Bismarck, Otto von

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early life
early political career
bismarck as diplomat
bismarck as prussian minister-president
german unification
the domestic context
bismarck as chancellor
foreign policy

BISMARCK, OTTO VON (1815–1898), German statesman.

Otto von Bismarck was perhaps the most significant European statesman in the second half of the nineteenth century. As minister-president of the north German state of Prussia from 1862, his policies resulted in the creation of a politically unified German national state in central Europe. As Reich chancellor of the new German Empire (or Reich) from 1871, he determined Germany's political course for a further nineteen years until he was forced to resign by Kaiser William II (r. 1888–1918), the new emperor, in 1890.

early life

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born on 1 April 1815 at his father's estate of Schönhausen, about sixty miles west of Berlin. His father, Ferdinand von Bismarck, was a typical representative of the Prussian land-owning nobility or Junker class, while his mother, Wilhelmine Louise Mencken, was the daughter of an influential state bureaucrat with close connections to the Prussian court. Bismarck's mother was the dominant partner in the marriage and sent Otto and his older brother, Bernhard, away from home at an early age to attend school in Berlin. In later life Bismarck expressed resentment of his mother's intellectual and social ambitions, which he blamed for his banishment from his idealized rural home, and he had a lifelong contempt for the influence of "petticoats" in marriage and in public life. Bismarck was never close to either of his parents, both of whom died before he achieved high office. He also had a much younger sister, Malwine (born in 1827), with whom he developed an affectionate relationship.

Bismarck attended the Plamann Institute and then two grammar schools (Gymnasia) before studying law at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin. He never exploited the intellectual and academic opportunities offered by these institutions. As a student, despite evidence of a strong intellect, he preferred riding, gambling, womanizing, and dueling to studying, and he gained notoriety on account of his wild lifestyle and striking appearance. He resisted parental pressure to embark on a military career (although he completed his obligatory military service) and instead opted in 1836 to join the Prussian civil service, which constituted the main avenue to political influence in the bureaucratic-absolutist Prussian monarchy. But he found the degree of subordination required of him in state service intolerable. He passed his exams but bitterly resented the loss of his personal autonomy. After accumulating serious debts and going absent without leave in pursuit of a love interest, he finally abandoned the service in 1838.

Bismarck subsequently spent eight years living the life of a country Junker, farming the paternal estate of Kniephof in Pomerania (which he inherited, along with Schönhausen, on his father's death in 1845). But although he had a deep emotional attachment to the land and he successfully alleviated the family's debts in the adverse economic conditions of the 1840s, he eventually grew bored with rural life. He made a further, brief, and unsuccessful foray into state service in 1844; he traveled in England, France, and Switzerland; and he found intellectual and spiritual sustenance among an influential circle of Pomeranian pietists, who also provided him with new political and social contacts. In 1846 he moved to Schönhausen, where he could exploit the opportunities for political patronage offered by Ludwig von Gerlach, the president of the court of appeals in Magdeburg and brother of the king Frederick William IV's (r. 1840–1861) adjutant-general, Leopold von Gerlach. He also assumed his first public office as a dyke-reeve responsible for overseeing flood defenses on a stretch of the river Elbe.

In 1847 Bismarck anchored his private life by marrying Johanna von Puttkamer, a pious and compliant woman from his own social background who remained his lifelong partner until her death in 1894. They had three children, Marie (1848–1926), Herbert (1849–1904), and Wilhelm, known as Bill (1851–1901). Herbert was the most talented and he became an indispensable political support for his father, eventually becoming state secretary of the German Foreign Office (1886–1890).

early political career

Bismarck launched his political career during the revolutions of 1848 and he became closely identified with the uncompromising ideological conservatism of his political patrons, the Gerlach brothers. His first direct experience of Berlin politics was in the spring of 1847, when he sat as an ultraconservative member of the Prussian province of Saxony in the short-lived United Diet summoned by Frederick William IV to give approval for a railway loan (which it rejected). When the European revolutionary contagion reached the Prussian capital in March 1848, Bismarck immediately offered his services to the cause of counterrevolution. He told military commanders in Potsdam that he was ready to march his Schönhausen peasants to Berlin to defend the king. He also headed a misconceived Junker deputation to Princess Augusta, the wife of the king's brother who later became Kaiser William I (r. 1861–1888). He incurred the lasting enmity of the future empress by suggesting that her husband or son might head a reactionary coup to oust the reigning monarch.

Bismarck's initial response to the revolution was hot-headed, but he nevertheless thrived in the new conditions it created and benefited from the introduction of constitutional government in Prussia. During the revolutionary upheavals he worked indefatigably to mobilize popular support for the conservative cause. He played a role in the establishment of a new conservative newspaper, the Neue Preußische Zeitung (or Kreuzzeitung, as it came to be known). In the new climate created by the explosive growth of political associations, he excelled as an energetic organizer and campaigner. And in elected assemblies he proved highly effective as a cool, rational, and caustic speaker. In 1850 he sat in the parliament convened at Erfurt to discuss Prussian plans for a kleindeutsch (small German) union, a scheme that he categorically rejected for its failure to take account of international realities and its implications for the conservative basis of the Prussian state.

Bismarck's energetic defense of conservative interests and his aggressive and combative style won him friends on the right, even if his conservatism was never as inflexible and intransigent as his identification with the Gerlachs and their "court party" suggested. His reward for his services to the monarchy at a time of acute political crisis was his appointment as Prussian minister to the newly restored German Confederation at Frankfurt in 1851. He lacked the usual qualifications and diplomatic experience for such a position, but his advocacy of conservative solidarity and Austro-German friendship, as well as the gratitude of the king, catapulted him over these obstacles.

bismarck as diplomat

Bismarck served his diplomatic apprenticeship at Frankfurt (1851–1859) and subsequently as Prussian minister in St. Petersburg (1859–1862) and briefly in Paris (1862). He developed his views about foreign policy and how best to secure Prussia's position in Germany and Europe during a period that witnessed the establishment of Napoleon III's (r. 1852–1871) Second Empire in France, the Crimean War (1853–1856), and the wars of Italian unification. Bismarck became convinced that the German Confederation was merely an instrument for Austrian domination of Germany, that there was no room for both Austria and Prussia in German affairs, and that their dualism had to be resolved in Prussia's favor. But, unlike more traditional and ideological conservatives, he was flexible and pragmatic in his choice of means to achieve this goal, provided that those means signified no liberalization of Prussia's social and political system. He was willing, for example, to consider an alliance with Bonapartist France as a means of pressuring Austria, even if this meant sacrificing the principle of conservative solidarity in Europe against the forces of revolution. Similarly, he argued during the Italian war of 1859–1860 that Prussia should seize control of northern Germany, march south, and proclaim Prussia as the kingdom of Germany, a recommendation that was deemed irresponsibly reckless by his political masters in Berlin.

Bismarck's political views turned him into something of a maverick and counted against him by the late 1850s. Despite his obvious political ambitions, he was unable to capitalize on his exceptional promotion in 1851. When Frederick William IV suffered a stroke in 1858 and was succeeded by his brother as prince regent (William became king in 1861), Bismarck had few political supporters in Berlin and was effectively sidelined. He was out of tune with the more liberal and anglophile conservatives who formed William's "New Era" government and was sent to St. Petersburg, where he enjoyed better relations with the Russian government than with his own. His health was also poor during this period, and his chances of political advancement seemed remote. Once again he owed his eventual promotion to exceptional and unforeseen circumstances and the elimination of all political alternatives.

bismarck as prussian minister-president

Bismarck was appointed Prussian minister-president in September 1862 as the result of another major crisis affecting the Prussian monarchy, namely the deepening constitutional crisis over the issue of army reform from 1860. When the liberal majority in the Prussian parliament rejected the king's plans to reform the Prussian army, William I refused to heed his government's advice and compromise. Instead, he considered abdication. However, his war minister, Albrecht von Roon, persuaded him to grant Bismarck an interview. Bismarck, who had been recalled from St. Petersburg in April 1862 and sent provisionally as envoy to Paris, hastened back to Berlin and met the monarch at the royal residence at Babelsberg on 22 September 1862. Sensing his opportunity, he was prepared to pledge fealty to his lord in order to gain William's trust. He committed himself to defy the Prussian parliament in the constitutional struggle, rule without a legal budget, and secure the army reform unmodified. But he avoided any further discussion of policy. Bismarck was appointed Prussian minister-president on 23 September. Despite William's continuing misgivings about the kind of foreign policy he advocated, Bismarck on 8 October also became Prussian foreign minister, a position he considered vital if he were to secure Prussia's power in Germany and Europe.

Bismarck achieved his major diplomatic triumphs in the 1860s as Prussian minister-president and foreign minister, positions he held continuously (apart from a brief interlude when he ceased to be minister-president in 1872–1873) until 1890. Under his leadership Prussia fought three victorious wars against Denmark, Austria, and France, the most significant consequence of which was the proclamation of the German Empire from Versailles in January 1871. He also resolved the Prussian constitutional crisis in a way that safeguarded the prerogatives of the Prussian monarchy and he determined the constitutional and political structures of the emerging new Germany. As Prussian minister-president, however, Bismarck was formally only first among equals in the Prussian ministry of state, a body that had an executive and consultative role in the monarchical state but was not comparable with a modern cabinet presided over by a prime minister in a parliamentary system. Bismarck's political successes brought him immense power and prestige but he remained a servant of the crown.

german unification

Bismarck's first great success in foreign policy was his handling of the complicated Schleswig-Holstein crisis, which resurfaced as an international problem in 1863. Bismarck refused to support the view, popular among national liberals and in the lesser German states, that the two duchies should sever their ties with the Danish crown and become an independent German state under a German prince within the German Confederation. Rather than place Prussia at the head of the national movement, Bismarck insisted that the future of the two duchies was a European problem, subject to an international treaty of 1852. Prussia, like Austria, its main rival in Germany, was first and foremost a European great power, and its policy should be conducted in accordance with its own interests (Realpolitik). Bismarck undermined the German Confederation and Austria's credibility within it by cooperating with Austria bilaterally over the Schleswig-Holstein issue. The two powers

eventually went to war and defeated Denmark in 1864, establishing a condominium over the duchies. Such an arrangement could only be temporary given the strategic location of the duchies in the north of Germany and Bismarck's willingness to sanction policies aimed at their eventual annexation by Prussia.

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 grew out of tensions over the future of the duchies, Austria's plans to reform the German Confederation, and the wider issue of Austro-Prussian dualism in Germany. Bismarck took a supreme gamble in risking war against Austria and its German allies in the Confederation in June 1866. Austria was the more established military power, and the conflict had the character of an unpopular German civil war, provoked by the upstart Prussian state and its belligerent minister-president. The international constellation was favorable in the wake of the Crimean War, since France, Russia, and Britain were initially not inclined to intervene, but Italy was Prussia's only ally. Nevertheless Prussia defeated Austria in seven weeks and imposed a lenient peace, thus forestalling foreign intervention. The German Confederation was destroyed, and Austria renounced the ties it had enjoyed for centuries with the non-Habsburg German lands. Prussia annexed territories in northern Germany, including Schleswig-Holstein, and established a new Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, north of the river Main. Bismarck clearly hoped that the new federal constitution, which included the very radical innovation of a national parliament or Reichstag elected by universal male suffrage, would facilitate the eventual political unification of Germany. The south German states of Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden retained their independence but were already tied to Prussia economically through the Prussian-led customs union or Zollverein and were now forced additionally to conclude military alliances with their powerful neighbor.

Bismarck's hopes after 1866 that German unity would progress through evolutionary means or through mere friction with France were frustrated. The south German states resisted their incorporation into the new Confederation. It took the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, precipitated as much by France's inept diplomacy as by Bismarck's guile, to activate the southern states' military alliances with Prussia and inflame German nationalism. The brutal "people's war" against the traditional enemy and the French defeat led to the foundation of the new German Empire. Although some special privileges were granted to the southern states, the constitution of the new empire was not significantly changed from that of the North German Confederation. Bismarck ensured that Prussia would dominate the new entity and that its king would now additionally be the German kaiser.

Bismarck was at the pinnacle of his power in 1871 as the "founder of the Reich," yet he had never planned to unify Germany nor anticipated the path that the wars of German unification eventually took. He was always flexible and pragmatic in his diplomacy, conscious of what he wanted to avoid but often willing to devise imaginative alternative strategies. Bismarck never ruled out peaceful solutions if these edged him closer to his goals and even in 1866 he was pursuing negotiations with Bavaria that might have led to different political arrangements in "Germany." Seen in context rather than with the benefit of hindsight, his actions might have led to different outcomes.

Some historians have argued that, rather than unifying Germany, Bismarck divided or dismembered the German nation in 1866 by casting aside the Austrian Germans. Bismarck is often seen as placing Prussian interests over and above German interests; his first priority was always to secure Prussia's position in northern Germany and ensure Prussian parity with Austria. But he used German nationalism to legitimize Prussian expansion and, although he can be seen as an archproponent of an amoral and unprincipled form of power politics, he effectively committed himself from 1866 to work toward the completion of German political unification by integrating the southern states.

Bismarck has also been called a "white revolutionary" who used revolutionary means, unleashing the forces of nationalism and democracy, to achieve essentially conservative goals, the expansion of Prussia and the consolidation of its military monarchy. He has been likened to the "sorcerer's apprentice" who conjured up new political forces he could not possibly control. Bismarck, however, did not determine the course of German unification single-handedly. It was no accident that German and Italian unification occurred at much the same time, and there were many autonomous forces pushing for a resolution of the German problem. Bismarck's ability to manipulate and control events has often been exaggerated by both his supporters and his detractors.

the domestic context

Bismarck conducted his foreign policy between 1862 and 1866 against a background of domestic strife. The bitter constitutional struggle over the army reform intensified under Bismarck's leadership and reinforced contemporary perceptions that he was an archreactionary and unrepentant "conflict minister" who would stop at nothing to achieve his aims. Bismarck initially underestimated the liberal opposition in the Prussian parliament. In his famous "blood and iron" speech in September 1862, he sought to rally the liberals behind his foreign policy by suggesting that the goal of national unification might be better served by the army reform than by "speeches and majority verdicts." He himself, however, was more ready to compromise over the reform than the king, but, until he could deliver tangible successes, his position depended on the continuation of the crisis.

Bismarck's government implemented the army reform and collected the necessary taxation without parliamentary consent. As legal justification it argued that there was a "gap" in the constitution, hence when the executive monarch and the legislature could not agree, power returned to the former. Bismarck persistently endeavored to divide, undermine, or win over part of the liberal opposition between 1862 and 1866, but most of his efforts between 1862 and 1866 only served to forge a more cohesive and hostile parliamentary bloc. The Schleswig-Holstein crisis revealed a potential line of fissure within the liberal opposition, since the more nationalist liberal deputies could not fail to be enthused by the Prussian victory over Denmark and its consequences. But the liberal opposition condemned Bismarck's illiberal policies at home. They also castigated his apparent cynicism in proposing to reform the German Confederation by introducing a national, elected parliament when he rode roughshod over the will of the Prussian parliament. On the eve of the Austro-Prussian War, the Prussian liberals remained solidly opposed to Bismarck and appeared to head a national opposition.

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866, however, proved a watershed in Prussian domestic politics as well as in German affairs. Elections to the Prussian parliament were held on the same day as the Battle of Königgrätz (3 July), and in a wave of patriotic support the conservatives made substantial gains, and the liberal majority was significantly reduced. Moreover, the effect of the Prussian victory was to produce cleavages in all major political groupings. Many national liberals admired what Bismarck had achieved for the cause of German unification and they were now willing to reach an accommodation with him. Bismarck conciliated them by supporting the introduction of an indemnity bill in the Prussian parliament, admitting that the government had acted unconstitutionally, if in return the parliament retrospectively approved the budget. The constitutional struggle was thus laid to rest, for only the most principled liberals remained immune to the intoxication of war and conquest. Many ideological conservatives, however, also never forgave Bismarck for the war against Austria, the deposition of legitimate German princes, and his adoption of a revolutionary, democratic franchise for the new Reichstag.

Some historians have asserted the primacy of domestic politics in interpreting Bismarck's policies in the 1860s. They have suggested that Bismarck's foreign policy was primarily an instrument to divide the parliamentary opposition at home and win the constitutional struggle. The domestic settlement in 1866 left the conservative pillars of the Prussian monarchy untouched and was thus highly significant for the future political and constitutional development of the German Empire, which was dominated by an unreformed Prussia up to 1918. The liberals' compromise with Bismarck in 1866 has consequently been seen as a fateful capitulation. But Bismarck also made concessions to the liberals, and the future development of Germany was not predetermined from 1866. He never believed he could defeat liberalism. Rather, he hoped to ally moderate liberals, who represented the most articulate and dynamic sections of the population, with the monarchy's traditional supporters. Moreover, Bismarck was never motivated primarily by domestic considerations and he pursued his foreign policy in the 1860s regardless of the domestic opposition.

bismarck as chancellor

Historians' views of Bismarck would have been very different if he had left office in 1871 or shortly afterward. But he wielded power for a further nineteen years, during which time his efforts to safeguard his new creation became increasingly repressive and authoritarian, and this perspective obviously colors assessments of his legacy. As Reich chancellor, the single, legally responsible German minister, Bismarck played a key role in the development of the new empire's political institutions, the domestic policies of Prussia and the empire, and Germany's relations with foreign powers. His role in foreign policy is often judged more positively than his role in domestic policy, especially in the light of Germany's disastrous diplomacy after his dismissal in 1890. But Bismarck's reputation for diplomatic prowess has also been challenged, and historians no longer accept uncritically claims that he was intent on preserving the peace of Europe after 1871.

Bismarck devoted his energy to consolidating the new empire after 1871, but both his temperament and his policies often appeared unsuitable for this task. In the early 1870s he was willing to delegate some of the responsibility for imperial domestic policy to his deputy, Rudolf Delbrück, who headed the Reich Chancellor's Office. He also collaborated closely with the National Liberal Party in the German Reichstag to promote the legal and economic unification of Germany. But in Prussia, with liberal support, he launched the Kulturkampf or "struggle for civilization," an unequal war waged against the Catholic Church and its political representative, the newly formed Catholic Center Party. Bismarck mistrusted political Catholicism because of its Austrian and großdeutsch (greater German) sympathies and he saw the Kulturkampf in many ways as a continuation of the struggle to achieve a national state. But his policies alienated German Catholics and contributed to the growth of the Center Party, which, skillfully led by Ludwig Windthorst, developed into a militant opposition to Bismarck.

Bismarck was never a consensual politician. He disliked being dependent on a particular parliamentary majority or constrained by a collective form of government. By nature he gravitated toward authoritarian solutions to problems. From the late 1870s he ensured that it was the Reich chancellor alone who was responsible for the domestic policy of the empire. Bismarck instituted what some have seen as a "chancellor dictatorship," even though he was never happy with the balance of institutions in the empire and often experimented in diverse ways with its political arrangements.

In 1878–1879 he deliberately sought to end his dependence on national liberalism by adopting policies that split the National Liberal Party. After two failed assassination attempts on the life of William I, Bismarck supported the introduction of repressive antisocialist legislation, which aimed to stifle the infant socialist movement in Germany. He also abandoned free trade and, with the support of conservatives and part of the Center Party, adopted protectionist economic policies. Some historians claim that he "refounded" the empire on a conservative basis by engineering a marriage of "iron and rye," an alliance between the political representatives of heavy industry and large-scale agriculture whose economic interests converged. But in the first half of the 1880s Bismarck was forced to govern "above the parties" on the basis of shifting parliamentary majorities and he suffered a series of legislative defeats.

From 1880 Bismarck promoted social welfare legislation, providing for sickness, accident and invalidity insurance, and old-age pensions, in an attempt to woo the working class away from social democracy and win its loyalty. The legislation served as a model for other countries to follow, but Bismarck had little contact with Germany's rapidly growing urban population and few remedies for the problems of an industrial society. By the late 1880s he no longer saw political Catholicism as a major threat to the empire and he began to dismantle some of the Kulturkampf laws. But his continuing efforts to consolidate the national state now included coercive policies against the empire's Polish and Danish minorities. He supported sweeping Germanization measures against the Polish population of Prussia's eastern provinces, seeking to reinforce German ethnicity through a land settlement program as well as by imposing cultural and linguistic uniformity.

Bismarck's domestic policies have been seen as conservative, illiberal, and anachronistic at a time of rapid social and economic change. They were not necessarily devoid of progressive potential but, even when promoting radical initiatives such as the introduction of the democratic franchise or the social insurance scheme, he was primarily motivated by the desire to increase the power of the authoritarian state. He knew that political unification did not signify national unity and he always feared that his new edifice, forged through militarism and war, might collapse in ruins around him. Hence it has been claimed that he sought to consolidate his creation by artificial means, fostering a sense of nationhood through campaigns against "internal enemies" or the fabrication of war scares. His efforts may have helped to shape a new German national identity, albeit one that was predominantly Prussian and Protestant, but they also exacerbated religious, ethnic, and social divisions.

foreign policy

From 1871 Bismarck's primary goal in foreign policy was to preserve his new Reich and prevent any attempt by the powers of Europe to undo his work of unification. Much has been written about his famous "alliance system" by which he isolated France and ensured that no hostile coalition formed against Germany. But it was not until the later 1870s that Bismarck fully appreciated the significance of placing Berlin at the center of a stable international system, and his commitment to European peace after 1871 can also be qualified. In 1875 he precipitated the so-called War in Sight Crisis, raising the specter of another war between France and Germany. Britain, Russia, and Austria made clear their intention to contain German aggression since they could not tolerate another French defeat like that of 1871. Bismarck subsequently formulated his Kissingen Dictate in 1877, in which he argued that Germany should always seek to be one of three among the five Great Powers of Europe and that it was important to ensure that all the Great Powers, apart from France, needed German friendship and support. He came to realize that war no longer served Germany's interests after 1871. Germany was now a "satiated state," and provoking another war would be akin to committing suicide for fear of death. Bismarck, however, had no attachment to European peace as an ideal. He saw utility in sowing dissension between the Great Powers and exploiting conflicts on the periphery of Europe and over-seas.

Bismarck's diplomacy in the 1870s and 1880s benefited from tensions in the Balkans and the Near East, notably between Austria and Russia, as well as from imperialist rivalries between the European Great Powers. Bismarck posed as the "honest broker" at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and his prestige was such in 1879 that he was able to force Kaiser William I into agreeing to conclude a Dual Alliance with Austria (which became the Triple Alliance when the Italians joined it in 1882). Bismarck also entered into a series of

treaties with other European powers, the most important of which was the secret Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 with Russia. The clash of interests between Austria and Russia in the Bulgarian crisis from 1885 meant that it was no longer possible to preserve a conservative understanding between the three monarchical empires. Hence Bismarck officially remained loyal to Austria, while maintaining "the wire to St. Petersburg" by means of a duplicitous treaty with Russia that promised support of its interests in the region.

Bismarck always professed German disinterest in the Balkans, but he deliberately used the prospect of acquiring formerly Ottoman territory as bait to divert all the Great Powers from Germany and to make anti-German coalitions impossible. In 1884–1885 he displayed a sudden interest in colonial acquisitions, leading to the establishment of German protectorates in East Africa, South West Africa, and the Pacific. This episode has been seen by some historians as a form of "social imperialism," attempting to divert public attention from problems at home. Others suggest that Bismarck was motivated by international considerations or the desire to secure his position at a time when the accession of the liberal and anglophile crown prince to the throne appeared imminent. Bismarck rapidly lost interest in colonies once he saw how costly they were, and by the late 1880s he was forced to devote his full attention to Germany's deteriorating position in Europe.

Bismarck's diplomacy was criticized by contemporaries for being tortuous and unnecessarily complex, as well as for conciliating Russia at a time when Russia was perceived as a growing threat. Most historians, however, have expressed admiration for his diplomatic skill, which was markedly superior to that of his successors, who failed to renew the Reinsurance Treaty in March 1890, encouraged Germany's diplomatic isolation, and finally precipitated World War I. Some scholars have seen Bismarck's diplomacy, for all its cleverness, as an improvised form of crisis management that could not have been sustained over the longer term. By the late 1880s the international situation no longer favored Germany. The latent hegemony Germany had enjoyed since 1871, reinforced by its dramatic economic and demographic growth and its military power, could only be preserved if it acted with restraint.


Bismarck's long tenure of power depended on the support of the Prussian king and German kaiser who had appointed him. In March 1888 the ninety-year-old William I died and was succeeded by his son, Frederick III, who was already terminally ill with cancer of the throat. On his death three months later, his son, William II, succeeded to the throne at the age of twenty-nine.

The new kaiser had no wish to be eclipsed by the "Iron Chancellor," nor was the seventy-three-year-old Bismarck inclined to subordinate himself to his new master. There thus followed a protracted power struggle between kaiser and chancellor, in which personal antagonisms, the generational divide, and political differences all played a role. William II wanted to be "his own chancellor" but he lacked sufficient prestige to dismiss Bismarck immediately and hoped Bismarck might relinquish power gradually. But Bismarck refused to be eased out of office and instead sought to tighten his grip over the government. He also supported controversial new legislation, notably a more draconian anti-socialist law and revised military estimates, which were unacceptable to the parliamentary majority and apparently designed to provoke a conflict with the Reichstag. While William II was keen to start his reign as a "social kaiser" who conciliated the working class, Bismarck appeared intent on precipitating another constitutional crisis that would make his removal from office impossible. After a violent confrontation between the two men on 15 March 1890, Bismarck was effectively forced to write his letter of resignation three days later.

Bismarck never forgave William II for forcing him out of office. After 1890 he became an important focus of opposition to the kaiser and his new government. He thus contributed to the protracted period of political instability after his dismissal. Bismarck retired to his estate at Friedrichsruh near Hamburg, where he wrote his memoirs and nurtured his growing reputation as a national hero. He died on 30 July 1898.

Bismarck's political career was always controversial. Once deified as the architect of German unification, he has also been demonized for setting Germany on a peculiar path of modernization that eventually led to two world wars and the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945. At the height of his powers he was an exceptionally creative statesman who was capable of utilizing the forces of his day and devising imaginative and flexible solutions to the problems he faced. But he also promoted political authoritarianism, intolerant nationalism, militarism, and the glorification of war. His long tenure of power stifled the evolution of the empire's political institutions and impeded political progress. He ultimately served the interests of the Prussian military monarchy. In augmenting its power, he eventually destroyed his political career.

See alsoAlliance System; Austro-Prussian War; Bebel, August; Franco-Prussian War; Frederick William III; Frederick William IV; Germany; Kulturkampf; Revolutions of 1848; William I; William II; Windthorst, Ludwig.


Primary Sources

Bismarck, Otto von. Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman: Being the Reflections and Reminiscences of Otto Prince von Bismarck. 2 vols. Translated by A. J. Butler. London: 1898.

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Katharine Anne Lerman

Bismarck, Otto von

views updated May 21 2018

Bismarck, Otto von (1815–98) German statesman, responsible for 19th-century German unification. He was born into a wealthy Prussian family and made an impression during the Revolutions of 1848 as a diehard reactionary. In 1862 Wilhelm I named him chancellor of Prussia. Victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) brought the s German states into the Prussian-led North German Confederation, and in 1871 Bismarck became the first chancellor of the empire. In 1882 he formed the Triple Alliance with Austro-Hungary and Italy. Bismarck encouraged industry and a paternalist programme of social welfare at home, and colonization overseas. He found it difficult to work with Wilhelm II, who forced the ‘Iron Chancellor’ to resign in 1890.