Realizing the inability of maintaining friendly relations with both Austria and Russia after the Congress of Berlin (1878), Bismarck chose Austria to be his ally because Germany preferred a weaker partner which could be more easily controlled; Austria had racial ties with Germany; alliance with Russia would antagonize Britain as Britain did not like her colonial rival [Russia] to be supported by a strong power. On October 7, 1879, Bismarck made the Dual Alliance with Austria. After the signal of the Dual Alliance of 1879, Russia felt that she was betrayed. The relations between Russia and Germany were positively hostile between 1879 and 1881.
But then, Germany was able to patch things up with Russia for renewing the League in 1881 (the Second Dreikaiserbund). It was because the new Czar, Alexander III, was a reactionary and so there could not be an immediate friendship between autocratic Russia and democratic France. Conscious of the isolation of her country, the new Czar sought to avoid any estrangement with any power, readily consented to renew the League and maintain the friendship with Germany.
Though the Bulgarian crisis led to the breakdown of the second Dreikaiserbund for Germany supported Austria to against Russia in a military clash, Bismarck was able to secure Russian friendship by a new treaty as Russia’s diplomatic isolation in Europe forced Alexander to sign the treaty with Germany. The result was the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 and it was signed without the knowledge of Austria.
At this stage (1871-1890), under Bismarck’s diplomatic skill and favorable circumstances, Germany was merely able to maintain the friendship with Russia. However, after the downfall of Bismarck, the relations between Germany and Russia gradually turned into hostility without any repair due to the blunders of the Kaiser William II.
The first blunder made by William II was the abandonment of Russian link. He was much influenced by Holstein, who was anti-Russian, German foreign policy now aimed at friendship with Austria and because William disliked the complexity of Bismarck’s alliances a more open style of diplomacy was attempted. In 1890, Germany was surprisingly rejected the Russia’s proposal of the renewal of the Reinsurance Treaty for six years. There was the estrangement of Russia from Germany. They were not on the friendly terms at all. The Kaiser’s policy then, aroused the suspicion and fear of both France and Russia. This led to a Franco-Russian rapprochement and brought the signing of a military convention (The Franco-Russian Alliance). From then on, the relationship between Russia and Germany started to become hostile, finally leading to a direct war.
Another conflict between the two was concerning nationalism. Nationalism in the 19th century had reached its climax. The primary movements were Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism. The Pan-German Movement aimed at uniting all the Germans of Central Europe under one great German state. Since the 1890s, the idea was spread quickly by the Pan-German League and gradually became a belief in the racial superiority of the Germans and the right of Germany to annex weaker neighbors. This clashed with Russia’s Pan-Slav Movement right from the beginning and created friction between the two countries. Pan-Slavism was a movement to bring all Slavic nations under Russian leadership. The Pan-Slav Movement emphasized by Russia was founded on the theory that all Slavs of Eastern Europe constituted one great family and that Russia, being the greatest Slav country, should be their guide and protector. So when Russia backed Serbia in her quarrel with Austria in 1914, German proclaimed her support for Austria, a German nation.
Russo-German relation was further worsened due to their economic rivalry and armament race. Worse still, Russia made the alliance with France and Britain by the signing of the Triple Entente. Russia’s plan to acquire the Ottoman Empire’s lands in Europe aroused the jealousy of Germany since Germany wanted to obtain trading privileges in the Ottoman Empire, too. For this reason, Germany wanted to build the Berlin-Baghdad Railway. Russia opposed the railway scheme because it conflicted with her territorial ambition to the Middle East frontiers. Since Britain also opposed the Berlin-Baghdad project of Germany, the Triple Entente was signed in 1907. In this way, Germany and Russia were in two opposing military camps (the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente). Furthermore, before 1914, the speed in the build-up of armies grew alarmingly. The unrivaled German army was increased by 120,000 men. In response, Russia lengthened the time of compulsory military service. Thus, the Russian army increased by 135,000 men and the period of army service was increased by three months. Germany had the power in following a policy of militarism since the late 19th century. None of the other powers dared to withdraw from the armament race for fear of being overcome by the others.
The Eastern Question of the Bosnian Crisis (1908) brought Russo-German relation to be tense because Germany supported Austria to against Serbia which was supported Russia. In 1907, an open conflict erupted between Russia and Germany. The conflict was over the Young Turk Revolution in Turkey. Austria made use of the opportunity to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina. This angered Serbia because Serbia had hoped to unite with the two provinces and Montenegro to form a large Slavic state. The Serbs appealed to Russia for help. Russia threatened to go to war to support them. Germany then stepped in and warned Russia that Germany would support Austria. Up to this stage, Germany had become the enemy of Russia.
After the Balkan War, both Germany and Austria were worried at the way in which the military balance of power appeared to be turning against them, particularly Russia and Serbia, were growing militarily stronger and stronger month by month. Austria was determined to crush Serbia before she become too powerful. William II declared that he would support Austria whenever she needed help. Moreover, the Russian Czar felt that Russia had suffered a diplomatic defeat because she could not obtain Albania for Serbia due to Austrian insistence. In order to recover her lost prestige in the Balkans, the Czar declared in February 1914, ‘For Serbia, we shall do everything.’ Therefore, Germany firmly stood on the Austrian side while Russia determined to fully supported Serbia. As the most important result of the Balkan Wars was the intensifying of bad relations between Austria and Serbia, this caused the relations between Germany and Russia to be more and more hostile indirectly.
After the Sarajevo Assassination broke out in 1914, Germany was truly at war with Russia. During this event, Russia openly declared that she would not tolerate the destruction of Serbia as it was an independent state in the Balkans and Serbia had the right to have her territorial integrity. It also implied that Russia would help defend Serbia if Austria started a war on Serbia. Germany backed up Austria by issuing a “blank cheque” to Austria due to their close relations while Russia helped Serbia also for the same reason. Serbia was the only state in the Balkans which was willing to be subservient to Russian influence, and the Russian government could not afford the loss or destruction of the Russo-Serbian friendship. On 30th July, Russia declared the general mobilization. By then, Germany had no choice but to follow the Schlieffen Plan of 1905 to declare war on Russia on 1st August, 1914. The First World War broke out.
To conclude, with the presence of Bismarck (1871-1890), though there were a few conflicts between Germany and Russia, they could immediately be settled by Bismarck, and maintained their friendship. But since William II refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty in 1890, the Russo-German relation was turned into an irremediable situation. Russia allied with Britain and France and got rid of the fear of being isolated. Worse still, the relations between Serbia and Austria became more and more hostile over the Eastern Question. This obliquely worsened the Russo-German relation because Serbia was backed by Russia while Austria was supported by Germany. Consequently, Germany and Russia fought against each other in the First World War in 1914.