Prince Bernhard von Bülow was born in Klein-Flottbeck on the lower Elbe in 1849. Bülow spent his formative years in the Prussian court before joining the diplomatic service in 1874. In June 1897 he was appointed state secretary at the German Foreign Ministry and it was in this position that he became well known among other European foreign ministers. They found Bülow to be a charming and plausible man as would befit a man who had spent years in the diplomatic service. But he could also be aggressive when it came to negotiations, especially if those negotiations revolved around what was best for Germany.


His primary desire was to keep Germany free from alliances. He did not want the nation’s hands tied to alliances as he believed that he would have little or no control or influence over other members of that alliance. In one sense this was prophetic as when the troubles between Austro-Hungary and Serbia started Germany’s influence was minimal. Austria declared war on Serbia; Russia came to the assistance of Serbia; fearing that France would fulfil her part in the Triple Entente Germany had to execute the Schlieffen Plan over an event she had no control over and one which actually did not directly threaten Germany. This is why Bülow wanted to remain free of binding alliances.


However, other nations viewed this distinct lack of faith in alliances (at a time when many of the other European powers were signing into them) as a sign that Bülow could not be trusted. This belief was further boosted when he turned down a projected alliance with Great Britain and lambasted Joseph Chamberlain in the Reichstag.


Bülow was also loyal to Wilhelm II, agreeing with the Kaiser on most issues – though the only time they clashed led to Bülow’s resignation.


Bülow achieved what was seen as his first success in 1898 when Germany annexed Kiaochow in the Far East. He was in office at a time when nationalism was enthusiastically embraced by many in Germany and especially in the Reichstag. Wilhelm II also wanted his country to epitomise greatness and Bülow was expected to push this with regards to foreign policy.


The only time Bülow fell out with the Kaiser came in 1908 when Wilhelm II gave an interview to the ‘Daily Telegraph’. Even though Wilhelm had checked out what to say and more especially what not to say during the interview, Bülow felt it was an unwise move as the emperor would have had no final say on how the newspaper presented what he said. Bülow expressed his opinion accordingly. This soured the relationship to such an extent that Bülow resigned in 1909 – some believe that he resigned before facing the humiliation of dismissal.


Bülow died in retirement in 1929.


December 2012