russia (London, 1913), p. 224.
  36. K. Leontiev, “Nashi novye khristiane (1882),” in Leontiev, Sobranie sotdiinenii (Moacow, 1912-1914), voL 8.