Otto von Bismarck

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Otto von Bismarck

Order: 1st Chancellor of Germany
Term of Office: 18711890
Successor: Count Leo von Caprivi
Date of Birth: 1 April 1815
Date of Death: 30 July 1898
Profession: Statesman

Count Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg (April 1, 1815July 30, 1898) was one of the most prominent European aristocrats and statesmen of the nineteenth century. As Prime Minister of Prussia from 1862 to 1890, he engineered the unification of the numerous states of Germany. From 1867 on, he additionally was Chancellor of the North German Confederation. The latter was enlarged in 1871 to the German Empire, as the first Chancellor of which Bismarck served until 1890. He is nicknamed the Iron Chancellor.

He was Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen (Count Bismarck-Schönhausen) in 1865, then since 1871 Fürst von Bismarck (Prince Bismarck) and since 1890 the Herzog von Lauenburg (Duke of Lauenburg). The ducal title, which he received upon his dismissal from office, he refused initially only to later accept.

A Junker, Bismarck held deep conservative, monarchist and aristocratic views. His most significant policy objective was that of securing German unification; he took advantage of skillful diplomacy and a series of wars to achieve this goal. In the area of domestic policies, Bismarck mainly but unsuccessfully combated the Catholic Church in the Kulturkampf. In addition he didn't succeed in fighting the labour movements with his Sozialistengesetze; to satisfy the working class, however, he enacted many social reforms, marking the beginning of the social welfare legislation in Germany. In foreign affairs, opposed to his previous "Blood and Iron" policies before the unification, Bismarck pursued the goal of uniting Germany under Prussia's leadership, and as "honest broker" securing the German Empire's position by maintaining peace in Europe with a complicated system of alliances. After his dismissal by Wilhelm II the course of the German Empire became imperialistic.



Early life

Bismarck, in 1836.
Bismarck, in 1836.

Bismarck was born at Schönhausen, his family's estate in the Prussian Province of Saxony (now Saxony-Anhalt). Bismarck's family had belonged to the nobility since the fourteenth century; from his birth, he held the title Graf (Count). His father, Ferdinand von Bismarck, was a landowner and a former Prussian military officer; his mother, Wilhelmine Mencken, originally belonged to a well-off commoner family. Otto von Bismarck had several siblings, but only an elder brother (Bernhard) and a younger sister (Malvina) survived into adulthood.

Otto von Bismarck was educated at the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium and the Grauen Kloster Gymnasium. Thereafter, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Georg August University of Göttingen, where he spent only a year as a member of the Corps Hannovera before enroling in the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin. Desirous of joining the civil service, he studied law; despite devoting little time to study, he passed his examinations in 1835. Although he hoped to become a diplomat, he could only obtain minor administrative positions in Aachen and Potsdam. As his work proved monotonous and uninteresting, he soon resigned as a civil servant.

Upon his mother's demise in 1839, Bismarck took over the management of his family's estates in Pomerania. About eight years later, he returned to Schönhausen, where he became engaged in local politics. He married the noblewoman Johanna von Puttkamer in 1847. Like Puttkamer, he became a Pietist Lutheran. Their long and happy marriage produced one daughter (Marie) and two sons (Herbert and Wilhelm), all of whom survived into adulthood.

Early political career

In the year of his marriage, Bismarck was chosen as a representative to the newly created Prussian legislature, the Vereinigter Landtag. There, he gained a reputation as a royalist and reactionary politician; he openly advocated the idea that the monarch had a divine right to rule.

In March of the next year, Prussia faced a revolution (one of the Revolutions of 1848 which shook many European nations), which completely overwhelmed King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The monarch, though initially inclined to use armed forces to suppress the rebellion, ultimately succumbed to the revolutionary movement. He offered numerous concessions to the liberals: he promised to promulgate a constitution, agreed that Prussia and other German states should merge into a single nation, and appointed a liberal, Ludolf Camphausen, as Minister-President. The liberal victory, however, was short-lived; it perished by the end of the year 1848. The movement became weak due to fighting between internal factions, whilst the conservatives regrouped, gained the support of the King, and retook control of Berlin. Although a constitution was still granted, its provisions fell far short of the demands of the revolutionaries.

In 1849, Bismarck was elected to the Landtag, the lower house of the new Prussian legislature. At this stage in his career, he opposed the unification of Germany, arguing that Prussia would lose its independence in the process. He accepted his appointment as one of Prussia's representatives at the Erfurt Parliament, an assembly of German states that met to discuss plans for union, but only in order to oppose that body's proposals more effectively. The Parliament, in any event, failed to bring about unification, for it lacked the support of the two most important German states, Prussia and Austria.

In 1852, Friedrich Wilhelm appointed Bismarck as Prussia's envoy to the diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt. His eight years in Frankfurt were marked by changes in his political opinions. No longer under the influence of his ultraconservative Prussian friends, Bismarck became less reactionary and more moderate. He became convinced that Prussia would have to ally itself with other German states in order to countervail Austria's growing influence. Thus, he grew more accepting of the notion of a united German nation.

In 1854, Friedrich Wilhelm IV suffered a stroke that left him paralysed and mentally disabled. His brother, Wilhelm, took over the government of the realm as Regent. Shortly thereafter, Bismarck was replaced as the Prussian envoy in Frankfurt; he was instead made Prussia's ambassador to Russia. He stayed in St. Petersburg for four years, during which time he befriended his future adversary, the Russian Prince Gorchakov. In June 1862, he was sent to Paris, so that he could serve as the Prussian ambassador to France. Despite his lengthy stay abroad, Bismarck was not entirely detached from German domestic affairs; he remained well-informed due to his friendship with Albrecht von Roon, the Minister of War.

Minister-President of Prussia

The Regent became King Wilhelm I upon his brother's death in 1861. The new monarch was often in conflict with the increasingly liberal Prussian Diet. A crisis arose in 1862, when the Diet refused to authorise funding for a proposed re-organisation of the army. The King's ministers were unable to convince legislators to pass the budget, and the King was unwilling to capitulate, so the deadlock continued. Wilhelm believed that Bismarck was the only politician capable of handling the crisis, but was ambivalent about appointing a man who demanded unfettered control over foreign affairs. When, in September 1862, the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Deputies) overwhelmingly rejected the proposed budget, Wilhelm was forced to recall Bismarck to Prussia. On 23 September 1862, Wilhelm appointed Bismarck Minister-President and Foreign Minister.

Bismarck had little respect for parliamentary democracy. He was intent on maintaining royal supremacy by ending the budget deadlock in the King's favour, even if he had to use extralegal means to do so. He contended that, since the Constitution did not provide for cases in which legislators failed to approve a budget, he could merely apply the previous year's budget. Thus, on the basis of the budget of 1861, tax collection continued for four years.

Bismarck's conflict with the legislators grew more heated during the following years. In 1863, the House of Deputies passed a resolution declaring that it could no longer come to terms with Bismarck; in response, the King dissolved the Diet, accusing it of trying to obtain unconstitutional control over the ministry. Bismarck then issued an edict restricting the freedom of the press; this policy even gained the public opposition of the Crown Prince, Friedrich Wilhelm (the future King Friedrich III). Despite attempts to silence critics, however, Bismarck remained a largely unpopular politician. His supporters fared poorly in the elections of October 1863, in which a liberal coalition (whose primary member was the Progressive Party, or Fortschrittspartei) won over two-thirds of the seats in the House of Deputies.

Notwithstanding unpopularity and numerous conflicts with the Diet, Bismarck retained power because he had the support of the King. Wilhelm I feared that if he dismissed Bismarck, a liberal ministry would follow; thus, he did not dismiss the Minister-President, despite the repeated calls of the House of Deputies.

The Defeat of Denmark and Austria

Before unification, Germany consisted of a multitude of principalities loosely bound together as members of the German Confederation. Bismarck played a crucial role in uniting most of the Confederation's members into a single country. In his first speech as Minister-President, he had referred to the issue of German unfication in a now famous remark: "the great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and the resolutions of majorities — that was the great mistake from 1848 to 1849 — but by iron and blood." Bismarck used both diplomacy and the Prussian military in order to achieve the objective of German unification. He excluded Austria from unified Germany, for he sought to make Prussia the most powerful and dominant component of the nation.

Bismarck faced a diplomatic crisis when King Frederick VII of Denmark died in November 1863. Succession to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein was disputed; they were claimed by Christian IX (Frederick VII's heir as King) and by Frederick von Augustenburg (a German duke). Prussian public opinion strongly favoured Augustenburg's claim; however, Bismarck took an unpopular step by insisting that the territories legally belonged to the Danish monarch under the London Protocols signed a decade earlier. Nonetheless, Bismarck did denounce Christian's decision to annex the duchy of Schleswig to the Denmark proper. With support from Austria, he issued an ultimatum for Christian IX to return Schleswig to its former status; when the Danes refused, Austria and Prussia invaded, commencing the Second War of Schleswig. As a result of the German victory, Denmark was forced to cede both duchies. Originally, it was proposed that the Diet of the German Confederation (in which all the states of Germany were represented) determine the fate of the duchies; however, before this scheme could be effected, Bismarck induced Austria to agree to the Gastein Convention. Under this agreement, Prussia received Schleswig, while Holstein went to the Austrians.

In 1866, Austria reneged on its prior agreement with Prussia by demanding that the Diet of the German Confederation determine the Schleswig-Holstein issue. Bismarck used Austria's demand as an excuse; charging that the Austrians had violated the Convention of Gastein, he sent Prussian troops to occupy Holstein. Provoked, Austria called for the aid of other German states, who quickly became involved in the Austro-Prussian War. Prussia quickly defeated Austria and its allies, deciding the conflict with a crushing victory at the Battle of Königgrätz. As a result of the Treaty of Prague, the German Confederation was dissolved; Prussia annexed Schleswig, Holstein, Frankfurt, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, and Nassau; and Austria promised not to intervene in German affairs. To solidify Prussian hegemony, Prussia and several other North German states joined the North German Confederation in 1867; King Wilhelm I served as its President, and Bismarck as its Chancellor.

Military success brought Bismarck tremendous political support in Prussia. In the elections to the House of Deputies held in 1866, the liberals suffered a major defeat, losing their large majority. The new, largely conservative House was on much better terms with Bismarck than previous bodies; at the Minister-President's request, it retroactively approved the budgets of the past four years, which had been implemented without parliamentary consent.

The Establishment of the German Empire

Prussia's victory over Austria increased tensions with France. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, feared that a powerful Prussia would upset the balance of power in Europe. Bismarck, at the same time, sought war with France; he believed that if the German states perceived France as the aggressor, they would unite behind the King of Prussia. A suitable premise for war arose in 1870, when the German Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was offered the Spanish throne, which had been vacant since a revolution in 1868. The French not only blocked the candidacy, but also demanded assurances that no member of the House of Hohenzollern become King of Spain. Bismarck then published the inflammatory Ems Dispatch, an altered version of a conversation between King Wilhelm and the French ambassador. The publication was intended to provoke France into declaring war on Prussia.

Wilhelm I was crowned German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France.
Wilhelm I was crowned German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France.

The Ems Dispatch had the desired effect. France declared war, but was seen as the aggressor; as a result, German states, swept up by nationalism and patriotic zeal, rallied to Prussia's side. The Franco-Prussian War (1870) was a great success for Prussia; the enemy was utterly crushed. France was forced to pay a large indemnity; moreover, it surrendered the territories of Alsace-Lorraine.

Bismarck decided to act immediately to secure the unification of Germany. He opened negotiations with representatives of southern German states, offering special concessions if they were to acquiesce to unification. The negotiations were successful; King Wilhelm was crowned "German Emperor" on 18 January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles (thereby further humiliating France). The new German Empire was a federal one: each of its twenty-five constituent states (kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free cities) retained its autonomy. The King of Prussia, as Emperor, was not sovereign over the entirety of Germany; he was only primus inter pares, or first amongst equals.

Chancellor of the German Empire

Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor of Germany in 1871.
Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor of Germany in 1871.

Otto von Bismarck, until 1871 a Graf (Count), was raised to the rank of Fürst (Prince). He was also appointed Chancellor of the German Empire, but retained his Prussian offices (including those of Minister-President and Foreign Minister); thus, he held almost complete control of both domestic and foreign policy. The office of Minister-President of Prussia was temporarily separated from that of Chancellor in 1873, when Albrecht von Roon was appointed to the former office. By the end of the year, however, Roon resigned due to ill health, and Bismarck once again became Minister-President.

In the following years, one of Bismarck's primary political objectives was the reduction of the influence of Roman Catholics in Germany. Prussia and most other northern German states were predominantly Protestant; however, many Catholics lived in the southern German states (especially Bavaria). Bismarck believed that the Roman Catholic Church held too much political power; moreover, he was concerned about the emergence of the Catholic Centre Party (organised in 1870). Accordingly, he began an anti-Catholic campaign known as the Kulturkampf. In 1871, the Catholic Department of the Prussian Ministry of Culture was abolished, and in 1872, the Jesuits were expelled from Germany. More severe laws passed in 1873 allowed the government to supervise the education of the clergy, and curtailed the disciplinary powers of the Church. In 1875, civil ceremonies were required for weddings, which could hitherto be performed in churches. These efforts, however, only strengthened the Catholic Centre Party. Largely unsuccessful, Bismarck abandoned the Kulturkampf in 1878.

The Kulturkampf won Bismarck a new supporter in the secular National Liberal Party. The National Liberals were Bismarck's chief allies in the Reichstag until the end of the Kulturkampf. In 1879, however, a dispute over protectionism ended the close ties. Germany, and much of the rest of Europe, had endured the Long Depression since the crash of the Vienna Stock Exchange in 1873. To aid faltering industries, the Chancellor decided to abandon free trade and establish protectionist tariffs; by doing so, however, he alienated the National Liberals. The party, however, could not continue to hold power; it had suffered drastic losses in the 1877 elections, and was hopelessly divided between moderate and liberal wings. Bismarck, on the other hand, returned to conservative factions — including the Centre Party — for support.

Bismarck was also worried about the growth of the socialist movement — in particular, that of the Social Democratic Party. In 1878, he instituted a variety of anti-socialist measures. Socialist organizations and meetings were forbidden, as was the circulation of socialist literature. Moreover, socialist leaders were arrested and tried by police courts. Despite these efforts, the movement continued to gain supporters. Although socialist organisations were forbidden, socialists could still gain seats in the Reichstag; under the German Constitution, candidates could run independently, unaffiliated with any party. The strength of the socialists in the Reichstag continued to grow steadily despite Bismarck's measures.

The Chancellor, then, adopted a different approach to tackling socialism. In order to appease the working class — and thereby reduce socialism's appeal to the public — he enacted a variety of paternalistic social reforms. The year 1883 saw the passage of the Health Insurance Act, which entitled workers to health insurance; the worker paid two-thirds, and the employer one-third, of the premiums. Accident insurance was provided in 1884, whilst old age pensions and disability insurance were established in 1889. Other laws restricted the employment of women and children. These efforts, however, were not entirely successful; the working class largely remained unreconciled with Bismarck's conservative government.

Non-German minorities such as Danish, Frenchmen and Poles under Bismarck were discriminated as Enemies of the Empire. He particulary hated the Poles; in his private correspondence he compared them to wolves that needed to be exterminated. This attitude led to severe measures against Polish people under Kulturkampf.

Foreign Policies

In foreign affairs, he devoted himself to keeping peace in Europe, so that the strength of the German Empire would not be threatened. He was, however, forced to contend with French revanchism — the desire to avenge the loss in the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck adopted a policy of diplomatically isolating France, whilst maintaining cordial relations with other nations in Europe. In order to avoid alienating the United Kingdom, he declined to seek a colonial empire or an expansion of the navy. In 1872, he extended the hand of friendship to Austria and Russia, whose rulers joined Wilhelm I in the League of the Three Emperors. Bismarck also maintained good relations with Italy.

After Russia's victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War, Bismarck helped negotiate a settlement at the Congress of Berlin (1878). Russia had previously secured great advantages in southeastern Europe when it made peace by ratifying the Treaty of San Stefano. Bismarck and other European leaders, however, opposed the growth of Russian influence, and sought to protect the power of the Ottoman Empire (see Eastern Question). The Treaty of Berlin revised the Treaty of San Stefano, reducing the concessions offered to Russia. As a result, Russo-German relations suffered; the Russian Prince Gorchakov denounced Bismarck for compromising his nation's victory. The relationship between Russia and Germany was further weakened by the latter's protectionist policies. The League of the Three Emperors having fallen apart, Bismarck negotiated the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879. The Dual Alliance became the Triple Alliance in 1882 with the addition of Italy. Attempts to reconcile Germany and Russia failed to have any lasting effect: the Three Emperors' League was re-established in 1881, but quickly fell apart, and the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 was allowed to expire in 1890.

At first, Bismarck opposed the idea of seeking colonies, arguing that the burden of obtaining and defending them would outweigh the potential benefits. During the late 1870s, however, public opinion shifted to favour the idea of a colonial empire. In this regard, Germans were not unique; other European nations also began to acquire colonies rapidly (see New Imperialism). During the early 1880s, Germany joined other European powers in the Scramble for Africa. Among Germany's colonies were Togoland (now part of Ghana and Togo), Cameroon, German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania), and German South-West Africa (now Namibia). The Berlin Conference (1884) established regulations for the acquisition of African colonies; in particular, it protected free trade in certain parts of the Congo basin.

Last years

Bismarck on his 80th birthday (April 1, 1895)
Bismarck on his 80th birthday (April 1, 1895)

The German Emperor, Wilhelm I, died in 1888, leaving the throne to his son, Friedrich III. The new monarch, however, was already suffering from an incurable cancer and spent all three months of his reign in a coma before dying. He was replaced by his son, Wilhelm II. The new Emperor opposed Bismarck's careful foreign policy, preferring vigorous and rapid expansion to protect Germany's "place in the sun." The rift was further widened by their differing views on domestic policy; Bismarck wanted anti-socialist policies to remain in place, whilst the Emperor thought that he could win popularity by refusing to renew them. Bismarck resigned at Wilhelm II's insistence in 1890, to be succeeded as Chancellor of Germany and Minister-President of Prussia by Leo von Caprivi. Upon leaving office, he was created Herzog (Duke) von Lauenburg; the dukedom, however, was not hereditary.

Bismarck spent his final years gathering his memoirs (Gedanken und Erinnerungen, or Thoughts and Memories). He died in 1898 (at the age of eighty-three) in Friedrichsruh, where he is entombed in the Bismarck-Mausoleum. He was succeeded as Fürst von Bismarck-Schönhausen by his eldest son Herbert.


Bismarck's most important legacy involves the unification of Germany. Germany had existed as a collection of separate principalities since the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806; through Bismarck's efforts, the various kingdoms were once again united in a single empire. Following unification, Germany became one of the most powerful nations in Europe. On the other hand, France was left devastated by Bismarck's wars, and became one of Germany's most bitter enemies in Europe. Austria, too, was weakened by the creation of a German Empire, though to a much lesser extent than France. The German Empire continued to be a monarchy until the end of the First World War, when it was replaced with the Weimar Republic.

During most of his nearly thirty year-long tenure, he held undisputed control over the government's policies. He took steps to silence or restrain political opposition, as evidenced by laws restricting the freedom of the press, the Kulturkampf, and the anti-socialist laws. The Emperor Wilhelm I rarely challenged the Chancellor's decisions; on several occasions, Bismarck obtained his monarch's approval by threatening to resign. Wilhelm II, however, proved less co-operative. Bismarck's successors as Chancellor were much less influential, as power was concentrated in the Emperor's hands.

Two ships of the German Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), as well as a battleship from the World War II-era, were named after him. Also named in his honour were the Bismarck Sea and Bismarck Archipelago (both near the former German colony of New Guinea), as well as Bismarck, North Dakota (a city in the United States).


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Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • Eyck, Erich. (1964). Bismarck and the German Empire. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Hiss, O.C. (1931) Bismarck: Laws and Sausages. Berlin: Sans Souci Press.
  • Pflanze, Otto. (1963). Bismarck and the Development of Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Stern, Fritz. (1977). Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder and the Building of the German Empire. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Taylor, A. J. P. (1955). Bismarck: the Man and the Statesman. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Preceded by:
Prince Adolf of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen
Prime Minister of Prussia
Succeeded by:
Albrecht von Roon
Preceded by:
Chancellor of Germany
Succeeded by:
Leo von Caprivi
Preceded by:
Albrecht von Roon
Prime Minister of Prussia

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