Bismarck's Egypt Policy

The Ulcer of the Orient

Germany was and is a welcome political and economic partner in the Arab world. But many political observers believe that German involvement in this region is inadequate. Could contemporary approaches learn from the example of Bismarck's policy on Egypt? Answers from Christian Horbach

Otto von Bismarck (photo: ullstein bild - adoc photos)
Founder of the German Empire: Otto von Bismarck was single-handedly responsible for drawing up the Empire's foreign policy from 1871 to 1890

​​ The Arab world has hosted a veritable flood of German politicians in the past few months. After Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle embarked upon his first trip to the Middle East, Chancellor Angela Merkel set out for the Gulf region. Such travel agendas give the impression that the Arab world plays a significant role for Germany with respect to political strategy.

But for some time now, increasing numbers of political analysts have been complaining that this is not the case at all. They are actually calling for enhanced German commitment – a commitment that is not entirely devoted to economic matters.

The subtext to this is often the fear that German influence on developments in this key political region will be marginalised. In this regard, the political scientist Eberhard Sandschneider from the German Council on Foreign Relations also recently criticised the lack of a German "strategic perspective" for the Gulf region.

There are at present good reasons for more intensive German political engagement with the Arab world, not least the desire of many Arab nations to see Germany step up its involvement. Germany still enjoys popularity in the Arab world, where it is viewed as a welcome partner. This is also due to the fact that Germany's colonial history does not include this part of the world.

Falling back on history

A second glimpse at the history books does however give rise to an interesting question: Is there an historic example of increased German political engagement in the Middle East?

photo: AP
Lacking a "strategic perspective": For some time now, political analysts have been calling for enhanced German involvement in the Middle East region. Pictured: Angela Merkel and Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

​​ There has only been a tangible German policy on the Middle East since Otto von Bismarck, the founder and first chancellor of the German Empire. Do those who espouse increased political pervasion of the Arab world perhaps hold him up as an example?

Analysis of Bismarck's policy on Egypt provides a clear illustration of how this leader viewed policy on the Middle East as a whole. But what course did Bismarck take with regard to Egypt, and what role did the nation on the Nile play in his overall foreign policy concept?

The framework is set

It was not only British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who viewed the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 as a massive threat to European equilibrium. Traditional European powers – England, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary – were opposed to any further expansion of this new power centre at the heart of Europe, and would have countered any attempts to increase that power by military means if necessary.

This stance established the framework within which German foreign policy had to manoeuvre. Bismarck, a man blessed with immense political talent, fully recognised what this entailed and as a consequence, asserted the dogma of the saturation of the German Empire like a mantra.

Map of Egypt (source: Wikipedia)
Egypt's geo-strategic location made it a coveted object of European imperialism. It was primarily England and France competing for greater influence in the nation on the Nile

​​ The fear of losing something that had just been won of course led to a renunciation of any German imperial designs – a restriction that was very painful for large sections of the population at the time. This naturally applied to Egypt too, particularly as this country was already involved with two major European powers, England and France – nations that were averse to the idea of yet another party meddling in the affairs of Egypt.

Not that Bismarck was especially bothered by the renunciation of any direct political activity in Egypt, because he was not pursuing a genuine political goal there.

Throughout his political career, Bismarck's Egypt policy was always defined by its detachment from domestic matters. In addition, German businesses were not prevalent in Egypt and as a result exerted little pressure on the Imperial Chancellor. It is questionable whether Bismarck would have yielded at all to any such pressure, as his primary concern was to utilise policy on Egypt to further his own interests. He summed up the situation very clearly himself when he said: "The Egyptian question presents us with a useful terrain for political operations, but it is not an object of those."

Colonial blackmail

Since Napoleon's attempt to capture Egypt in the year 1798, England and France had been waging a better battle for influence there, thereby offering up the potential for political point scoring. An opportunity that Bismarck was not going to pass up. According to what goal he was trying to fulfil at the time, he would sometimes side with the French, and other times with the English. When Bismarck played the Egypt trump card, however, it was primarily against England.

source: Wikipedia
Bismarck exploited the rivalry between France and England to further his own interests, and the German Chancellor was also not afraid to use blackmail. Battle of the Pyramids by Watteau (1798–1799)

​​ When the Imperial Chancellor deviated briefly from his foreign policy concept between the years 1885 and 1888, and removed all obstacles to German colonial activity, he knew the German Empire would be playing catch-up in this particular political area. It was clear to him that Germany would be putting itself on a collision course with the established powers, above all with colonial power number one, England.

And this is exactly what happened: the British kingdom obstructed German plans at every turn. Bismarck found a way to break through the blockade by using Egypt as a bargaining chip. The Imperial Chancellor and his son Herbert made it clear to English representatives on numerous occasions that if England made concessions with regard to German colonial ambitions, then Germany would not side with France.

It may have been nothing more elegant than blackmail, but it did actually yield some success. And for this reason is it absolutely legitimate to claim that Bismarck's policy on Egypt played a key role in the drawing up of German colonial policy

The ulcer of the Orient

So Bismarck attempted, within the framework of colonial policy, to utilise Egypt in the attainment of concrete political goals. But that was an exception. He was actually much more interested in something less tangible, and therefore much more important: he wanted, in his own words, to keep the "ulcers of the Orient" bleeding, or in other words to maintain the tensions between the powers involved in the Middle East region.

photo: AP
Financial interests were not an issue: Bismarck left the economic exploitation of Egypt to other powers. Pictured: the Suez Canal

​​ This was one of many aims set out by Bismarck in his famous Bad Kissingen Dictate of 1877, in which he wrote that the goal of German politics must be to bind the European powers on the periphery, to ensure that they are so preoccupied that they turn their attentions away from Germany. In addition, they should be placed in competition with one another to such an extent that the formation of an anti-German coalition would be impossible, so that the "cauchemar des coalitions", or "nightmare of coalitions" that pursued Bismarck throughout his life would never become a reality.

This was the primary goal of Bismarck's Egypt policy. For this reason, and at almost every opportunity, he encouraged England to get even more involved in the nation on the Nile; in the knowledge that any such enhanced activity would inevitably lead to conflict with France. And so it is not surprising to learn that it was above all Bismarck who persuaded the English to occupy Egypt in 1882.

Bismarck as an exemplary figure?

Bismarck's Egypt policy was never independent, but always part of the founder of the German Empire's overall foreign policy. Political involvement in Egypt was only interesting to him as far as it impacted on the European power constellation. He did not see any direct interests for Germany in Egypt. He actually viewed the country as nothing more than a redistribution mass that he could employ as he pursued his superior aims.

Burg Khalifa in Dubai (photo: AP)
Germany's Middle East policy still has much scope for development. But Christian Horbach says Bismarck is no model for increased engagement

​​ Bismarck handled his entire Middle East policy in the same way as he did in Egypt. The German Chancellor also maintained a certain distance to the Ottoman Empire, with which Germany enjoyed good relations. He had no intention of being pulled into this political "minefield", as he called it, but of course pushing other powers into it was one of his chief aims. In this sense, Egypt provides an example of how Bismarck conceived his policy on the Middle East.

So does Bismarck serve as a good example for those who call for greater political engagement by Germany in the Arab world? After all, he actively showed something of himself in his policy on Egypt, indeed he recognised the nation on the Nile's political and strategic significance for the German Empire.

But today's calls are for greater direct involvement in the Middle East. Bismarck only operated an indirect policy on the region, as direct engagement would have contradicted his concept of "free hand policy".

Bismarck's foreign policy was characterised not by direct activity, but self-imposed political abstinence on eastern territory. That categorically rules him out as an advocate of enhanced German political engagement in the Arab world.

Christian Horbach

© 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Redaktion: Lewis Gropp/

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