Who is Otto von Bismarck? The detailed life story of Otto von Bismarck, biography, career, works, essay.
Otto von Bismarck; (1815-1898), German chancellor. Prince von Bismarck continues to be a controversial figure. Conservatives applaud his influence on Germany and admire his sagacity and moderation. Liberals regard him as the destroyer of his country, whose work did irreparable harm and prepared the way for the Nazi era. But all agree that Bismarck played a crucial role in Germany’s history.
Bismarck welded the various German states into unity and, as chancellor of the 19th century’s most powerful empire, presided over a peaceful Europe. As a practitioner of Realpolitik (politics based on pragmatic political possibilities), he was without peer. He eschewed ideology in favor of national interest, and his diplomacy was marked by prudence and resourcefulness, a keen sense of what was important, and an instinctive knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of what could be accomplished by foreign policy.
Bismarck was born on April 1, 1815, in the family manor at Schonhausen in Brandenburg, just east of the Elbe River. His mother was of bourgeois origin, and her intuition and strong intellect tempered the self-confidence and pugnaciousness that Bismarck inherited from his aristocratic paternal ancestors. After an undistinguished university career at Gottingen and Berlin (1832-1835), he entered the civil service but soon exchanged his mindless routine for life as the lord of the Schonhausen estate. During these years he read widely and steeped himself in history and philosophy. He also apparently experienced a religious crisis, from which he emerged with a belief in a personal God, which was, however, not incompatible with his innate skepticism. He married Johanna von Puttkamer in 1847, and their long marriage was a happy one.
Bismarck’s election to the Vereinigter Landtag (united diet for all Prussian domains) in March 1847 opened his political career. In the following year, when popular revolutions swept the capitals of Europe, he won a reputation as a leading conservative. He considered the Prussian king and the traditional social structure in Prussia, dominated by Junkers, the God-given order of things. He also considered the preservation of this system the task of statesmen. He denounced liberal, socialist, and democratic tendencies as subversive of civic duty and discipline.
Bismarck’s appointment in 1851 as Prussian delegate to the Diet of the German Confederation at Frankfurt marked a turning point in his career: it made him a diplomat. His work with the delegates of the 47 states and free cities of the German Confederation (formed 1815), who met to discuss problems of common interest, gave him a profound insight into German and European politics. He found that Prussia’s interests often conflicted with those of Austria, the strongest member of the Diet. When he left Frankfurt in 1859 on a new assignment as Prussian minister to Russia, he was convinced that Prussia must draw the German states into a union that would exclude Austria.
Master of Prussia:
During Bismarck’s absence, first in St. Petersburg then in Paris, a constitutional crisis was brewing in Prussia. Landtag and king were engaged in a struggle for supremacy. William I (reigned 1861-1888) and his war minister, Albrecht von Roon, had requested funds from the Landtag to reform the army. The Landtag agreed to pay additional taxes on condition that the army be put under its control. A deadlock resulted. The King contemplated abdication. Then, on Roon’s suggestion, he turned the issue over to Bismarck. On Sept. 23, 1862, the King appointed him president of the council of ministers and foreign minister.
The Landtag did not intimidate Bismarck. He defied it, arguing that if it obstructed the conduct of the government, the crown had the right to act independently. For four years Bismarck governed by decree. Taxes were collected, and the army was enlarged, reorganized, and brought to a point of high efficiency. In 1866 the Landtag surrendered. By an Act of Indemnity it retroactively approved Bismarck’s measures. The liberal middle class of Germany had been cowed; the supremacy of king and nobles had been asserted.
Bismarck’s great moment came when the problem of Schleswig-Holstein flared again. The status of these two duchies was complicated: they were autonomous but at the same time in personal union with the Danish crown. When in December 1863 the Danish King sought to incorporate Schleswig into Denmark, the Diet of the German Confederation sent troops into Holstein. Bismarck dissociated Prussia from this action. Instead he persuaded the Austrians to join him. They marched through Holstein into Schleswig and defeated the Danes in 1864. By the peace terms, Austria was to administer Holstein and Prussia was to control Schleswig. Such an arrangement was bound to cause friction.
While the friction grew, Bismarck set about isolating Austria. Russian neutrality was assured. Not only was the Czar busy with internal reforms, but he was also indebted to Bismarck for Prussia’s help during the insurrection of the Russian Poles in 1863. Bismarck bought Italian support with the promise of the Austrian territory of Veneria, should Austria be defeated. From Napoleon III, who was involved with the conquest of Mexico and troubled with domestic discontent, he extracted an assurance of neutrality in exchange for certain vague promises of “compensations.” When friction with Austria reached a diplomatic crisis, Bismarck precipitated a war, known as the Seven Weeks’ War, by marching into Holstein (June 1866). Austria appealed to the Diet and rallied its members to her side. But the Prussian army was too quick: in July 1866 it defeated Austria at Königgrätz (Sadowa), and her allies soon after. Within seven weeks, Austria was humbled. By the peace treaty, Prussia took over Schleswig-Holstein and, more important, abolished the German Confederation, creating in its stead the North German Confederation (1867), which brought the German states north of the Main River together under Prussian leadership. To the south German states (Baden, Bavaria, Hesse-Dannstadt, Württemberg), now isolated and wary of France, he offered military alliances and a customs union.
The Seven Weeks’ War set the stage for German unification. Once Austria was excluded from the federation of German states, Prussia rose to undisputed dominance. The constitution of the North German Confederation, which Bismarck drew up, left the member states considerable autonomy. However, it made the Prussian king their hereditary ruler and gave him power over their foreign and military affairs. Two houses of parliament were established: the upper house, the Bundesrat, consisted of delegates representing the state governments, with Prussia its dominant member; the lower house, the Reichstag, was elected by universal manhood suffrage, but its power was limited to rejecting or amending legislation. The chancellor, who at this time was Bismarck, was responsible not to the Reichstag, but to the king.
The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) completed Germany’s unification. Bismarck later claimed that he planned the war from start to finish. This is not true, for war was in the air. In France, Napoleon III was under fierce criticism for apparently having capped a whole series of fiascoes by allowing a strong neighbor to arise across the Bhine. He welcomed the opportunity for a successful military campaign which would restore public approbation. For Bismarck, it was clear that war with France would drive the south German states into permanent union with Prussia —exacdy what he wanted. Thus neither statesman worked for peace.
In the summer of 1870, Spain invited a German prince, Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigma-ringen, to occupy the Spanish throne, vacant since the liberal insurrection in 1868. Bismarck encouraged this candidacy, knowing that the prospect of a German prince on the Spanish throne would inflame the French. Indeed, when news of the candidacy reached Paris, there was considerable alarm. The French ambassador in Berlin, Count Benedetti, was instructed to voice his government’s dissatisfaction. This was enough to force Leopold to withdraw his candidacy. But the French would not leave well enough alone. Benedetti was to insist that William I guarantee that a Hohenzollern candidacy would not be renewed. The King politely declined to do so. Bismarck, distraught at the failure of his first plan to provoke the French, now saw his chance: he published the Ems dispatch, an account of the King’s refusal that made it seem much more abrupt than it had been. Feeling insulted, the French declared war.
The Franco-Prussian War which ensued, was short. Isolated and unaided, France faced a crack Prussian army flanked by the troops of Prussia’s south German allies. War began on July 15, 1870. On September 2, Napoleon III was forced to surrender at Sedan with 100,000 men. In May 1871, France signed the bitter Treaty of Frankfurt. By the terms of the treaty, France was forced to pay an indemnity of 5 billion francs to the Germans and, worse, to cede her border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. Bismarck had rightly surmised that a common victory would fuse the German nation. On Jan. 18, 1871, at Versailles, a Deutsches Reich (German Empire) was declared and William I was acclaimed German emperor. Bismarck was given the title of prince.
In structure, the new German Empire was an enlarged North German Confederation, to which the south German states had now been added. Each state retained its own laws and government, but Prussia was given preeminence. The army and external affairs were in Prussian hands. The Bundesrat and Reichstag met in Berlin, and Bismarck held the position of chancellor and foreign minister. His prestige was immense. His vision was fulfilled: a German empire had been created that gave Prussia, represented by its Junkers and its army, a place in world affairs.
Bismarck’s efforts were now directed at conservation. He sought to conserve the unity of the German states, and to this end he thwarted particularism and promoted nationalism and a sense of national identity. He worked to conserve Prussia’s dominance in the Beich, and he protected the aristocratic, conservative government that he headed against all challenges to the established order.
Bismarck drew the Beich together by means of legislation that extended imperial influence throughout German territory. The postal and telegraph systems were united in 1873; the currencies were unified and an Imperial Bank was established in 1875; and the administration of justice was standardized in 1879. In 1879, protective tariffs were legislated to strengthen agriculture and heavy industry against foreign competition and to promote self-sufficiency. In the 1880’s, Germany instituted Europe’s first social welfare programs, which greatly improved the lot of the workers. Sickness, accident, and old age insurance were among the benefits received under these programs.
In his efforts to preserve the unity of the Beich and the order of government as he saw it, Bismarck persecuted two prominent minority factions, the Catholics and the Socialists. He was afraid that the interests represented by the Catholic Center party constituted a threat to the Beach, especially since the proclamation of papal infallibility (which came in 1870) made it appear that Catholic loyalties would be divided should the policies of the Beich conflict with those of Bome. In 1871, with the support of the Conservative and National Liberal parties, Bismarck launched the so-called Kulturkampf (“battle of civilization”) against the Boman Catholic Church. Laws were passed that restricted the role of the Church in education (May Laws, 1873), expelled the Jesuits from Germany, and made clerics liable to civil litigation. The campaign was unsuccessful. Bismarck was strongly opposed, even by many Protestants, and the Center party, instead of declining, grew. In 1878, Bismarck abandoned the Kulturkampf.
Similarly, Bismarck feared an organized working class as a hotbed of revolution and as a threat to the established order. The Socialist party, which was founded in Germany in the 1860’s, polled some half-million votes in the Reichstag elections of 1877. Bismarck took alarm. In 1878 the Reichstag passed laws curtailing Socialist meetings, censoring Socialist publications, and outlawing financial contributions to the party. The effort was as fruitless as the Kulturkampf. Between 1878 and 1890 the Socialists increased their representation in the Reichstag from 9 to 35 seats. In 1890, Bismarck was obliged to abandon the anti-Socialist laws.
In his foreign policy, Bismarck sought to preserve the peace, and therefore the status quo. He tried to convince the world that Prussia, once it had taken over Schleswig-Hol-stein and Alsace-Lorraine and consolidated the Reich, was a “satiated” state, harboring no further plans of aggression. A war of revenge launched by the French was, he thought, the most imminent threat to the security of the Reich. If he could engage the other major European powers in alliances with Germany, the French would be isolated and powerless to invade.
Bismarck was particularly interested in gaining the loyalty of the Russian and Austrian empires. He reached a rapprochement with Austria in 1871 and with Russia the following year. In the summer of 1873 a series of military alliances among the three empires led to the loose Three Emperors’ League, ostensibly to maintain monarchical solidarity, but actually with the purpose of isolating republican France. Italy joined the League a year later.
Bismarck began to doubt the efficacy of the League when, in 1875, the Russians refused to support him in his efforts to force the French to abandon rearmament. After the Berlin Congress in 1878, Russia’s affection for Germany cooled still further. Bismarck turned to Austria, with whom he concluded the secret Dual Alliance in 1879, a defensive pact against Russia and France. This alliance was henceforth to be the core of the German alliance system. Italy’s membership expanded the coalition into the Triple Alliance (1882), which was renewed every five years until 1915.
Bismarck was too canny not to realize that Russia, once excluded from the major European alliance, might ally itself with France and expose Germany to the danger of a two-front war. The Three Emperors’ League was revived in 1881 and renewed once in 1884, before it was superseded by the Reinsurance Treaty in 1887.
Bismarck reached the apogee of his international prestige at the Berlin Congress of 1878. As the “honest broker,” he mediated the Straits Question between Britain and Russia and the dispute between Austria and Russia over influence in the Balkans.
William I died in March 1888 and his successor, Frederick III, died within three months. This brought to the throne William II, who was immature, self-important, and impulsive. The relationship between the Emperor and the Chancellor was tense from the beginning. They quarreled over Bismarck’s anti-Socialist program and his Russian policy. The final break came when Bismarck refused to alter a standing rule that all executive business had to go through the chancellor’s hands. His refusal led to his resignation on March 20, 1890, and the ship of state was left in the erratic hands of the young Emperor. Bismarck withdrew to his estate of Friedrichsruh, and from there, until his death on July 30, 1898, he directed a steady barrage of criticism at his successors and the course they pursued in foreign and domestic affairs. His memoirs, which he composed in retirement, were designed as a primer of Realpolitik, citing his own career as the outstanding example of it.
Bismarck’s method of government had grave consequences for Germany. He ruled his country autocratically and groomed no successor. Therefore, when he left office, the government fell into untrained hands. His contempt for representative institutions left the Germans enamored of authority and unaware of the political responsibilities that are incumbent upon the populace of a viable democracy. His empire was dead 20 years after his own death.