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Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck
1815 - 1898


The German statesman Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck (1815-1898) was largely responsible for the creation of the German Empire in 1871. A leading diplomat of the late 19th century, he was known as the Iron Chancellor.

Otto von Bismarck, born at Schönhausen on April 1, 1815, to Ferdinand von Bismarck-Schönhausen and Wilhelmine Mencken, displayed a willful temperament from childhood. He studied at the University of Göttingen and by 1836 had qualified as a lawyer. But during the following decade he failed to make a career of this or anything else. Tall, slender, and bearded, the young squire was characterized by extravagance, laziness, excessive drinking, needlessly belligerent atheism, and rudeness. In 1847, however, Bismarck made a number of significant changes in his life. He became religious, entered politics as a substitute member of the upper house of the Prussian parliament, and married Johanna von Puttkamer.

In 1851 Frederick William IV appointed Bismarck as Prussian representative to the Frankfurt Diet of the German Confederation. An ingenious but cautious obstructionist of Austria's presidency, Bismarck described Frankfurt diplomacy as "mutually distasteful espionage." He performed well enough, however, to gain advancement to ambassadorial positions at Vienna in 1854, St. Petersburg in 1859, and Paris in 1862. He was astute in his judgment of international affairs and often acid in his comments on foreign leaders; he spoke of Napoleon III as "a sphinx without a riddle," of the Austrian Count Rechberg as "the little bottle of poison," and of the Russian Prince Gorchakov as "the fox in wooden shoes."

Minister-President of Prussia

In 1862 Frederick William's successor, William I, faced a crisis. He sought a larger standing army as a foundation for Prussian foreign policy; but he could not get parliamentary support for this plan, and he needed a strong minister-president who was willing to persist against opposition majorities. War Minister Roon persuaded the King to entrust the government to Bismarck. William attempted to condition the Sept. 22, 1862, appointment by a written agreement limiting the chief minister's part in foreign affairs, but Bismarck easily talked this restriction to shreds.

Bismarck's attempt to conciliate the budget committee foundered on his September 29 remark, "The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and resolutions of majorities - that was the mistake of 1848 and 1849 - but by iron and blood." Bismarck complained that the words were misunderstood, but "blood and iron" became an unshakable popular label for his policies.

Bismarck soon turned to foreign affairs. He was determined to achieve Prussian annexation of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein at the expense of Denmark. The history of Schleswig-Holstein during the preceding 2 decades had been stormy, and there were a number of conflicting claims of sovereignty over the territories. Bismarck let the Hohenzollerns, the Prussian ruling family, encourage the Duke of Augustenburg in his claim for Holstein, and the duke established a court at Kiel in Holstein in December 1863. Bismarck then, however, persuaded Austria's Count Rechberg to join in military intervention against the Hohenzollern protégé. This ability to take opposite sides at the same time in a political quarrel for motives ulterior to the issue itself was a Bismarckian quality not always appreciated by his contemporaries. Austro-Prussian forces occupied Holstein and invaded Schleswig in February 1864. The Danes resisted, largely because of a mistaken hope of English help, which Bismarck reportedly assessed with the comment, "If Lord Palmerston sends the British army to Germany, I shall have the police arrest them."

Denmark's 1864 defeat by Austro-Prussian forces led to the 1865 Austro-Prussian Gastein Convention, which exposed Rechberg's folly in committing Austrian troops to an adventure from which only Prussia could profit. Prussia occupied Schleswig, and Austria occupied Holstein, with Prussia to construct, own, and operate a naval base at Kiel and a Kiel-Brunsbüttel canal, both in Holstein. King William made Bismarck a count.

Austro-Prussian War

Bismarck gave Austria a number of opportunities to retreat from its Holstein predicament; when Austria turned to the German Confederation and France for anti-Prussian support, however, Bismarck allied Prussia to Italy. In 1866 Austria mobilized Confederation forces against Prussia, whose Frankfurt representative declared this to be an act of war dissolving the Confederation. The resulting Seven Weeks War led to the defeat of Austria at Königgrätz (July 3) by the Prussian general Moltke. Bismarck persuaded king William to accept the lenient Truce of Nikolsburg (July 26) and Treaty of Prague (August 23).

Prussia's victory enabled Bismarck to achieve Prussian annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, and Frankfurt. The newly formed North German Confederation, headed by Prussia and excluding Austria, provided a popularly elected assembly; the Prussian king, however, held veto power on all political issues. The victory over Austria increased Bismarck's power, and he was able to obtain parliamentary approval of an indemnity budget for 4 years of unconstitutional government. Bismarck was also voted a large grant, with which he bought an estate in Farther Pomerania.

Franco-Prussian War

As payment for its neutrality during the Austro-Prussian War, France claimed Belgium. Bismarck held that the 1839 European treaty prevented this annexation, and instead he agreed to neutralize Luxembourg as a concession to the government of Napoleon III. The French were, however, antagonized by Bismarck's actions. In 1870 he heightened French hostility by supporting the claim of Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to the Spanish throne. The French government demanded Leopold's withdrawal, and Vincent Benedetti, the French ambassador to Prussia, requested formal assurance that no Hohenzollern would ever occupy the Spanish throne. William, who was staying at Bad Ems, declined the request and telegraphed Bismarck an account of the interview. Bismarck edited this "Ems Dispatch" and published an abrupt version that suggested that discussions were over and the guns loaded. His action precipitated the French declaration of war against Prussia on July 19, 1870.

Bismarck's treaties with the South German states brought them into the war against France, and his work at field headquarters transformed these wartime partnerships into a lasting federation. Within 6 weeks the German army had moved through Alsace-Lorraine and forced the surrender of Napoleon III and his army at Sedan (Sept. 2, 1870). But Paris defiantly proclaimed a republic and refused to capitulate. The annexation of occupied Alsace - Lorraine became Bismarck's territorial justification for continuing the war, and the siege of Paris ended in French surrender (Jan. 28, 1871). Alsace-Lorraine became a German imperial territory by the Treaty of Frankfurt (May 10, 1871). The Prussian victory led to the formation of the Reich, a unified German empire under Prussian leadership. William was proclaimed kaiser, or emperor, and Bismarck became chancellor of the empire. Bismarck was also elevated to the rank of prince and given a Friedrichsruh estate.

Chancellor of the Reich (1871-1890)

Bismarck modernized German administration, law, and education in harmony with the economic and technological revolution which was transforming Germany into an industrial society. However, he developed no political system, party, or set of issues to support and succeed him. His Kulturkampf, or vehement opposition to the Catholic Church, was unsuccessful, and his anti-Socialist policies contributed to the wreckage of the Bismarckian parties in the 1890 election.

Among Bismarck's major diplomatic achievements of this period were the establishment of the Dreikaiserbund, or Three Emperors' League (Germany, Russia, Austria), of 1872-1878 and 1881-1887 and the negotiation of the 1879 Austro-German Duplice, the 1882 Austro-German-Italian Triplice, and the secret 1887 Russo-German Reinsurance Treaty. He served as chairman of the 1878 Congress of Berlin, and he also guided the German acquisition of overseas colonies.

The alliances that Bismarck established were not so much instruments of diplomacy as the visible evidence of his comprehensive effort to postpone a hostile coalition of the powers surrounding Germany. Restraining Russia, the strongest of these powers, required the greatest diplomatic effort. Bismarck's diplomacy is sometimes described as aimed at isolating France, but this is a misleadingly simplistic description of the complicated and deceptive methods he employed to lend substance to his statement, "We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world."

Fall from Power

William I died March 9, 1888, but Bismarck remained as chancellor for Frederick III (who died June 15, 1888) and for 21 months of the reign of William II, last of the Hohenzollern monarchs. Court, press, and political parties discovered in the 29-year-old William an obvious successor to the power of the 73-year-old chancellor. William was intelligent and glib, with a singular capacity as a phrase maker, and his instability was as yet not widely recognized.

On March 15, 1890, William asked either for the right to consult ministers or for Bismarck's resignation; Bismarck's March 18 letter gave the Kaiser a choice between following Bismarck's Russian policy or accepting his resignation. Suppressing this letter, the Kaiser published an acceptance of Bismarck's retirement because of ill health and created him Duke of Lauenburg. Bismarck referred to this title as one he might use for traveling incognito.

Bismarck did not retire gracefully. Domestically he was happy at Friedrichsruh with Johanna, whom he outlived; and their children, Herbert, Bill, and Marie, frequently visited them there. Bismarck, however, used the press to harass his political successors, and he briefly stumped the country calling for more power to the parliament, of which he was an absent member from 1891 to 1893. Despite charades of reconciliation, he remained, to his death on July 30, 1898, thoroughly opposed to William II.

Historical estimates of Otto von Bismarck remain contradictory. The later political failure of the state he created has led some to argue that by his own standards Bismarck was himself a failure. He is, however, widely regarded as an extraordinarily astute statesman who understood that to wield power successfully a leader must assess not only its strength but also the circumstances of its application. In his analysis and management of these circumstances, Bismarck showed himself the master of realpolitik.


Perhaps the clearest way to understand German history from 1876-1896 is through the actions and personalities of three dominant men of that era--Bismarck, Wilhelm I, and Wilhelm II.

Otto Von Bismarck Bismarck left office in 1890. By 1890 he had been prime minister of Prussia for 28 years and chancellor of the German Empire for 19 years. He, more than anyone else, changed the history of Germany at this time. When he entered office in 1862 Germany, which had been a patchwork of different kingdoms and Duchies for centuries, was considered the weakest of the European powers. When he was forced to leave office in 1890, German had become a powerful military and economic power on the Continent. What happened? In the 1860's Bismark was the leader in three wars, the last of which united the German Empire in 1871. Wilhelm I was Emperor of the German Empire, but Bismarck was Chancellor, answerable only to Wilhelm and through that position he created the new Germany.

Two of Bismarck's most important achievements were the alliances he created with other nations and internal social reforms. Looking at the system of alliances Bismarck built with other nations is like looking at a chess game and predicting the next moves. As one timelines website wrote regarding the countdown to World War I, "in order to understand exactly what went wrong back in the summer of 1914 we will examine the key alliances that occurred between 1879 and 1914. These interlocking defense treaties, once tripped, would bring the mighty armies together on a collision course that no one could stop."

Bismarck started this course. He knew Germany needed a time of peace to built internally. He saw that Germany, being in a central position in Europe, between the powers of England, France, Austria, and Russia had to balance between these other four nations. His strategy of alliance, as he put it to a Russian ambassador in 1880 was, "to try to be one of three as long as the world is governed by an unstable equilibrium of five powers." His system of alliances demonstrate this strategy. First, was the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1879; second the Three Emperor's Alliance in 1881 of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia; and third The Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy in 1882. Bismarck, by making these and other alliances, was seen as the leading statesman of Europe. When he left office in 1890, Germany was still linked to Austria and Italy and but a more tenuous relationship with Russia was in place than the one established in 1881. It had been an era of peace for Germany.

On the domestic scene Bismarck started what was at the time the most advanced welfare state in the world. Even though Bismarck was motivated to initiate these programs as a means of preventing more radical alternatives from starting, by the time he left office a system of retirement and disability benefits was in place. These programs were mandatory and funded by contributions from employees, employer, and the government. The program also added workmen's compensation and sickness insurance before Bismarck left office.

Wilhelm I Wilhelm I was born in 1797. He became King of Prussia in 1857 when his brother died and retained that title until he died in 1888. In addition to being King of Prussia, Wilhelm I became Emperor in Germany after 1871 and retained that title until he died. Even though he was the official Emperor in Germany (note the title is not Emperor of Germany, an important distinction which Bismarck insisted Wilhelm use), he was clearly outshone and bullied by his chancellor Bismarck. Wilhelm fought in the Battle of Waterloo. His life-long interests were the Army (and retelling tales of Waterloo) and hunting.

To understand Wilhelm I's impact, it is necessary to understand the political structure of the time. Germany had been created in 1871 out of many small states. The government's democratic structure after 1871 was the Reichstag which had 397 members elected by all males over the age of 25 in Germany. The Emperor, however, had full control of the military and diplomatic affairs and he had responsibility to nominate the Chancellor. There were 25 states in the new Empire which kept their existing constitutions even after 1871. These 25 states made their political will known through the Bundesrat, or Upper House of the Imperial Parliament which had 58 members. Prussia had the largest number of seats in the Bundesrat (17) and thus could control the Bundesrat. Even though the Reichstag was not powerless (having control over the Imperial budget and Imperial legislation) it did not have authority over the Chancellor who was appointed by the Emperor and only answerable to him. The Chancellor presided over the Bundesrat and it was the Bundesrat that could make treaties and declare war. Thus, Bismarck had license to make all the alliances listed above through the Bundesrat which was really a vote of the Prussia heavily-weighed political body.

Wilhelm II This troika of personalities is completed with Wilhelm II who was born in 1859 and was the grandson of Wilhelm I. Wilhelm II's mother was Victoria, daughter of Queen Victoria, which made Wilhelm II grandson to Queen Victoria, and nephew to the future King Edward. Wilhelm II was born with a withered, useless left arm. Most accounts of his personality use such words used as vain, insensitive, bombastic, and others much worse. His parents tried to raise him in a liberal, pro-British tradition, but he was more drawn to his grandfather, Wilhelm I, and thoughts of military, religious mysticism, and conservatism. When Wilhelm II's grandfather, Wilhelm I, died in 1888. Frederick, Wilhelm I's son, took the crown for a mere 99 days and died of throat cancer. Wilhelm II became Emperor after his father died. Even though Wilhelm II had never fought in the military, he took great pride in the wearing of uniforms.

Wilhelm II turned Bismarck out of his office of Chancellor. The men disagreed on a number of issues and Wilhelm II had the authority to select his own Chancellor without approval of any other political body. Wilhelm II replaced Bismarck with General Leo Caprivia who was a professional soldier. Caprivia lasted four years and then was replaced by Prince Chodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst. In both cases it was clear who was now in charge, the Emperor, not the Chancellor.

It is really Wilhelm II's love-hate relationship with England that many would say caused the most trouble. Germany began to challenge the naval superiority of England with the Tirpitz Plan of 1900 which was to build a naval fleet to rival England. England reacted predicably by patching up differences with first France and then Russia, which we will discuss in the next scene. Wilhelm II is often called a saber rattler in both his politics and personality.

Outside of these three men, a comment on a some other issues relevant for the times. The first women's suffrage association of Germany was not started until 1902. In 1851 Prussian law forbid women from joining political parties or even attending meetings where politics were discussed.

By 1880 Berlin alone had 45,000 Jews. This was at a time when the total Jewish population in England was 46,000 and 51,000 in France. The beginnings of hate are evident in the writings of the time. Ever since the bank crash of 1873 there were voices that blamed Jews for the ills of the day.

The first automobile, a Mercedes-Benz, was built in 1885 by Carl Benz in Mannheim/Palatinate. The first trip found Carl's wife, Berta, behind the wheel. There being no gas stations, they had to buy gas at a pharmacy. Werner von Siemens, invented the dynamo in 1867 and in the 1870's experimented with electric traction. From 1873-1914 Germany changed from an mostly rural economy to a country that was second only to the U.S. in manufacturing. The outcomes of such growth was Germany becoming a place where there is a move from the country to the city; where there is market for production instead of local consumption; and a growing division between those who provide the capital and those that provide the labor.

The largest tide of Germans left from 1880 to 1893, with about 1.8 million coming to the U.S. As the economy improved in Germany in the mid 1890's the bigger migrations were from country to town. As the century turned, Germany was second only to the U.S. in importing foreign labour.










This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008