otto Von Bismarck
(b. April 1, 1815, Schönhausen, Altmark, Prussia [Germany]—d. July 30, 1898, Friedrichsruh, near Hamburg)
Otto von Bismarck served as prime minister of Prussia from 1862–73 and 1873–90 and was founder and first chancellor (1871–90) of the German Empire.
Early Years and Career
Bismarck was born in 1815 at Schönhausen, a family estate in Prussia. He studied law at universities in Göttingen and Berlin and then entered the Prussian civil service. After leaving the service, he helped manage the family estates. In 1847 he attended the Prussian United Diet, where his speeches against Jewish emancipation and contemporary liberalism gained him the reputation of a backwoods conservative.
In 1849 Bismarck was elected to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber of the Prussian Diet) and moved his family to Berlin. At this stage he was far from a German nationalist. In 1851 Frederick William IV appointed Bismarck as the Prussian repre-sentative to the federal Diet in Frankfurt, a clear reward for his loyalty to the monarchy. It was in Frankfurt that Bismarck began to reassess his view of German national-ism and the goals of Prussian foreign policy, which he felt relegated Prussia to a status of a second-rate power in central Europe.
After serving as ambassador to Russia from 1859 to 1862 and France in 1862, he became prime minister and foreign minister of Prussia (1862–71). In 1864 Bismarck led Prussia to ally with Austria in order to provoke war with Denmark. The victorious allies won the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, but two years later quarrels over the duchies led to war between Prussia and Austria. The defeat of Austria gave Prussia control over the states north of the Main River. In 1867 Bismarck formed them into the North German Confederation, with Prussia as its matrix.
Bismarck set about tying the southern states to the north almost immediately, but all of his efforts failed because of popular opposition in the south. Bismarck then sought to seek conflict with France. If he could not bring the south into a united German nation by reason, he would rely on the passions aroused by war.
He did not have to work too hard to produce a conflict, as relations between Prussia and its age-old enemy France were already tense. France declared war on Prussia on July 19, 1870. The Prussian army, with the armies of the other German states, attacked and defeated the disorganized French. The German states were then united, and Prussia’s king, William I, became kaiser (emperor) of the new German Empire. Bismarck, raised to the rank of prince, became chancellor. Bismarck also remained prime minister of Prussia until 1890, apart from a brief period in 1872–73.
Imperial Chancellor Foreign Policy
After three successful wars, Bismarck saw his task as pro-moting peace and gaining time so that the powerful German Empire would come to be accepted as natural. In 1873 he embraced a pacific foreign policy when he negoti-ated the Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors’ League) with Russia and Austria-Hungary. But the alliance did not survive the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. When the Austrians and British threatened war over a Carthaginian peace imposed on Turkey by the Russian victors, Bismarck called for a peace congress in Berlin. The German chancellor succeeded in getting the Russians to moderate their gains, and peace was preserved.
Soon after the conference, Bismarck negotiated a defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary, which remained in effect through World War I. Although in the mid-1860s he had rejected such an alliance as harmful, he now con-sidered it advantageous. Having a solid ally, Bismarck demonstrated his virtuosity by negotiating a revived Dreikaiserbund in 1881. In 1882 Italy, fearing French hostility, joined the Dual Alliance, making it into the Triple Alliance.
But the ephemeral nature of all these alliances soon became apparent. A crisis in Bulgaria inflamed Russo-Austrian relations, leading to a breakup of the revived league. Once again a war was avoided with Bismarck’s inter-vention, but his efforts could not reconstitute the league. He then negotiated a separate secret treaty with Russia, while maintaining the 1879 accord with Austria-Hungary.
From the defeat of Austria in 1866 until 1878 Bismarck was allied primarily with the National Liberals. Liberals now viewed him as a comrade, a man who had rejected his conservative roots. Many conservative leaders agreed with this assessment. Their fears were further enhanced when he joined liberals in a campaign against political Catholicism (Kulturkampf) in 1873. The Kulturkampf failed to achieve its goals and, if anything, convinced the Catholic minority that their fear of persecution was real. Bismarck gradually relented in his campaign, especially after the death of the activist pope, Pius IX, in 1878.
Bismarck had not counted on the emergence of new parties such as the Catholic Centre or the Social Democratic Party, both of whom began participating in imperial and Prussian elections in the early 1870s. Along with the left liberal Progressive Party, he labeled them all enemies of the empire (Reichsfeinde) and worked to halt the spread of social democracy.
In 1878–79 Bismarck initiated a significant change in economic policy, which coincided with a new alliance with the conservative parties at the expense of the liberals. Part of Bismarck’s strategy to destroy social democracy was the introduction of social legislation to woo the workers away from political radicalism. During the 1880s, accident and old-age insurance as well as a form of socialized medicine were introduced and implemented by the government. But Bismarck did not succeed, and support for the Social Democrats increased with each election.
In 1888 William I was succeeded by his son Frederick III, a sick man who ruled only three months, and Frederick’s son became Kaiser William II. Because William II wanted sole power, he forced Bismarck to resign in 1890. Bismarck retired to his estate at Friedrichsruh, where he resided until his death.During Bismarck’s rule, the map of Europe changed immeasurably. However, the German Empire, his greatest achievement, survived him by only 20 years because he had failed to create an internally unified people.