The First Moroccan Crisis is seen as one of the long term causes of World War One as it led to a breakdown in trust between the major European powers. Morocco became the centre of the world’s attention between 1905 and 1906 and the crisis clearly indicated that Germany’s relation with France was at best fragile.
In 1905 Morocco was one of the few African states not occupied by a European power. It had been ruled by Sultan Moulay al Hasan from 1873 to 1894 and he had carefully played off one European power against another to such an extent that in 1880 Morocco had been given what amounted to a guarantee of independence by the Madrid Convention. The Sultan was succeeded by Abdul Aziz who proved to be a weak ruler. He lost control over the Berber people in the Atlas Mountains and they fought to assert what they believed to be their rights. The Berbers were so successful that by 1903, Fez, the capital, was under attack and Aziz controlled only a small part of the country.
In 1899 France made its first claim to have control over Morocco. The French Foreign Minister of the day, Théophile Delcassé, made his own views very plain. In December 1900 and again in November 1901, Delcassé won the secret agreement of Italy that Morocco should come under the control of the French. However, the issue became public when Delcassé approached Spain over French claims to Morocco. The Spanish government insisted on informing the British government. With the matter now in the public domain, Delcassé formally approached the British government with his belief that France should take control over Morocco. The British government initially refused to support Delcassé but they changed their minds in April 1904 when the two governments agreed that France could have a mandate over Morocco as long as the French government publicly renounced any remaining interests in Egypt. In October 1904, Delcassé got the agreement of the Spanish government as well after offering Spain territories in the southwest of Morocco.
However, Delcassé had not got any agreement from one nation – Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II had publicly stated that Germany was only interested in having equal economic rights in Morocco. This was a view not shared by his chancellor, Prince von Bülow and the German Foreign Ministry. The Kaiser’s senior politicians were a lot more concerned that Wilhelm was about the projected expansion of French power in the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa. Von Bülow targeted the Sultan of Morocco – Abdul Aziz. He tried to encourage to Sultan to stand up to the French in an effort to appear a strong ruler to his people. In February 1905, Aziz gathered around him those Moroccan notables who still supported him. Aziz told them that he put his faith in Allah and his new-found German friendship in his stand against the French. In the same month a representative from France, Georges Saint-René Taillandier, told Aziz that the French had a programme of reform for Morocco and that it had the support of Spain, Italy and Great Britain. The German government then turned to the United States, which had also signed the 1880 Madrid Convention, and asked President Theodore Roosevelt for his opinion on the issue. Roosevelt said little and was non-committal. But this was interpreted differently by von Bülow who believed that Roosevelt had given his support to Germany in the matter. Bülow then decided to show Aziz that Germany was very much on his side. Wilhelm II was on a Mediterranean cruise holiday at the time. Bülow planned for the Kaiser to visit Tangier as part of his holiday. However, to von Bülow the visit was to have far more meaning than a mere visit. He saw it as a very visual demonstration of German support for Aziz.
In fact, Wilhelm II was not over-keen to visit Tangier as he believed that his life was in danger. He only actually visited the port once his head of security had personally visited the city and told him that such a visit was safe. Only then did Wilhelm land in Tangier. He rode to the German Legation where he addressed those who had assembled there – including the French. Wilhelm announced that he hoped Morocco would remain an independent state ruled over by Sultan Aziz. He also announced that Germany knew how to best safeguard her interests in Morocco and he expected everyone to recognise these interests and not threaten them. This remark was undoubtedly targeted at the French. It is known that the Kaiser was advised by his general staff that a pre-emptive attack on the French would be successful. However, Wilhelm’s politicians though otherwise and their wise advice prevailed.
The national press in France was horrified by these events as they had assumed that French control over Morocco was a formality. Delcassé also openly spoke out against the German move in Tangier and the comments made by the Kaiser. In London the government was also angered by the German move and made it known that Great Britain would not accept a German port in Morocco as it could too easily be turned into a full-blown naval port that would threaten Gibraltar. Edward VII made it known that he was angered by what he saw as a cheap but potentially dangerous publicity stunt by his nephew, Wilhelm, in Tangier. Edward assured Paris that the government there had the support of Great Britain.
In May 1905 it was agreed that an international conference should be held on Morocco. Delcassé resigned from the French government in protest as he believed that Germany was now calling the tune. He believed that the issue would end not with French control over Morocco but with a situation whereby Germany would gain some influence over the country, when in the past she had very little if any.
There was an agreement that a conference should take place but it appeared as if Germany had the upper hand in the affair as they were dealing with an inexperienced French Prime Minister, Maurice Rouvier and the more calculating Delcassé was no longer in the French government.
But this was not the case. Rouvier’s resolution was bolstered when he was given the support of Great Britain and America – Roosevelt stated that he would do nothing with regards to Morocco unless it first had the support of France. Italy also made it clear that they would do nothing unless it had the agreement of the French. Lord Lansdowne at the British Foreign Office gave the German ambassador in London a direct warning: that he could not give a guarantee how Great Britain would react if Germany attacked France. From a seeming position of strength, Germany was forced into negotiating with the French over the agenda for the conference. Germany also agreed to a pre-conference agreement: that Germany would recognise the “special interests” France had in Morocco and that Germany would not pursue anything that went against the “legitimate interests” of France in Morocco. Such an agreement could have been of great embarrassment to Bülow and could have deepened the problem as the more hard-line politicians in Berlin could have accused him of giving in to Paris and making Germany a laughing stock. However, it was glossed over when Roosevelt contacted Wilhelm II to congratulate him on his skilful handling of the crisis. Roosevelt knew that Wilhelm had a huge ego and if he was identified as the man who had brought both France and Germany together around a table he would ensure that von Bülow accepted the terms laid out even before the conference began. On July 8th 1905, Germany and France signed the pre-conference agreement. The conference itself was scheduled for January 1906 and was to be held in Algeciras.