“At the heart of Europe – German foreign policy 200 years after Bismarck” – a speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Berlin secondary school “Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster”

04.03.2015 - Speech

Ms Thies-Böttcher,

Teachers, parents, friends and alumni of the Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster,

And above all, ladies and gentlemen of the student body!

Otto von Bismarck went to your school. Wow – it’s not every school that can boast alumni like that. Do current pupils have to give Bismarck’s likeness a reverential little bow when they pass it in the foyer?

Let’s take a look at what kind of pupil this Bismarck really was. He was good at the subjects he enjoyed, a lot less good at the rest and, above all, hard‑working when it really came down to it – i.e. just before exams. You could say he treated school work as a seasonal occupation. He certainly didn’t finish school with top grades. At the risk of getting evil looks from your teachers, I must say I kind of like the sound of him...

He made something of himself in the end, anyway! And the main thing is that, whatever his grades might have been, he definitely learned a lot. Bismarck could speak an astonishing number of languages, including Russian. History was his favourite subject from early on.

Incidentally, when Bismarck arrived here to do his last few years of school, he was probably just as much in awe of its honourable tradition as people are today. Back then, the school stood in the Klosterviertel district near Alexanderplatz. The oldest school in the city, this was where the Prussian elites were educated in the 18th and 19th centuries. Schadow and Schinkel were among its alumni, as were gymnastics icon Friedrich Jahn, who later taught here too, theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and historian Johann Droysen. Maybe that was all a bit much for Bismarck – he signed up to sit his final exams as soon as he could. He wanted to get back to Pomerania, to the family estate at Kniephof and his familiar childhood haunts. It’s hard to believe today, especially from a young person’s point of view, but Bismarck didn’t like Berlin! Throughout his life, he was to remain a stranger to this large city in an age of burgeoning industrialisation with its chaos, revolutions and a rising working class that demanded a voice – and by extension, if I may say so, a stranger to social democracy.


Bismarck’s portrait, by the way, hangs not only in your school; there’s one at my place of work as well. Every morning at 9 o’clock, the most high‑level staff of the Federal Foreign Office meet in the Bismarck Room to discuss the global situation. In GDR days, that was where the SED Central Committee used to meet, with pictures of Marx and Engels on the wall. Before that, the building housed the Reichsbank under the Nazis – you can guess whose portrait must have adorned the room back then. And now it’s Bismarck. As you can see, one single room can serve as a record of German history.

However, just because his picture’s on the wall doesn’t mean our foreign policy follows Bismarck’s example. Bismarck founded the Foreign Office, and having his picture up honours him for that, nothing more – and nothing less. I try to take a neutral view. I don’t see Bismarck as a hero, but nor do I see him as a villain. That kind of moralistic classification doesn’t help you analyse history, and it doesn’t help you make foreign policy either. And that’s just what I want to talk about today.


You can’t apply the lessons of history one to one; that would be naïve. But looking at history can help you see the present more clearly – and Bismarck certainly gives us a lot of material. Now you’re thinking, “Oh God, Steinmeier’s going to give us a history lesson.” Not to worry – my priority today is rather to show you a glimpse of Bismarck and his time as they look through the specs of the current Foreign Minister. Sometimes, you see, you can see your principles all the more clearly when you look at them in light of historical events.

The first principle I want to outline is this: an international order can only be built through cooperation. As Reich Chancellor, Bismarck pursued an extremely clever, careful and complex foreign policy with a network of alliances and treaties intended to safeguard Germany’s security. All that effort proved fruitless, however. Just a few years after Bismarck resigned, the German Reich was largely isolated. In the First World War, it fought against Britain, Russia, France and the US all at the same time. What had gone wrong?

One reason was that Bismarck’s foreign policy had always been underpinned by the idea of antagonism, never cooperation. Back in 1857, he said, “My ideal for foreign policy is that decisions should be independent of impressions of distaste or partiality with regard to foreign states or their rulers.” In other words, things like partnerships based on shared values will simply end up getting in the way of your own interests!

One tragic example can be seen in relations with our neighbour France. Under Bismarck, the German Reich annexed Alsace and Lorraine. Historian Volker Ulrich called the annexation Bismarck’s “worst mistake”, and it seems he was right. Whatever diplomatic efforts Germany may have undertaken, that great enmity with France built up and spilled over into the battlefields of the First World War. What came back in the other direction was just as fateful. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was revenge for 1871 and planted the seeds of the next war, namely World War II.

Only once that was over did we achieve what we had missed out on before: the establishment of a new, stable order whose stability rests on the fact it was constructed in cooperation and in pursuit of mutual interest. After the Second World War, Germany and France built Europe together, the winners and the losers working side by side. That shared Europe is now no longer an arena in which to play out power politics, like it was in Bismarck’s day, but a community of friends.

You feel the effects of that in everyday life. Class trips to Poland, school exchanges with Spain, weekends away with easyJet – all of these things are taken for granted now as part of normal life in Europe. This is a Europe of friends. And I feel it in my political routine too. My counterparts in France, Poland and Italy are no longer pieces on a chess board but genuine partners – unlike they were for Bismarck.


Does that mean today’s international order is perfect and we’ve solved Bismarck’s problem? Of course it doesn’t. In the Ukraine crisis, the question of war and peace has returned to the European continent. In annexing Crimea and intervening in eastern Ukraine, Russia is calling the peaceful order in Europe into question.

Russian politicians today emphasise how different their system is, painting things as “us versus the West”. I think that’s dangerously divisive. What I said before about Bismarck and his relations with our European neighbours applies here too. We need to find systems of order that are acceptable for all involved. There can only ever be long‑term security in Europe if Russia is made a part of it, not an opponent. And I’m constantly repeating the reverse to my Russian counterparts too, namely that Russia can only enjoy long‑term security if its works with, rather than against, Europe. So we must leave no stone unturned in our endeavour to find a place for Russia in a shared order. We Germans alone will not manage that. Rather, I see myself as continuing the tradition of Willy Brandt. His Ostpolitik was firmly anchored in the Western alliance, formed trusting relationships with our European neighbours and built on those foundations to seek mutual understanding with Russia.


The second principle I want to talk about concerns how we conduct foreign policy. I am convinced that the road to peaceful order lies not via power politics and confrontation but via cooperation.

In the diplomatic sphere, we call that the principle of multilateralism. It means having as many countries as possible agree on shared rules, mechanisms and institutionalised structures of cooperation – like the United Nations, NATO and the European Union.

Someone like Bismarck would have found that intolerable, because it would have put a limit on his sovereignty. He wouldn’t have been able to swap his alliance with Russia for an alliance with Britain at a moment’s notice. Bismarck based his thinking on the balance-of-power principle – that is to say, the idea that every country is pitted against all the rest, in a mixture of military and diplomatic confrontation, aided by a large number of alliances in constantly shifting constellations. But as we saw earlier, that kind of order isn’t particularly reliable. Bismarck himself once said, “People have no idea what the situation is. We are balancing in the tip of a lightening rod; if we lose this balance that I have managed to bring about, we will plummet.” And that’s exactly what happened. In accordance with the laws of balance-of-power politics, Germany eventually provoked an alliance against itself.


While we’re on this subject, I must mention a term that’s often associated with Bismarck and has been becoming quite fashionable lately: “realpolitik”. When people talk about Ukraine and Russia or the growing influence of China and other rising states, I sometimes hear them say things like, “Welcome back to the world of realpolitik!” I suggest we look at that a little more closely. What does “realpolitik” actually mean?

If it refers to the cold logic of power politics whereby the end justifies all possible means, then I’m glad to say we’ve moved on from that – and we shouldn’t go back to it either! Bismarck saw war as a means of pursuing foreign policy. Neither we nor the large alliances we belong to – EU, UN etc. – see it that way! Bismarck’s principle was that “The major crises are the weather that furthers Prussia’s growth thanks to the way we fearlessly, perhaps even very ruthlessly, make use of them”. Our principle, on the other hand, is that stormy weather ultimately helps no‑one. We prefer to rely on rules, cooperation and peaceful conflict resolution to prevent storms arising in the first place, if at all possible.


But there is another possible interpretation. If realpolitik means that we have to understand the realities of a situation first before we act, then I completely agree! Throughout his political career, Bismarck was an intelligent observer of reality and a shrewd analyst. In the great game of foreign policy, he had a keen sense of other players’ interests and mindsets. Such skills are still useful today. You will need those skills even more, for the world you are growing up in is increasingly complex, interconnected and dynamic. Only by understanding what’s really going on in the world will you be able to make it better. Or as a famous old SPD politician once put it very succinctly, “You have to take the world as you find it – but you mustn’t leave it that way.” If that’s an appeal for realpolitik, then I can only support it!


The last principle I want to talk about today is that foreign policy benefits from openness and legitimacy. There is a lot of public interest in foreign affairs these days – and rightly so! Foreign policy is the subject of lively debate, among you, at school, in newspapers, sometimes maybe at home. This, to my mind, is good and important.

Bismarck would never even have dreamed of justifying his actions to parliament, not to mention the public. His policy was based on secret treaties. Even his contemporaries saw that this wasn’t good. The First World War started because countries were watching one another like hawks, betting on what their opponents were going to do next. Everyone thought that whoever drew first would win. As a result, the July crisis in 1914 escalated disastrously, and within weeks a terrible war had broken out. That’s why US President Woodrow Wilson called for an “end to secret diplomacy” when the United States entered the war.

Add to that the fact that Bismarck pursued his foreign policy in an authoritarian state. What counted for him was not legitimacy but results. Even today, sadly, diplomacy is surrounded by a certain exclusive air of secrecy. The public are sceptical about many of the German Government’s foreign policy decisions, such as the mission in Afghanistan, support for TTIP or the supply of weapons to particular states. I believe that no democratic government can go against the population for long in the policies it pursues. But I don’t see that as a handicap! On the contrary, I see the public as a source of ideas and a critical reviewer of my policies.

That was why I launched a far‑reaching review of Germany’s foreign policy last year. We called it Review 2014. Not only myself but also our ambassadors and state secretaries appeared at more than 60 public events and debates with members of the public all over the country.

And we will continue to do so. After all, foreign policy means not only standing up for Germany’s position on the world stage but also discussing our role in the world and touching base at home. And I hope this won’t be the last time you all come into contact with foreign policy and the Federal Foreign Office!


It is impossible to summarise such an influential political life at the end of a short presentation. Bismarck played a major role in founding the German Empire – but it was an empire built on “blood and iron”, not democratic legitimacy. Bismarck helped shape the foreign policy architecture of Europe – but that architecture was unstable, dangerous and plagued by wars. Bismarck is one of those people whose influence still echoes down the years. It does so in many different ways, though one detail in particular resonates with me personally, probably the least known of everything I’ve mentioned today: the constituency Bismarck represented in the second chamber of the Prussian house of representatives is the same one I represent today in the German Bundestag, namely the beautiful Westhavelland. I would say in closing that while I certainly don’t take Bismarck as a role model, he is someone whose example can teach us a lot.

In case you’re now wondering if there is someone I do take as a role model, I’ll tell you this much: even more than Bismarck’s portrait in the directors’ meeting room, I like to look at the sculpture that stands in my own office at the Federal Foreign Office – and that’s a statue of Willy Brandt.

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