Count Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck

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Count Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck


First chancellor of germany


Early Years. Otto von Bismarck, or Otto Edward Leopold, Prince von Bismarck, Count von Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke von Lauenburg, was a powerful Prussian statesman who helped found the German Empire in 1871 and served as its first chancellor for nineteen years. Bismarck was born on 1 April 1815 at Schönhausen, northwest of Berlin. He studied law and entered government service in 1836. Unhappy in his post, he resigned a year later and took over the management of his family’s estate. Driven by a strong sense of personal ambition, Bismarck entered politics in 1847. He emerged as a rigid conservative and delegate to Prussia’s first diet. At the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848 he rushed to Berlin and urged King Frederick William IV to suppress the uprising. His loyalty earned him the appointment as Prussia’s representative to the German Confederation in 1851.

Domestic Policy. From the 1850s until 1878 Bismarck allied himself primarily with the National Liberals, who sought a republican government in Germany. Together they created a civil and criminal code for the new empire, placed the deutsch mark on the gold standard, and moved the country toward free trade. Liberals, who had written off Bismarck as an archconservative, now viewed him as a comrade—a man who had rejected his conservative roots. Many conservative leaders agreed with this assessment: his policies had promoted rapid industrialization and concurrent social change. Their fears were further enhanced when he joined liberals in the Kulturkampf (a campaign against political Catholicism) in 1873. These views, however, ignored Bismarck’s essential and deep-seated conservativism—embracing liberal political groups did not in any way mean that he would suffer republicanism in Germany.

Enemies of the Empire. Bismarck was surprised by the emergence of new political parties such as the Catholic Center, the Liberal Progressives, and the Social Democrats, all of which began participating in imperial and Prussian elections in the early 1870s. He labeled them enemies of the empire as each, in its own way, rejected his vision of a united Germany. To the Progressives the empire was too conservative, while the socialists worried over its capitalist nature. The Catholic Center was concerned that Protestant voices counted far more than Catholic ones. Bismarck despised the Catholic Center—he (and the liberals) feared the appeal of a clerical political party to the one-third of Germans who professed Roman Catholicism.

Falk. In Prussia the minister of public worship and education, Adalbert Falk, with Bismarck’s blessing, introduced a series of bills establishing civil marriage, limiting the movement of the clergy, and dissolving religious orders. All church appointments were to be approved by the state. He purged clerical civil servants from the administration. The Kulturkampf, however, failed and actually convinced the Catholic minority that their fear of persecution was real. Bismarck gradually relaxed his campaign, especially after the death of Pope Pius IX in 1878. Pius IX had worked openly for Catholic rights in Germany. Nevertheless, Bismarck continued his anticlerical tirades until his fall in 1890.

Crude Attacks. By 1878 Bismarck’s failure to establish an empowered representative government in Germany signified to many liberals that he was not truly one of them. Liberal ministers such as Falk and Rudolph Delbrück resigned and were replaced by conservatives. Beginning in 1879 the landed nobility, major industrialists, the military, and higher civil servants formed an alliance to prevent the emergence of republican government in Germany. Ever since the Commune of Paris (1871) Bismarck had developed a hatred for socialists and anarchists. He expressed this hatred quite crudely. On one occasion he wrote, “They are this country’s rats and should be exterminated.” In fact, the number of socialists in the Reichstag never exceeded 10 percent of the diet. Bismarck attempted to outlaw socialist political parties on several occasions, but his crudely formulated attacks merely invoked sympathy for the socialists. After two assassination attempts against Wilhelm I, Bismarck prorogued the diet and blamed the socialists (unjustly as it turned out) for the attacks. In this atmosphere Bismarck was easily able to ban socialist political parties from the Reichstag. Bismarck was also aware of the appeal republicanism had to the working class in Europe, especially France, and enacted legislation designed to lure workers away from political radicalism. During the 1880s the government introduced accident insurance, workers’ pensions, and a type of socialized medicine. Nevertheless, Bismarck was never able to successfully connect with the working class, who increasingly supported the Social Democrats. The election of 1890 was a disaster for Bismarck in that the Catholic Center, the Social Democrats, and the Progressives gained more than half of the seats in the Reichstag. The new young emperor William II (reigned 1888-1918) did not want to begin his reign with a bloodbath or a coup d’état. In 1890, at age seventy-five, Bismarck resigned.

Blood and Iron. In 1861 Bismarck was named minister-president of Prussia and immediately began to expand the Prussian army. He warned those who quarreled over the added expenses that “the great questions of the day [meaning German unification] will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions … but by blood and iron.” Public opinion began shifting to his side in 1864, when he used the expanded Prussian army to wrest the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein from Denmark in a lightning-fast military campaign. In 1866 Prussia declared war on Austria after a quarrel over hegemony in Germany. The resulting Austro-Prussian War lasted barely seven weeks before Vienna capitulated and surrendered its claim to power in Germany. Bismarck was deftly able to unite all of the northern and central German states under Prussian leadership in the North German Confederation. Faced with these achievements, the Prussian Reichstag bowed to him (he also browbeat his political enemies into obedience with accusations of treason). In 1870 Bismarck trapped France into a war with Prussia. Fear of French aggression prompted the reluctant southern German states to join a united Germany. In another fast-moving military campaign France was crushed and its government collapsed. In 1871 the German Empire, which included southern Germany, superseded the North German Confederation, and Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, became the German emperor, called the kaiser. Once the empire was established, Bismarck adroitly pursued a peaceful foreign policy that succeeded in preserving general European order until his dismissal in 1890. As imperial chancellor, Bismarck consolidated the newly united state. Externally, he sought to strengthen the empire by a network of defensive alliances with Russia and Austria-Hungary while at home he fought all who questioned his policies. When Wilhelm I died in 1888, his son, Wilhelm II, ascended the German throne. Wilhelm II disliked Bismarck’s cautious foreign policy and reactionary domestic schemes and dismissed Bismarck in 1890. Bismarck retired to his estate, Friedrichsruh, where he died on 30 July 1898. Bismarck must be reckoned as one of the preeminent statesmen of the nineteenth century.


Lothar Gall, Bismarck: The White Revolutionary, 2 volumes, translated by J. A. Underwood (Boston: Allen … Unwin, 1986).

Bascom B. Hayes, Bismarck andMitteleuropa (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994).

Matthew Seligmann, Germany from Reich to Republic, 1871-1918: Politics, Hierarchy and Elites (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

A. J. P. Taylor, Bismarck, the Man and Statesman (London: Hamilton, 1955).

David Wetzel, A Duel of Giants: Bismarck, Napoleon III, and the Origins of the Franco-Prussian War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).