Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck at age 75, August 1890

1st Chancellor of the German Empire
In office
21 March 1871 – 20 March 1890
Monarch Wilhelm I
Friedrich III
Wilhelm II
Preceded by None (office established)
Succeeded by Leo von Caprivi

9th Minister President of the Kingdom of Prussia
In office
23 September 1862 – 1 January 1873
Monarch Wilhelm I
Preceded by Adolf of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen
Succeeded by Albrecht von Roon

11th Minister President of the Kingdom of Prussia
In office
9 November 1873 – 20 March 1890
Monarch William I
Frederick III
William II
Preceded by Albrecht von Roon
Succeeded by Leo von Caprivi

Federal Chancellor of the North German Confederation
In office
President William I
Preceded by none (Confederation established)
Succeeded by German Empire

23rd Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Prussia
In office
Monarch William I
Frederick III
William II
Preceded by Albrecht von Bernstorff
Succeeded by Leo von Caprivi

Born 1 April 1815(1815-04-01)
Schönhausen, Prussia
Died 30 July 1898 (age 83)
Friedrichsruh, German Empire
Political party None
Spouse(s) Johanna von Puttkamer
Religion Lutheranism (Pietism)

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), simply known as Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative German statesman who dominated European affairs from the 1860s to his dismissal in 1890. In 1871, after a series of short victorious wars, he unified most of the German states (whilst excluding some, most notably Austria) into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership.[1][2] This created a balance of power that preserved peace in Europe from 1871 until 1914.

As Minister President of Prussia 1862–90, Bismarck provoked wars that made Prussia dominant over Austria and France, and lined up the smaller German states behind Prussia. In 1867 he also became Chancellor of the North German Confederation. Otto von Bismarck became the first Chancellor of a united Germany after the 1871 Treaty of Versailles and largely controlled its affairs until he was removed by Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm II in 1890. His diplomacy of Realpolitik and powerful rule gained him the nickname the "Iron Chancellor". As Henry Kissinger has noted, "The man of 'blood and iron' wrote prose of extraordinary directness and lucidity, comparable in distinctiveness to Churchill's use of the English language."[3]

He used balance-of-power diplomacy to keep Europe peaceful in the 1870s and 1880s. He created a new nation-state and led the way to the welfare state. He disliked colonialism but reluctantly built an overseas empire when it was demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Bismarck (a devout Lutheran) was loyal to his king, who in turn gave Bismarck his full support. While his new German Empire had universal male suffrage, the elected officials did not have real control of the government. Bismarck distrusted democracy and ruled through a strong, well-trained bureaucracy with power in the hands of a Junker elite representing the landed aristocracy in the east.

Bismarck, an aristocratic Junker himself, had an extremely aggressive and domineering personality. He possessed not only a long-term national and international vision, but also the short-term ability to juggle many complex developments simultaneously. As the leader of what historians call "revolutionary conservatism"[4] Bismarck became a hero to German nationalists; they built hundreds of monuments glorifying the iconic symbol of powerful conservative leadership. Historians generally praise him as a statesman of moderation and balance who kept the peace in Europe and was primarily responsible for the unification of modern Germany.

Early years

Bismarck at age 21, 1836

Bismarck was born in Schönhausen, a wealthy family estate situated west of Berlin in the Prussian Province of Saxony. His father, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck (Schönhausen, 13 November 1771 – 22 November 1845), was a Junker estate owner and a former Prussian military officer; his mother, Wilhelmine Luise Mencken (Potsdam, 24 February 1789 – Berlin), the well-educated daughter of a senior government official in Berlin. The world saw Bismarck as a typical Prussian Junker — an image which he encouraged by wearing military uniforms. Bismarck was well educated and cosmopolitan, with a gift for conversation. He was fluent in English, French, Italian, Polish, and Russian.[5]

Bismarck was educated at Johann Ernst Plamann's elementary school,[6] and the Friedrich-Wilhelm and Graues Kloster secondary schools. From 1832 to 1833 he studied law at the University of Göttingen where he was a member of the Corps Hannovera before enrolling at the University of Berlin (1833–35).

At Göttingen, Bismarck became friends with the American student John Lothrop Motley. Motley later became an eminent historian and diplomat, and one of Bismarck's closest friends. Motley in 1839 wrote a novel, Morton's Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial about life in a German university in which he described Bismarck as a reckless and dashing eccentric, but also as an extremely gifted and charming young man.[7]

Although Bismarck hoped to become a diplomat, he started his practical training as a lawyer in Aachen and Potsdam, and soon resigned, having first placed his career in jeopardy by taking unauthorized leave to pursue two English girls, first Laura Russell, niece of the Duke of Cleveland, and then Isabella Loraine-Smith, daughter of a wealthy clergyman. He did not marry at this time. He also served in the army for a year and became an officer in the Landwehr (reserve), before returning to run the family estates at Schönhausen on his mother's death in his mid-twenties.

Around the age of thirty Bismarck had an intense friendship with Marie von Thadden, newly married to a friend of his. Under her influence, he became a Pietist Lutheran, and later recorded that at Marie's deathbed (from typhoid) he prayed for the first time since his childhood. Bismarck married Marie's cousin, the noblewoman Johanna von Puttkamer (Reinfeld, 11 April 1824 – Varzin, 27 November 1894) at Alt-Kolziglow (modern Kołczygłowy) on 28 July 1847. Their long and happy marriage produced three children, Herbert (b. 1849), Wilhelm (b. 1852) and Marie (b. 1847). Johanna was a shy, retiring and deeply religious woman—although famed for her sharp tongue in later life—and in his public life Bismarck was sometimes accompanied by his sister Malwine ("Malle") von Arnim.

Early political career

Bismarck at age 32, 1847

In the year of his marriage, 1847, at age 32, Bismarck was chosen as a representative to the newly created Prussian legislature, the Vereinigter Landtag. There, he gained a reputation as a royalist and reactionary politician with a gift for stinging rhetoric; he openly advocated the idea that the monarch had a divine right to rule. His selection was arranged by the Gerlach brothers, who were also Pietist Lutherans and whose ultra-conservative faction was known as the "Kreuzzeitung" after their newspaper, which featured an Iron Cross on its cover.[8]

In March 1848, Prussia faced a revolution (one of the revolutions of 1848 in various European nations), which completely overwhelmed King Frederick William IV. The monarch, though initially inclined to use armed forces to suppress the rebellion, ultimately declined to leave Berlin for the safety of military headquarters at Potsdam (Bismarck later recorded that there had been a "rattling of sabres in their scabbards" from Prussian officers when they learned that the King would not suppress the revolution by force). He offered numerous concessions to the liberals: he wore the black-red-and-gold revolutionary colors (as seen on the flag of today's democratic Germany), promised to promulgate a constitution, agreed that Prussia and other states should merge into a single nation, and appointed a liberal, Ludolf Camphausen, as Minister-President.[9]

Bismarck had at first tried to rouse the peasants of his estate into an army to march on Berlin in the King's name. He traveled to Berlin in disguise to offer his services, but was instead told to make himself useful by arranging food supplies for the Army from his estates in case they were needed. The King's brother Prince William (the future King and Emperor William I) had fled to England, and Bismarck intrigued with William's wife Augusta to place their teenage son (the future Frederick III) on the Prussian throne in King Frederick William IV's place—Augusta would have none of it, and detested Bismarck thereafter, although Bismarck did later help to restore a working relationship between the King and his brother, who were on poor terms. Bismarck was not yet a member of the Landtag—the lower house of the new Prussian legislature. The liberal victory perished by the end of 1848; the movement became weak due to internal fighting, while the conservatives regrouped, formed an inner group of advisers—including the Gerlach brothers—known as the "Camarilla" around the King, and retook control of Berlin. Although a constitution was granted, its provisions fell far short of the demands of the revolutionaries.[10]

In 1849, Bismarck was elected to the Landtag. At this stage in his career, he opposed the unification of Germany, arguing that Prussia would lose its independence in the process. He accepted his appointment as one of Prussia's representatives at the Erfurt Parliament, an assembly of German states that met to discuss plans for union, but only in order to oppose that body's proposals more effectively. The Parliament failed to bring about unification, for it lacked the support of the two most important German states, Prussia and Austria. In 1850, after a dispute over Hesse, Prussia was humiliated and forced to back down by Austria (supported by Russia) in the so-called Punctation of Olmütz; a plan for the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership, proposed by Prussia's Prime Minister Radowitz, was also abandoned.

In 1851, Frederick William IV appointed Bismarck as Prussia's envoy to the Diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt. Bismarck gave up his elected seat in the Landtag, but was appointed to the Prussian House of Lords a few years later. In Frankfurt he engaged in a battle of wills with the Austrian representative Count Friedrich von Thun und Hohenstein, insisting on being treated as an equal by petty tactics such as insisting on doing the same when Thun claimed the privileges of smoking and removing his jacket in meetings.[11] This episode was the background for an altercation in the Frankfurt chamber with Georg von Vincke that led to a duel between Bismarck and Vincke and Carl von Bodelschwingh as impartial party, which ended without injury.[12]

Bismarck's eight years in Frankfurt were marked by changes in his political opinions, detailed in the numerous lengthy memoranda which he sent to his ministerial superiors in Berlin. No longer under the influence of his ultraconservative Prussian friends, Bismarck became less reactionary and more pragmatic. He became convinced that in order to countervail Austria's newly restored influence, Prussia would have to ally herself with other German states. As a result, he grew to be more accepting of the notion of a united German nation. Bismarck also worked to maintain the friendship of Russia and a working relationship with Napoleon III's France—the latter being anathema to his conservative friends the Gerlachs, but necessary both to threaten Austria and to prevent France allying herself to Russia. In a famous letter to Leopold von Gerlach, Bismarck wrote that it was foolish to play chess having first put 16 of the 64 squares out of bounds. This observation was ironic as after 1871 France would indeed become Germany's permanent enemy and would indeed eventually ally with Russia against Germany in the 1890s.[13]

Bismarck was also horrified by Prussia's isolation during the Crimean War of the mid-1850s (in which Austria sided with Britain and France against Russia; Prussia was almost not invited to the peace talks in Paris). In the Eastern crisis of the 1870s, fear of a repetition of this turn of events would later be a factor in Bismarck's signing the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879. However, in the 1850s Bismarck correctly foresaw that by failing to support Russia (after Russian help in crushing the Hungarian Revolt in 1849, and at Olmütz in 1850, the Austrian leader Schwarzenberg had said that "Austria would astonish the world by the depth of her ingratitude") Austria could no longer count on Russian support in Italy and Germany, and had thus exposed herself to attack by France and Prussia.

In October, 1857 Frederick William IV suffered a stroke that paralyzed him. His brother, William, took over the government of Prussia as regent. At first William was seen as a moderate ruler, whose friendship with liberal Britain was symbolised by the recent marriage of his son (the future Frederick III) to Queen Victoria's eldest daughter; their son (the future William II) was born in 1859. As part of William's "New Course" he brought in new ministers, moderate conservatives known as the "Wochenblatt" party after their newspaper.

Soon the Regent replaced Bismarck as envoy in Frankfurt and made him Prussia's ambassador to the Russian Empire. In theory this was a promotion as Russia was one of the two most powerful neighbors of Prussia (the other was Austria). In reality Bismarck was sidelined from events in Germany, watching impotently as France drove Austria out of Lombardy during the Italian War of 1859. Bismarck proposed that Prussia should exploit Austria's weakness to move her frontiers "as far south as Lake Constance" on the Swiss border; instead Prussia mobilised troops in the Rhineland to deter further French advances into Venetia. As a further snub, the Regent, who scorned Bismarck as a "Landwehrleutnant" (reserve lieutenant), had declined to promote him to the rank of major-general, normal for the ambassador to Saint Petersburg (and important as Prussia and Russia were close military allies, whose heads of state often communicated through military contacts rather than diplomatic channels). Bismarck stayed in Saint Petersburg for four years, during which he almost lost his leg to botched medical treatment and once again met his future adversary, the Russian Prince Gorchakov, who had been the Russian representative in Frankfurt in the early 1850s. The Regent also appointed Helmuth von Moltke as the new Chief of Staff for the Prussian Army, and Albrecht von Roon as Prussian Minister of War and to the job of reorganizing the army. These three people over the next twelve years transformed Prussia. Bismarck later referred to this period as "the most significant of my life."

Despite his lengthy stay abroad, Bismarck was not entirely detached from German domestic affairs. He remained well-informed due to his friendship with Roon, and they formed a lasting political alliance. In May 1862, he was sent to Paris, so that he could serve as ambassador to France. He also visited England that summer. These visits enabled him to meet and take the measure of his adversaries Napoleon III, and the British Prime Minister Palmerston and Foreign Secretary Earl Russell, and also of the British Conservative politician Disraeli, later to be Prime Minister in the 1870s – who later claimed to have said of Bismarck's visit "Be careful of that man – he means every word he says".

Ministerpräsident (Prime Minister) of Prussia

Otto von Bismarck as Minister-President of Prussia, shown wearing insignia of a knight of the Johanniterorden

The regent became King William I upon his brother's death in 1861. The new monarch was often in conflict with the increasingly liberal Prussian Diet. A crisis arose in 1862, when the Diet refused to authorize funding for a proposed re-organization of the army. The King's ministers could not convince legislators to pass the budget, and the King was unwilling to make concessions. Wilhelm threatened to abdicate (though his son opposed his abdication) and believed that Bismarck was the only politician capable of handling the crisis. However, Wilhelm was ambivalent about appointing a person who demanded unfettered control over foreign affairs. When, in September 1862, the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Deputies) overwhelmingly rejected the proposed budget, Wilhelm was persuaded to recall Bismarck to Prussia on the advice of Roon. On 23 September 1862, Wilhelm appointed Bismarck Minister-President and Foreign Minister.[14]

Bismarck, Roon and Moltke took charge at a time when relations among the Great Powers—Great Britain, France, Austria and Russia—had been shattered by the Crimean War of 1854–55 and the Italian War of 1859. In the midst of this disarray, the European balance of power was restructured with the creation of the German Empire as the dominant power in Europe. This was achieved by Bismarck's diplomacy, by Roon's reorganization of the army, and by Moltke's military strategy.[15]

Despite the initial distrust of the King and Crown Prince, and the loathing of Queen Augusta, Bismarck soon acquired a powerful hold over the King by force of personality and powers of persuasion. Bismarck was intent on maintaining royal supremacy by ending the budget deadlock in the King's favour, even if he had to use extralegal means to do so. He contended that, since the Constitution did not provide for cases in which legislators failed to approve a budget, he could merely apply the previous year's budget. Thus, on the basis of the budget of 1861, tax collection continued for four years.[16]

Bismarck's conflict with the legislators grew more heated during the following years. Following the Alvensleben Convention of 1863, the House of Deputies passed a resolution declaring that it could no longer come to terms with Bismarck; in response, the King dissolved the Diet, accusing it of trying to obtain unconstitutional control over the ministry. Bismarck then issued an edict restricting the freedom of the press; this policy even gained the public opposition of the Crown Prince, Friedrich Wilhelm (the future Emperor Friedrich III). Despite attempts to silence critics, Bismarck remained a largely unpopular politician. His supporters fared poorly in the elections of October 1863, in which a liberal coalition (whose primary member was the Progress Party) won over two-thirds of the seats in the House. The House made repeated calls to the King to dismiss Bismarck, but the King supported him as he feared that if he dismissed Bismarck, a liberal ministry would follow.[17]

German unification

Blood and Iron speech

German unification had been one of the major objectives during the widespread revolutions of 1848–49, when representatives of the German states met in Frankfurt and drafted a constitution creating a federal union with a national parliament to be elected by universal male suffrage. In April 1849, the Frankfurt Parliament offered the title of Emperor to the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The Prussian king, fearing the opposition of the other German princes and the military intervention of Austria and Russia, refused to accept this popular mandate. Thus, the Frankfurt Parliament ended in failure for the German liberals. On 30 September 1862, Bismarck made a speech to the Budget Committee of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies, which included Bismarck's emphasis on using "iron and blood"—that is, military power—to achieve his goals.[18]

Prussia must concentrate and maintain its power for the favorable moment which has already slipped by several times. Prussia's boundaries according to the Vienna treaties are not favorable to a healthy state life. The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood.[19]

Defeat of Denmark

Bismarck at age 48, 1863

Germany, prior to the 1860s, consisted of a multitude of principalities loosely bound together as members of the German Confederation. Bismarck used both diplomacy and the Prussian military to achieve unification, excluding Austria from a unified Germany. Not only did this make Prussia the most powerful and dominant component of the new Germany, but also he ensured that Prussia would remain an authoritarian state, rather than a liberal parliamentary regime.[20]

Bismarck faced a diplomatic crisis when Frederick VII of Denmark died in November 1863. Succession to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein were disputed; they were claimed by Christian IX (Frederick VII's heir as King) and by Frederick von Augustenburg (a German duke). Prussian public opinion strongly favoured Augustenburg's claim, as Holstein and southern Schleswig were and still are mostly German-speaking.

Bismarck took an unpopular step by insisting that the territories legally belonged to the Danish monarch under the London Protocol signed a decade earlier. Nonetheless, Bismarck denounced Christian's decision to annex completely Schleswig to Denmark. With support from Austria, he issued an ultimatum for Christian IX to return Schleswig to its former status. When Denmark refused, Austria and Prussia invaded, commencing the Second war of Schleswig and Denmark was forced to cede both duchies.

At first this seemed like a victory for Frederick of Augustenburg, but Bismarck soon removed him from power by making a series of unworkable demands, namely that Prussia should have control over the army and navy of the Duchies. Originally, it was proposed that the Diet of the German Confederation (in which all the states of Germany were represented) should determine the fate of the duchies; but before this scheme could be effected, Bismarck induced Austria to agree to the Gastein Convention. Under this agreement signed 20 August 1865, Prussia received Schleswig, while Austria received Holstein. In that year he was made Graf (Count) von Bismarck-Schönhausen.[21]

Defeat of Austria

Bismarck, (left), with Roon (center) and Moltke (right). The three leaders of Prussia in the 1860s

In 1866, Austria reneged on the prior agreement by demanding that the Diet determine the Schleswig-Holstein issue. Bismarck used this as an excuse to start a war with Austria by charging that the Austrians had violated the Convention of Gastein. Bismarck sent Prussian troops to occupy Holstein. Provoked, Austria called for the aid of other German states, who quickly became involved in the Austro-Prussian War.[22]

With the aid of Albrecht von Roon's army reorganization, the Prussian army was nearly equal in numbers to the Austrian army. With the organizational genius of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the Prussian army fought battles it was able to win. Bismarck had also made a secret alliance with Italy, who desired Austrian-controlled Venetia. Italy's entry into the war forced the Austrians to divide their forces.[23]

As the war began, a German radical named Ferdinand Cohen-Blind attempted to assassinate Bismarck in Berlin, shooting him five times at close range. Cohen-Blind was a democrat who hoped that killing Bismarck would prevent a war among the German states. Bismarck survived with only minor injuries. Cohen-Blind committed suicide while in custody.

To the surprise of the rest of Europe, Prussia quickly defeated Austria and its allies at the Battle of Königgrätz (which saw Prussia exclude Austria from Germany and allowed Prussia to dominate German politics). The King and his generals wanted to push on, conquer Bohemia and march to Vienna, but Bismarck, worried that Prussian military luck might change or that France might intervene on Austria's side, enlisted the help of the Crown Prince (who had opposed the war but had commanded one of the Prussian armies at Königgrätz) to change his father's mind after stormy meetings.

As a result of the Peace of Prague (1866), the German Confederation was dissolved; Prussia annexed Schleswig, Holstein, Frankfurt, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel), and Nassau; and Austria promised not to intervene in German affairs. To solidify Prussian hegemony, Prussia and several other North German states joined the North German Confederation in 1867; King Wilhelm I served as its President, and Bismarck as its Chancellor.

From this point on began what historians refer to as "The Misery of Austria", in which Austria served as a mere vassal to the superior Germany, a relationship that was to shape history up to the two World Wars. Bismarck had originally managed to convince smaller states like Saxony, Hesse-Kassel, and Hanover to join Prussia against Austria, after promising them protection from foreign invasion, morale unity, and fair commercial laws.

Bismarck, who by now held the rank of major in the Landwehr, wore this uniform during the campaign, and was at last promoted to the rank of major-general in the Landwehr cavalry after the war. Although he never personally commanded troops in the field, he usually wore a general's uniform in public for the rest of his life, as seen in numerous paintings and photographs. He was also given a cash grant by the Prussian Landtag, which he used to buy a new country estate, Varzin, larger than his existing estates combined.

Military success brought Bismarck tremendous political support in Prussia. In the elections to the House of Deputies in 1866, liberals suffered a major defeat, losing their large majority. The new, largely conservative House was on much better terms with Bismarck than previous bodies; at the Minister-President's request, it retroactively approved the budgets of the past four years, which had been implemented without parliamentary consent.

Franco-Prussian War 1870–71

Anton von Werner's depiction of William's proclamation as Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles; The Grand Duke of Baden (top step, with hand raised) leads the cheering. Bismarck is in the centre-right wearing white.

Prussia's victory over Austria increased tensions with France. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, feared that a powerful Germany would change the balance of power in Europe (the French opposition politician Adolphe Thiers had correctly observed that it had really been France who had been defeated at Königgrätz). Bismarck, at the same time, did not avoid war with France. He believed that if the German states perceived France as the aggressor, they would unite behind the King of Prussia. In order to achieve this Bismarck kept Napoleon III involved in various intrigues whereby France might gain territory from Luxembourg or Belgium – France never achieved any such gain, but was made to look greedy and untrustworthy.[24]

A suitable premise for war arose in 1870, when the German Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was offered the Spanish throne, which had been vacant since a revolution in 1868. France blocked the candidacy and demanded assurances that no member of the House of Hohenzollern become King of Spain. To provoke France into declaring war with Prussia, Bismarck published the Ems Dispatch, a carefully edited version of a conversation between King Wilhelm and the French ambassador to Prussia, Count Benedetti. This conversation had been edited so that each nation felt that its ambassador had been disrespected and ridiculed, thus inflaming popular sentiment on both sides in favor of war. Langer, however, argues that this episode played a minor role in causing the war.[25]

France mobilized and declared war on 19 July. The German states saw France as the aggressor; swept up by nationalism and patriotic zeal, they rallied to Prussia's side and provided troops. Both of Bismarck's sons served as officers in the Prussian cavalry. The Franco-Prussian War (1870) was a great success for Prussia. The German army, under nominal command of the King but controlled by Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, won victory after victory. The major battles were all fought in one month (7 August till 1 September), and both French armies were captured at Sedan and Metz, the latter after a siege of some weeks. Napoleon III was taken prisoner at Sedan and kept in Germany for a while in case Bismarck had need of him to head a puppet regime; he later died in exile in England in 1873. The remainder of the war featured a siege of Paris, the city was ”ineffectually bombarded”;[26] the new French republican regime then tried, without success, to relieve Paris with various hastily assembled armies and increasingly bitter partisan warfare.

Bismarck acted immediately to secure the unification of Germany. He negotiated with representatives of the southern German states, offering special concessions if they agreed to unification. The negotiations succeeded; while the war was in its final phase King William of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor on 18 January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Château de Versailles.[27] The new German Empire was a federation: each of its 25 constituent states (kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free cities) retained some autonomy. The King of Prussia, as German Emperor, was not sovereign over the entirety of Germany; he was only primus inter pares, or first among equals. But he held the presidency of the Bundesrat, which met to discuss policy presented from the Chancellor (whom the president appointed).

At the end, France had to surrender Alsace and part of Lorraine, because Moltke and his generals insisted that it was needed as a defensive barrier. Bismarck opposed the annexation because he did not wish to make a permanent enemy of France. France was also required to pay an indemnity[28]; the indemnity figure was calculated, on the basis of population, as the precise equivalent of the indemnity which Napoleon I imposed on Prussia in 1807.

Chancellor of the German Empire

Otto von Bismarck in 1873.

In 1871, Otto von Bismarck was raised to the rank of Fürst (Prince). He was also appointed Imperial Chancellor (Reichskanzler) of the German Empire, but retained his Prussian offices (including those of Minister-President and Foreign Minister). He was also promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general, and given another country estate, Friedrichsruh, near Hamburg, which was larger than Varzin, making him a very wealthy landowner. Because of both the imperial and the Prussian offices that he held, Bismarck had near complete control over domestic and foreign policy. The office of Minister-President (M-P) of Prussia was temporarily separated from that of Chancellor in 1873, when Albrecht von Roon was appointed to the former office. But by the end of the year, Roon resigned due to ill health, and Bismarck again became M-P.

Anti-Catholic Kulturkampf

Bismarck launched an anti-Catholic Kulturkampf ("culture struggle") in Prussia in 1871. In its course all the Prussian bishops and many priests were imprisoned or exiled.[29] Prussia's population greatly expanded in the 1860s and now was one-third Catholic. Bismarck believed that the Catholic Church held too much political power; he was further concerned about the emergence of the Catholic Centre Party (organised in 1870). With support from the anticlerical National Liberal Party, which had become Bismarck's chief ally in the Reichstag, he abolished the Catholic Department of the Prussian Ministry of Culture. That left the Catholics without a voice in high circles. In 1872, the Jesuits were expelled from Germany. More severe anti-Roman Catholic laws of 1873 allowed the Prussian government to supervise the education of the Roman Catholic clergy, and curtailed the disciplinary powers of the Church. In 1875, civil ceremonies were required for weddings, which could hitherto be performed in churches. The Catholics reacted by organizing themselves; they strengthened the Centre Party. Bismarck, a devout pietistic Protestant, was alarmed that secularists and socialists were using the Kulturkampf to attack all religion. He abandoned the Kulturkampf in 1878 to preserve his remaining political capital; indeed, he needed the Centre Party votes in his new battle against socialism. Pius IX died that same year, replaced by a more pragmatic Pope Leo XIII who negotiated away most of the anti-Catholic laws.[30][31]

Otto Fürst von Bismarck became Chancellor of Germany in 1871.


In 1873, Germany and much of Europe and America entered the Long Depression, the Gründerkrise. A downturn hit the German economy for the first time since industrial development began to surge in the 1850s. To aid faltering industries, the Chancellor abandoned free trade and established protectionist tariffs (taxes on imports), which alienated the National Liberals who demanded free trade. The Kulturkampf and its effects also stirred up public opinion against the party that supported it, and Bismarck used this opportunity to distance himself from the National Liberals. This marked a rapid decline in the support of the National Liberals, and by 1879 their close ties with Bismarck had all but ended. Bismarck instead returned to conservative factions—including the Centre Party—for support. He helped foster support from the conservatives by enacting several tariffs protecting German agriculture and industry from foreign competitors in 1879.[32]


To prevent the Austro-Hungarian problems of different nationalities within one state, the government tried to Germanize the state's national minorities, situated mainly in the borders of the empire, such as the Danes in the North of Germany, the French of Alsace-Lorraine and the Poles in the East of Germany.

His policies concerning the Poles of Prussia were generally unfavourable to them,[33] furthering enmity between the German and Polish peoples. The policies were motivated by Bismarck's view that Polish existence was a threat to the German state. Bismarck, who himself spoke Polish,[34] spoke to intimates about shooting down Poles like dangerous wolves.[35]


Bismarck worried about the growth of the socialist movement—in particular, that of the Social Democratic Party. In 1878, he instituted the Anti-Socialist Laws. Socialist organizations and meetings were forbidden, as was the circulation of socialist literature. Socialist leaders were arrested and tried by police courts. But despite these efforts, the movement steadily gained supporters and seats in the Reichstag. Socialists won seats in the Reichstag by running as independent candidates, unaffiliated with any party, which was allowed by the German Constitution.[36]

Welfare state

Germany had a tradition of welfare programs in Prussia and Saxony that began as early as the 1840s. In the 1880s his social insurance programs were the first in the world and became the model for other countries and the basis of the modern welfare state.[37] Bismarck introduced old age pensions, accident insurance, medical care and unemployment insurance. He won conservative support by promising to undercut the appeal of Socialists—the Socialists always voted against his proposals, fearing they would reduce the grievances of the industrial workers. His paternalistic programs won the support of German industry because its goals were to win the support of the working classes for the Empire and reduce the outflow of emigrants to America, where wages were higher but welfare did not exist. Politically, he did win over the Centre Party which represented Catholic workers, but Socialists remained hostile. [38][39]

Foreign policies

A main objective of Bismarck's was to prevent other major powers allying with France.

Bismarck had unified his nation and now he devoted himself to promoting peace in Europe with his skills in statesmanship. He was forced to contend with French revanchism – the desire to avenge the losses of the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck therefore engaged in a policy of diplomatically isolating France while maintaining cordial relations with other nations in Europe. He had little interest in naval or colonial entanglements and thus avoided discord with the United Kingdom. In 1872, Bismarck offered friendship to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia, whose rulers joined Wilhelm I in the League of the Three Emperors, also known as the Dreikaiserbund.

Bismarck ca. 1875

Also in 1872, a protracted quarrel began to fester between Bismarck and Count Harry von Arnim, a career diplomat and the imperial ambassador to France. Arnim was a member of a prominent Pomeranian family, related to Bismarck by marriage, and someone who saw himself as a rival and competitor for the chancellorship. The ambassador disagreed unsuccessfully with Bismarck over policy vis-à-vis France. As a penalty for this indiscretion, Bismarck intended to remove Arnim from Paris and reassign him as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at İstanbul, which Arnim saw as a demotion given the relative importance of France to Germany as opposed to the Ottoman Empire. Rumors also circulated that Bismarck had made overtures toward Arnim's wife, which further inflamed tensions. Arnim refused this reassignment and continued to put forth his views in opposition to Bismarck, going so far as to remove sensitive records from embassy files at Paris to back up his attacks on the chancellor. The controversy lasted for two years, with Arnim being "protected" by powerful friends before he was formally accused of misappropriating official documents, indicted, tried, and convicted. While his sentence was under appeal, he fled to Switzerland and died in exile. After this episode, no one again openly challenged Bismarck in foreign policy matters until his resignation.[40]


By 1875 France had recovered from defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and a new government began to militarily expand and reassert itself again as a player in European politics. The German general staff under Moltke was alarmed and managed to have Bismarck ban a French procurement of ten thousand cavalry horses from Germany. There followed some informal debate of the necessity of preventive war. The printing by a prominent newspaper of an article entitled "Is War in Sight?" caused a crisis to develop that was not to Bismarck's advantage. The British government dispatched a polite warning to Berlin. Russia's Tsar Alexander II and his chancellor Prince Gorchakov, at the time on a state visit to Germany, seized the opportunity to inject themselves as European peace makers. This action initiated a lasting estrangement between Bismarck and Gorchakov over the latter's "interference" in a Franco-German spat.[41] Between 1873 and 1877, Germany repeatedly intervened in the internal affairs of France's neighbors. In Belgium, Spain, and Italy, Bismarck exerted strong and sustained political pressure to support the election or appointment of liberal, anticlerical governments. This was not merely a by-product of the Kulturkampf, but part of an integrated strategy to promote republicanism in France by strategically and ideologically isolating the clerical-monarchist regime of President Patrice de Mac-Mahon. It was hoped that by ringing France with a number of liberal states, French republicanism could defeat Mac-Mahon and his reactionary supporters. The modern concept of containment provides a useful model for understanding the dynamics of this policy.[42]


Bismarck maintained good relations with Italy, although he had a personal dislike for Italians and their country.[43] He can be seen as marginal contributor to Italian unification. Politics surrounding the 1866 war against Austria allowed Italy to annex Venetia, which had been a kingdom of the Austrian Empire since the 1815 Congress of Vienna. In addition, French mobilization for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 made it necessary for Napoleon III to withdraw his troops from Rome and The Papal States. Without these two events, Italian unification would have been a more prolonged process.


After Russia's victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, Bismarck helped negotiate a settlement at the Congress of Berlin. The Treaty of Berlin revised the earlier Treaty of San Stefano, reducing the size of newly independent Bulgaria (a pro-Russian state at that time). Bismarck and other European leaders opposed the growth of Russian influence and tried to protect the integrity of the Ottoman Empire (see Eastern Question). As a result, Russo-German relations further suffered, with the Russian chancellor Gorchakov denouncing Bismarck for compromising his nation's victory. The relationship was additionally strained due to Germany's protectionist trade policies. Some in the German military clamored for a preemptive war with Russia, but Bismarck said that "Preemptive war is like committing suicide for fear of death."[44]

Triple Alliance

The League of the Three Emperors having fallen apart, Bismarck negotiated the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary, in which each guaranteed the other against Russian attack. He also negotiated the Triple Alliance in 1882 with Austria-Hungary and Italy; this was a completely different Alliance to the Dual Alliance. Italy and Austria-Hungary soon reached the "Mediterranean Agreement" with Britain. Attempts to reconcile Germany and Russia did not have lasting effect: the Three Emperors' League was re-established in 1881, but quickly fell apart (the end of the Russian-Austrian-Prussian solidarity which had existed in various forms since 1813). Bismarck therefore negotiated the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 with Russia, in order to prevent the Bismarckian Nightmare of a Franco-Russian Encirclement. Both powers promised to remain neutral towards one another unless Russia attacked Austria-Hungary. However, the Reinsurance Treaty failed to be renewed by Wilhelm II in 1890 after Bismarck's departure from office, thus creating a critical problem for Germany in the event of a war.


Bismarck had opposed colonial acquisitions, arguing that the burden of obtaining, maintaining and defending such possessions would outweigh any potential benefit. He felt that colonies did not pay for themselves, that the German bureaucratic system would not work well in the easy-going tropics, and that the diplomatic disputes colonies brought would distract Germany from its central interest, Europe itself.[45] However, in 1883–84 he suddenly reversed himself and overnight built a colonial empire in Africa and the South Pacific. Historians have debated exactly why he made this sudden and short-lived move.[46] He was aware that public opinion had started to demand colonies for reasons of German prestige. He also wanted to undercut the anti-colonial liberals who were sponsored by the Crown Prince, who might soon become Kaiser and remove Bismarck.[47][48] The old Kaiser was 84 years old. Bismarck was influenced by Hamburg merchants and traders, his neighbors at Friedrichsruh. The establishment of the German colonial empire proceeded smoothly, starting with German New Guinea in 1884.[49][50] Other European nations, led by Britain and France, were acquiring colonies in a rapid fashion (see New Imperialism). Bismarck therefore joined in the Scramble for Africa. Germany's new colonies included Togoland (now Togo and part of Ghana), German Kamerun (now Cameroon and part of Nigeria), German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi, and the mainland part of Tanzania), and German South-West Africa (now Namibia). The Berlin Conference (1884–85) established regulations for the acquisition of African colonies; in particular, it protected free trade in certain parts of the Congo basin. Germany later also acquired colonies in the Pacific.

Avoiding war

In February 1888, during a Bulgarian crisis, Bismarck addressed the Reichstag on the dangers of a European war.

He warned of the imminent possibility that Germany will have to fight on two fronts; he spoke of the desire for peace; then he set forth the Balkan case for war and demonstrates its futility: "Bulgaria, that little country between the Danube and the Balkans, is far from being an object of adequate importance... for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought."[51]

Bismarck also repeated his emphatic warning against any German military involvement in Balkan disputes. Bismarck had first made this famous comment to the Reichstag in December 1876, when the Balkan revolts against the Ottoman Empire threatened to extend to a war between Austria and Russia.

Only a year later [1876], he is faced by the alternative of espousing the cause of Russia or that of Austria. Immediately after the last crisis, in the summer of 1875, the mutual jealousies between Russia and Austria had been rendered acute by the fresh risings in the Balkans against the Turks. Now the issues hung upon Bismarck's decision. Immediately after the peace, he had tried to paralyse the Balkan rivals by the formation of the Three Emperors' League. "I have no thought of intervening," he said privately. "That might precipitate a European war. [...] If I were to espouse the cause of one of the parties, France would promptly strike a blow on the other side. [...] I am holding two powerful heraldic beasts by their collars, and am keeping them apart for two reasons: first of all, lest they should tear one another to pieces; and secondly, lest they should come to an understanding at our expense." In the Reichstag, he popularises the same idea in the words: "I am opposed to the notion of any sort of active participation of Germany in these matters, so long as I can see no reason to suppose that German interests are involved, no interests on behalf of which it is worth our risking—excuse my plain speaking—the healthy bones of one of our Pomeranian musketeers."[52]

According to Taylor, "The more familiar grenadier took the musketeer's place in a speech of 1888".[53]

Bismarck's social legislation

Bismarck implemented the world's first welfare state in the 1880s. He worked closely with big industry and aimed to stimulate German economic growth by giving workers greater security.[54] A secondary concern was trumping the Socialists, who had no welfare proposals of their own and opposed Bismarck's. Bismarck especially listened to Hermann Wagener and Theodor Lohmann, advisers who persuaded Bismarck to give workers a corporate status in the legal and political structures of the new German state.[55] On 20 March 1884, Bismarck declared:

The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work, he is not sure that he will always be healthy, and he foresees that he will one day be old and unfit to work. If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless, left to his own devices, and society does not currently recognize any real obligation towards him beyond the usual help for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so faithfully and diligently. The usual help for the poor, however, leaves a lot to be desired, especially in large cities, where it is very much worse than in the country.[56]

Bismarck's idea was to implement welfare programs that were acceptable to the conservatives without any socialistic aspects. He was dubious about laws protecting workers at the workplace, such as safe working conditions, limitation of work hours, and the regulation of women's and child labor, because he believed that such regulation would force workers and employers to reduce work and production, and thus harm the economy. Bismarck opened debate on the subject on 17 November 1881 in the Imperial Message to the Reichstag, using the term practical Christianity[57] to describe his program. Bismarck's program centered squarely on insurance programs designed to increase productivity, and focus the political attentions of German workers on supporting the Junker's government. The program included health insurance, accident insurance, disability insurance, and a retirement pension, none of which were then currently in existence to any great degree.

Based on Bismarck's message, the Reichstag filed three bills designed to deal with the concept of Accident insurance, and one for Health Insurance. The subjects of Retirement pensions and Disability Insurance were placed on the back burner for the time being.[58] The social legislation implemented by Bismarck in the 1880s played a key role in the sharp, rapid decline of German emigration to America. Young men considering emigration looked at not only the gap between higher hourly 'direct wages' in the United States and Germany but also the differential in 'indirect wages,' that is, social benefits, which favored staying in Germany. The young men went to German industrial cities, so that Bismarck's insurance system partly offset low wage rates in Germany and furthered the fall of the emigration rate.[59]

Health Insurance Bill of 1883

The first bill that had success was the Health Insurance bill, which was passed in 1883. The program was considered the least important from Bismarck's point of view, and the least politically troublesome. The program was established to provide health care for the largest segment of the German workers. The health service was established on a local basis, with the cost divided between employers and the employed. The employers contributed 1/3, while the workers contributed 2/3s. The minimum payments for medical treatment and Sick Pay for up to 13 weeks were legally fixed. The individual local health bureaus were administered by a committee elected by the members of each bureau, and this move had the unintended effect of establishing a majority representation for the workers on account of their large financial contribution. This worked to the advantage of the Social Democrats who – through heavy Worker membership – achieved their first small foothold in public administration.[58]

Accident Insurance Bill of 1884

Bismarck's government had to submit three draft bills before they could get one passed by the Reichstag in 1884. Bismarck had originally proposed that the Federal Government pay a portion of the Accident Insurance contribution. Bismarck's motive was a demonstration of the willingness of the German government to lessen the hardship experienced by the German workers as a means of weaning them away from the various left-wing parties, most importantly the Social Democrats. The National Liberals took this program to be an expression of State Socialism, which they were dead set against. The Center party was afraid of the expansion of Federal Power at the expense of States Rights. As a result, the only way the program could be passed at all was for the entire expense to be underwritten by the Employers. To facilitate this, Bismarck arranged for the administration of this program to be placed in the hands of "Der Arbeitgeberverband in den beruflichen Korporationen" (the Organization of Employers in Occupational Corporations). This organization established central and bureaucratic insurance offices on the Federal, and in some cases the State level to perform the actual administration. The program kicked in to replace the health insurance program as of the 14th week. It paid for medical treatment and a Pension of up to 2/3s of earned wages if the worker was fully disabled. This program was expanded in 1886 to include Agricultural workers.[58]

Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889

The Old Age Pension program, an insurance equally financed by employers and workers, was designed to provide a pension annuity for workers who reached the age of 70 years. Unlike the Accident Insurance and Health Insurance programs, this program covered all categories of workers—industrial, agrarian, artisans and servants from the start. Also, unlike the other two programs, the principle that the national government should contribute a portion of the underwriting cost, with the other two portions prorated accordingly, was accepted without question. The Disability Insurance program was intended to be used by those permanently disabled. This time, the State or Province supervised the programs directly.[60]

Last years

Phonograph recording of Bismarck's voice (1889)
Bismarck recites parts of the American song In Good Old Colony Times, the ballad Schwäbische Kunde by Uhland, the song Gaudeamus igitur and the Marseillaise; then he directs some advice at his son. This is the only known recording of his voice.[61]
Problems listening to the file? See media help.

A painting of Bismarck, late in his career

Bismarck on his 80th birthday (1 April 1895)

Prince v. Bismarck's Reading Table by Christian Wilhelm Allers (1892)

In 1888, the German Emperor, Wilhelm I, died leaving the throne to his son, Friedrich III. The new monarch was already suffering from an incurable throat cancer and died after reigning for only 99 days. He was replaced by his son, Wilhelm II. The new Emperor opposed Bismarck's careful foreign policy, preferring vigorous and rapid expansion to enlarge Germany's "place in the sun".[62]

Bismarck was 16 years older than Friedrich. Before the latter became terminally ill, Bismarck did not expect he would live to see Wilhelm ascend to the throne, and thus had no strategy to deal with him. Conflicts between Wilhelm II and his chancellor soon poisoned their relationship. Perhaps on account of his prominent role in Wilhelm's upbringing, Bismarck believed that he could dominate the young Kaiser and showed little respect for his policies in the late 1880s. However, Wilhelm wanted to be his own master and was surrounded by sycophants telling him that Frederick the Great would not have been so great with a Bismarck at his side. Their final split occurred after Bismarck tried to implement far-reaching anti-Socialist laws in early 1890. The Kartell majority in the Reichstag, of the amalgamated Conservative Party and the National Liberal Party, was willing to make most of the laws permanent. But it was split about the law allowing the police the power to expel socialist agitators from their homes, a power used excessively at times against political opponents. The National Liberals refused to make this law permanent, while the Conservatives supported only the entirety of the bill and threatened to and eventually vetoed the entire bill in session because Bismarck would not agree to a modified bill.[63]

As the debate continued, Wilhelm became increasingly interested in social problems, especially the treatment of mine workers who went on strike in 1889, and keeping with his active policy in government, routinely interrupted Bismarck in Council to make clear his social policy. Bismarck sharply disagreed with Wilhelm's policy and worked to circumvent it. Even though Wilhelm supported the altered anti-socialist bill, Bismarck pushed for his support to veto the bill in its entirety. But when his arguments could not convince Wilhelm, Bismarck became excited and agitated until uncharacteristically blurting out his motive to see the bill fail: to have the socialists agitate until a violent clash occurred that could be used as a pretext to crush them. Wilhelm replied that he was not willing to open his reign with a bloody campaign against his own subjects. The next day, after realizing his blunder, Bismarck attempted to reach a compromise with Wilhelm by agreeing to his social policy towards industrial workers, and even suggested a European council to discuss working conditions, presided over by the German Emperor.

Despite this, a turn of events eventually led to his distancing from Wilhelm. Bismarck, feeling pressured and unappreciated by the Emperor and undermined by ambitious advisers, refused to sign a proclamation regarding the protection of workers along with Wilhelm, as was required by the German Constitution, to protest Wilhelm's ever increasing interference to Bismarck's previously unquestioned authority. Bismarck also worked behind the scenes to break the Continental labour council on which Wilhelm had set his heart.[64]

Portrait of Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck by Franz von Lenbach. Otto von Bismarck, painted in his seventy-fifth year.

The final break came as Bismarck searched for a new parliamentary majority, with his Kartell voted from power due to the anti-socialist bill fiasco. The remaining forces in the Reichstag were the Catholic Centre Party and the Conservative Party. Bismarck wished to form a new block with the Centre Party, and invited Ludwig Windthorst, the parliamentary leader to discuss an alliance. This would be Bismarck's last political manoeuvre. Wilhelm was furious to hear about Windthorst's visit. In a parliamentary state, the head of government depends on the confidence of the parliamentary majority, and certainly has the right to form coalitions to ensure his policies a majority. However, in Germany, the Chancellor depended on the confidence of the Emperor alone, and Wilhelm believed that the Emperor had the right to be informed before his minister's meeting. After a heated argument in Bismarck's office Wilhelm, whom Bismarck had allowed to see a letter from Tsar Alexander III describing him as a "badly brought-up boy", stormed out, after first ordering the rescinding of the Cabinet Order of 1851, which had forbidden Prussian Cabinet Ministers to report directly to the King of Prussia, requiring them instead to report via the Prime Minister. Bismarck, forced for the first time into a situation he could not use to his advantage, wrote a blistering letter of resignation, decrying Wilhelm's interference in foreign and domestic policy, which was published only after Bismarck's death. As it turned out, Bismarck became the first victim of his own creation, and when he realized that his dismissal was imminent:

All Bismarck's resources were deployed; he even asked Empress Victoria to use her influence with her son on his behalf. But the wizard had lost his magic; his spells were powerless because they were exerted on people who did not respect them, and he who had so signally disregarded Kant's command to use people as ends in themselves had too small a stock of loyalty to draw on. As Lord Salisbury told Queen Victoria: 'The very qualities which Bismarck fostered in the Emperor in order to strengthen himself when the Emperor Frederick should come to the throne have been the qualities by which he has been overthrown.' The Empress, with what must have been a mixture of pity and triumph, told him that her influence with her son could not save him for he himself had destroyed it.[65]

"Dropping the Pilot"

Bismarck resigned at Wilhelm II's insistence on 18 March 1890, at age 75, to be succeeded as Chancellor of Germany and Minister-President of Prussia by Leo von Caprivi.[66] Bismarck was discarded ("dropping the pilot" in the words of the famous Punch cartoon), promoted to the rank of "Colonel-General with the Dignity of Field Marshal" (so-called because the German Army did not appoint full Field Marshals in peacetime) and given a new title, Duke of Lauenburg, which he joked would be useful when travelling incognito. He was soon elected as a National Liberal to the Reichstag for Bennigsen's old and supposedly safe Hamburg seat, but was embarrassed by being forced to a second ballot by a Social Democrat rival, and never actually took up his seat. He entered into restless, resentful retirement to his estates at Varzin (in today's Poland). Within one month after his wife died on 27 November 1894, he moved to Friedrichsruh near Hamburg, waiting in vain to be petitioned for advice and counsel.

Bismarck spent his final years composing his memoirs (Gedanken und Erinnerungen, or Thoughts and Memories), a work of literary genius but questionable accuracy, in which he increased the drama around every event and always presented himself favorably. He died in July 1898 (at the age of 83) at Friedrichsruh, where he is entombed in the Bismarck-Mausoleum. He was succeeded as Fürst von Bismarck-Schönhausen by Herbert. He continued his feud with Wilhelm II by attacking him in his memoirs and by publishing the text of the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, a breach of national security for which any individual of lesser status would have been prosecuted.

He managed one final attack on Wilhelm by having his tombstone inscribed with the epitaph "Here lies a true servant of the Emperor Wilhelm I".

Last warning and prediction

The Bismarck Monument, Hamburg

Memorial statue in Bielefeld

In December 1897, Wilhelm II visited Bismarck for the last time. Bismarck again warned the Kaiser about the dangers of improvising government policy based on the intrigues of courtiers and militarists. Bismarck's last warning was:

Your Majesty, so long as you have this present officer corps, you can do as you please. But when this is no longer the case, it will be very different for you.[67]

Subsequently, Bismarck made this prediction:

"Jena came twenty years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this" ― a prophecy fulfilled a little late when, twenty four years after his resignation as Chancellor, World War I began in August 1914.[68]

Legacy and memory

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Memorial to Otto von Bismarck, Tiergarten, Berlin

Historians have reached a broad consensus on the content, function and importance of the image of Bismarck within Germany's political culture over the past 125 years.[69][70] Steinberg says, his achievements in 1862-71 were "the greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries."[71]

Bismarck's most important legacy is the unification of Germany. Germany had existed as a collection of hundreds of separate principalities and Free Cities since the formation of the Holy Roman Empire. Over the centuries various rulers had tried to unify the German states without success until Bismarck. Largely as a result of Bismarck's efforts, the various German kingdoms were united into a single country.

Following unification, Germany became one of the most powerful nations in Europe. Bismarck's astute, cautious, and pragmatic foreign policies allowed Germany to retain peacefully the powerful position into which he had brought it; maintaining amiable diplomacy with almost all European nations. France, the main exception, was devastated by Bismarck's wars and his harsh subsequent policies towards it; France became one of Germany's most bitter enemies in Europe. Austria, too, was weakened by the creation of a German Empire, though to a much lesser extent than France. Bismarck believed that as long as Britain, Russia and Italy were assured of the peaceful nature of the German Empire, French belligerency could be contained; his diplomatic feats were undone, however, by Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose policies unified other European powers against Germany in time for World War I.

Historians stress that Bismarck's peace-oriented, "saturated continental diplomacy" was increasingly unpopular, because it consciously reined in any expansionist drives. In dramatic contrast stands the ambition of Wilhelm II's Weltpolitik to secure the Reich's future through expansion, leading to World War I. Likewise Bismarck's policy to deny the military a dominant voice in foreign political decisionmaking was overturned by 1914 as Germany became an armed state.

Bismarck's psychology and personal traits have not been so favourably received by scholars. The American historian Jonathan Steinberg portrays a malign genius who was deeply vengeful, even toward his closest friends and family members. Evans says he was "intimidating and unscrupulous, playing to others' frailties, not their strengths."[72] British historians, including Evans, Taylor, Palmer and Crankshaw, see Bismarck as an ambivalent figure, undoubtedly a man of great skill but who left no lasting system in place to guide successors less skilled than himself. Being a committed monarchist himself, Bismarck allowed no effective constitutional check on the power of the Emperor, thus placing a time bomb in the foundation of the Germany that he created.

During most of his nearly 30 year-long tenure, Bismarck held undisputed control over the government's policies. He was well supported by his friend Albrecht von Roon, the war minister, as well as the leader of the Prussian army Helmuth von Moltke. Bismarck's diplomatic moves relied on a victorious Prussian military, and these two men gave Bismarck the victories he needed to convince the smaller German states to join Prussia.

Memorial dedicated to Bismarck as a student at the Rudelsburg

Bismarck took steps to silence or restrain political opposition, as evidenced by laws restricting the freedom of the press, and the anti-socialist laws. He waged a culture war (Kulturkampf) against the Catholic Church until he realized the conservatism of the Catholics made them natural allies against the Socialists. His king Wilhelm I rarely challenged the Chancellor's decisions; on several occasions, Bismarck obtained his monarch's approval by threatening to resign. However, Wilhelm II intended to govern the country himself, making the ousting of Bismarck one of his first tasks as Kaiser. Bismarck's successors as Chancellor were much less influential, as power was concentrated in the Emperor's hands.


As soon as he had to leave his office, citizens started to praise him, collecting money to build monuments like the Bismarck Memorial or towers dedicated to him. Much honour was given to him in Germany, many buildings have his name, books about him were best-sellers, and he was often painted, e.g., by Franz von Lenbach and C.W. Allers. The first monument built in his honour was the one at Bad Kissingen erected in 1877.

Numerous statues and memorials dot the cities, towns, and countryside of Germany, and the famous Bismarck Memorial in Berlin, not to mention numerous Bismarck towers on four continents. The only memorial showing him as a student at Göttingen University (together with a dog, possibly his Reichshund Tyras) and as a member of his Corps Hannovera was re-erected in 2006 at the Rudelsburg. The gleaming white Bismarck Monument in the city of Hamburg, which stands in the centre of the St. Pauli district, was built in 1906 and is the largest, and probably best-known, memorial to Bismarck worldwide. The statues depicted him as massive, monolithic, rigid and unambiguous.[73] Two ships of the German Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), and the Bismarck from the World War II–era, were named after him.

Bismarck myth


Otto von Bismarck statue in Berlin

Gerwarth (2007) shows that the Bismarck myth, built up predominantly during his years of retirement and even more stridently after his death, proved a powerful rhetorical and ideological tool. The myth made him out to be a dogmatic ideologue and ardent nationalist when, in fact, he was ideologically flexible. Gerwarth argues that the constructed memory of Bismarck played a central role as an anti-democratic myth in the highly ideological battle over the past which raged between 1918 and 1933. This myth proved to be a weapon against the Weimar Republic, and exercised a destructive influence on the political culture of the first German democracy. Frankel (2005) shows the Bismarck cult fostered and legitimized a new style of right-wing politics, and made possible the post-Bismarckian crisis of leadership, both real and perceived, that had Germans seeking the strongest possible leader and asking, "What Would Bismarck Do?"

For example, Hamburg's memorial, unveiled in 1906, is considered one of the greatest expressions of imperial Germany's Bismarck cult and an important development in the history of German memorial art. It was a product of the desire of Hamburg's patrician classes to defend their political privileges in the face of dramatic social change and attendant demands for political reform. To those who presided over its construction, the monument was also a means of asserting Hamburg's cultural aspirations and of shrugging off a reputation as a city hostile to the arts. The memorial was greeted with widespread disapproval among the working classes and did not prevent their increasing support for the Social Democrats.[74]

Place names

A number of localities around the world have been named in Bismarck's honour. They include:

  • Bismarck Archipelago, near the former German colony of New Guinea.
  • Bismarck, Illinois
  • Bismarck, North Dakota, a city and state capital in the United States.
  • Bismarck, Missouri, a city in Missouri.
  • Bismarck Sea
  • Bismarck Strait, a channel in Antarctica.
  • Bismarckburg (Kasanga, Tanzania)

Titles and styles from birth to death

Styles of
The Prince of Bismarck
Reference style His Serene Highness
Spoken style Your Serene Highness
Alternative style Sir
  • 1 April 1815 – 1865: Junker Otto von Bismarck
  • 1865–1871: High Born Count Otto of Bismarck-Schönhausen
  • 1871–1890: His Serene Highness The Prince of Bismarck
  • 1890 – 30 July 1898: His Serene Highness The Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg

Bismarck was created Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen ("Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen") in 1865; this comital title is borne by all his descendants in the male line. In 1871, he was further created Fürst von Bismarck ("Prince of Bismarck") and accorded the style of Durchlaucht (equivalent to "Serene Highness"); this princely title descended only to his eldest male heirs.

Duke of Lauenburg

In 1890, Bismarck was created further Herzog von Lauenburg ("Duke of Lauenburg"; the Duchy was one of the territories which Prussia seized from the Danish king in 1864).

It was Bismarck's ambition to be assimilated into the mediatized houses of Germany. He attempted to persuade Kaiser Wilhelm I that he should be endowed with the sovereign duchy of Lauenburg, in reward for his services to the imperial family and the German empire. This was on the understanding that Bismarck would immediately restore the duchy to Prussia; all that he wanted was the privilege of a mediatized family for himself and his descendants. This novel idea was turned down by the conservative emperor, who thought that he had already given the chancellor enough rewards. There is reason to believe that he informed Wilhelm II of his wishes. After being forced by the sovereign to resign, he received the purely honorific title of "Duke of Lauenburg", without the duchy itself and the sovereignty that would have transformed his family into a mediatized house. Bismarck regarded it as a mockery of his ambition, and he considered nothing more cruel than this action of the emperor.[75]

On Bismarck's death in 1898, his dukedom (held only for his own lifetime) was extinguished and the princely title passed to his eldest son, Herbert.

See also

DodgerBlue flag waving.svg conservatism



  1. ^ Peter E. Quint (17 September 2012). The Imperfect Union: Constitutional Structures of German Unification. Princeton University Press. pp. 9–. ISBN 978-1-4008-2216-4. 
  2. ^ Alison Kitson (1 September 2001). Germany 1858-1990: Hope, Terror and Revival. Oxford University Press. pp. 1875–. ISBN 978-0-19-913417-5. 
  3. ^ Kissinger 2011.
  4. ^ Isabel V. Hull, The Entourage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1888–1918 (2004) p. 85
  5. ^ Charles Lowe (1886). Prince Bismarck: An Historical Biography With Two Portraits. p. 538. 
  6. ^ Field 1898, pp. 603–4.
  7. ^ Steinberg 2011, pp. 39–41.
  8. ^ Pflanze 1971, p. 56.
  9. ^ Steinberg 2011, p. 89.
  10. ^ Pflanze 1971, p. 64.
  11. ^ Steinberg 2011, p. 117.
  12. ^ Steinberg 2011, pp. 142–43.
  13. ^ Steinberg 2011, ch. 5.
  14. ^ Steinberg 2011, ch. 6.
  15. ^ Eyck 1964, pp. 58–68.
  16. ^ Taylor 1955, pp. 48–51.
  17. ^ Eyck 1964, pp. 69–70.
  18. ^ Hollyday 1970, p. 16.
  19. ^ Hollyday 1970, pp. 16–18.
  20. ^ Gordon A. Craig, Germany, 1866–1945 (1978), pp 1-21
  21. ^ Eyck 1964, pp. 58–106.
  22. ^ Eyck 1964, pp. 107-38.
  23. ^ Pearce 2010.
  24. ^ Eyck 1964, pp. 139-86
  25. ^ William Langer, "Bismarck as Dramatist," in Studies in Diplomatic History & Historiography in Honour of G.P. Gooch (1962) pp 199–216,
  26. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 126.
  27. ^ Crankshaw.
  28. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 133.
  29. ^ Blackbourn 1998, pp. 261–3.
  30. ^ Ross 2000.
  31. ^ Gross 2005.
  32. ^ E. J. Feuchtwanger, Bismarck (2002) p. 208
  33. ^ "Bismarck", DE: DHM, .
  34. ^ Crankshaw 1981, p. 150.
  35. ^ Norman Davies, God's Playground, a History of Poland: 1795 to the present (1982) p 124 online
  36. ^ Friedrich Darmstaedter, Bismarck and the creation of the Second Reich (2008) p. xiv, xvii
  37. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 203.
  38. ^ Hennock 2007, p. 94.
  39. ^ Beck 1995, p. 14, 112, 204.
  40. ^ Crankshaw 1981, p. 322.
  41. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 154.
  42. ^ Stone 1994, pp. 271–304.
  43. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 212.
  44. ^ Retallack 2008, p. 29.
  45. ^ Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann. "Domestic Origins of Germany's Colonial Expansion under Bismarck." Past & Present (Feb 1969), Issue 42, pp 140–159 in JSTOR
  46. ^ Kennedy 1988, ch 10.
  47. ^ Eyck 1964, pp. 273–76.
  48. ^ Wehler 1970, pp. 119–55.
  49. ^ von Strandmann 1969, pp. 140–59.
  50. ^ Crankshaw 1981, pp. 395–7.
  51. ^ Ludwig 1927a, p. 73.
  52. ^ Ludwig 1927b, p. 511.
  53. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 167.
  54. ^ E. P. Hennock, The Origin of the Welfare State in England and Germany, 1850–1914: Social Policies Compared (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  55. ^ E. P. Hennock. "Social Policy under the Empire: Myths and Evidence" German History 1998 16(1): 58–74; Herman Beck, The Origins of the Authoritarian Welfare State in Prussia. Conservatives, Bureaucracy, and the Social Question, 1815–70. 1995.
  56. ^ Frederic B. M. Hollyday, Bismarck (1970) p. 65
  57. ^ Moritz Busch. Bismarck: Some secret pages from his history. New York: Macmillan, 1898. Vol. II, p. 282
  58. ^ a b c Holborn, Hajo. A History of Modern Germany – 1840–1945. Princeton UP, 1969. pp. 291–93.
  59. ^ David Khoudour-Castéras. "Welfare State and Labor Mobility: The Impact of Bismarck's Social Legislation on German Emigration Before World War I." Journal of Economic History 68.1 (2008): 211–243.
  60. ^ E. P. Hennock, "Social Policy in the Bismarck Era: A Progress Report," German History, (June 2003) 21#2 pp 229–238 online
  61. ^ Cowen 2012.
  62. ^ Craig, (1978) pp 225-29
  63. ^ Steinberg, Bismarck, pp 429-64
  64. ^ Craig, (1978) pp 171-79
  65. ^ Michael Balfour, The Kaiser and his Times, (1964) p. 132
  66. ^ Norman Rich, Friedrich von Holstein: politics and diplomacy in the era of Bismarck and Wilhelm II (1965) Volume 1 pp 279–83 shows that Friedrich von Holstein was a key player
  67. ^ Alan Palmer, Bismarck, Charles Scribner's Sons (1976) p. 267
  68. ^ Taylor 1969, p. 264.
  69. ^ Müller (2008)
  70. ^ Urbach (1998)
  71. ^ Jonathan Steinberg (2011). Bismarck: A Life. Oxford University Press. p. 184. 
  72. ^ Richard J. Evans, "The Gambler in Blood and Iron," New York Review (Feb. 23, 2012) p 39
  73. ^ Sieglinde Seele, Lexikon der Bismarck-Denkmäler. Türme, Standbilder, Büsten, Gedenksteine und andere Ehrungen, Michael Imhof Verlag: Petersberg, 2005; 480 pp.
  74. ^ Mark A.Russell, "The Building of Hamburg's Bismarck Memorial, 1898–1906," Historical Journal 2000 43(1): 133–156
  75. ^ "THE "MEDIATIZED" -- OR THE "HIGH NOBILITY" OF EUROPE; Consisting of Something Like Fifty families Which Enjoyed-Petty Sovereignty Before the Holy Roman Empire's Overthrow, They Still Exercise Certain Special Privileges Mixed with Unusual Restrictions.". New York Times. September 27, 1908. 




  • Berghahn, Volker. Imperial Germany, 1871–1914 (1994)
  • Blackbourn, David (1998), The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany, 1780–1918 .
  • Craig, Gordon A. Germany, 1866–1945 (1978) online edition
  • Holborn, Hajo (1969), "The Constitutional Conflict in Prussia and the Early Years of the Bismarck Ministry", The History of Modern Germany 1840–1945, pp. 131–72 .
  •          (1969), "The Founding of the New German Empire, 1865–71", The History of Modern Germany 1840–1945, pp. 173–229 .
  •          (1969), "Bismarck and the Consolidation of the German Empire, 1871–90", The History of Modern Germany 1840–1945, pp. 233–97 .
  • Langer, William L. European alliances and alignments, 1871–1890 (1964)
  • Retallack, James N (2008), Imperial Germany, 1871–1918 .
  • Robinson, Janet, and Joe Robinson. Handbook of Imperial Germany (2009) excerpt and text search
  • Sheehan, James J. German History, 1770–1866 (1989), dense, thorough political history
  •          (1978) (ebooks), German liberalism in the ninetury century, University of Chicago Press; ACLS, , behind a paywall.

Specialized studies

  • Beck, Hermann (1995), Origins of the Authoritarian Welfare State in Prussia, 1815–1870 .
  • Clark, Chester Wells. Franz Joseph and Bismarck: The Diplomacy of Austria before the War of 1866 (Harvard University Press, 1934).
  • Field, WG (October 1898), "Bismarck's First School", The Journal of Education (Oxford University Press) 20: 603–4, .
  • Goddard, Stacie E. "When Right Makes Might: How Prussia Overturned the European Balance of Power," International Security, Volume 33, Number 3, Winter 2008/09, pp. 110–42 in Project MUSE, covers 1864–71
  • Gross, Michael B (2005), The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany .
  • Hennock, E. P. The Origin of the Welfare State in England and Germany, 1850–1914: Social Policies Compared (Cambridge University Press, 2007) 381 pp.
  • Hennock, E. P. "Social Policy in the Bismarck Era: A Progress Report," German History, (June 2003) 21#2 pp 229–238 online
  • Howard, Michael. The Franco-Prussian War: The German invasion of France, 1870–1871 (1961) excerpt and text search
  • Kennedy, Paul M (1988), The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914 .
  • Kissinger, Henry. "The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck," Daedalus Vol. 97, No. 3, (Summer, 1968), pp. 888–924 in JSTOR
  • Lord, Robert H. "Bismarck and Russia in 1863," American Historical Review, Vol. 29, No. 1 (October 1923), pp. 2–48. in JSTOR
  • Mork, Gordon R. "Bismarck and the 'Capitulation' of German Liberalism," Journal of Modern History Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 1971), pp. 59–75 in JSTOR
  • Paur, Philip. "The Corporatist Character of Bismarck's Social Policy," European History Quarterly, Oct 1981; vol. 11: pp. 427–60.
  • Ross, Ronald J (1998), The Failure of Bismarck's Kulturkampf: Catholicism and State Power in Imperial Germany, 1871–1887, The Catholic University of America Press , 219 pp.
  • Sigerist, Henry E (1999) [1943], "From Bismarck to Beveridge: Developments and Trends in Social Security Legislation", Journal of Public Health Policy (JSTOR) 20 (4): 474–96, .
  • Stone, James (1994), "Bismarck and the Containment of France, 1873–1877", Canadian Journal of History 29 (2) 
  • von Strandmann, Hartmut Pogge. "Domestic Origins of Germany's Colonial Expansion under Bismarck," Past & Present No. 42 (Feb., 1969), pp. 140–59 in JSTOR
  • Waller, Bruce. Bismarck at the Crossroads. The Reorientation of German Foreign Policy after the Congress of Berlin 1878–1880 (1974)
  • Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870–1871(2005)
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich "Bismarck's Imperialism 1862–1890" Past and Present, No. 48, August 1970. pages 119–155 online edition
  • Wetzel, David. A Duel of Nations: Germany, France, and the Diplomacy of the War of 1870-1871 (University of Wisconsin Press; 2012) 310 pages
  • Wetzel, David. A Duel of Giants: Bismarck, Napoleon III, and the Origins of the Franco-Prussian War (U of Wisconsin Press, 2001). 244 pp. ISBN 0-299-17490-5

Historiography and memory

  • Cowen, Ron (30 January 2012), "Restored Edison Records Revive Giants of 19th-Century Germany", New York Times,, retrieved 31 January 2012 
  • Frankel, Richard E. "From the Beer Halls to the Halls of Power: The Cult of Bismarck and the Legitimization of a New German Right, 1898–1945," German Studies Review, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Oct., 2003), pp. 543–560 in JSTOR
  • Frankel, Richard E (2005), Bismarck's Shadow. The Cult of Leadership and the Transformation of the German Right, 1898–1945, ISBN 1-84520-033-0 , 222 pp.
  • Gerwarth, Robert. "Inventing the Iron Chancellor," History Today 2007 57(6): 43–49, in EBSCO
  •          (2005), The Bismarck Myth: Weimar Germany and the Legacy of the Iron Chancellor, ISBN 0-19-928184-X , 216 pp.
  • (2008) "Man, Myth and Monuments: The Legacy of Otto von Bismarck (1866–1998)". European History Quarterly 38 (4): 626–36. DOI:10.1177/0265691408094517. 
  • John J. O'Shea. "Bismarck's Decline and Fall," The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XXIII, January/October 1898.
  • Pearce, Robert (March 2010), "The Austro-Prussian War", History Review (66) .
  • Russell, Mark A. "The Building of Hamburg's Bismarck Memorial, 1898–1906," Historical Journal, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 2000), pp. 133–56 in JSTOR
  • Steefel, Lawrence D. "Bismarck," Journal of Modern History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Mar., 1930), pp. 74–95 in JSTOR
  • Stürmer, Michael. "Bismarck in Perspective," Central European History, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1870/71 (Dec., 1971), pp. 291–331 in JSTOR
  • Urbach, Karina. "Between Saviour and Villain: 100 Years of Bismarck Biographies," Historical Journal 1998 41(4): 1141–60 in JSTOR

Primary sources

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
NAME Bismarck, Otto von
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen, Der Eiserne Kanzler
SHORT DESCRIPTION Chancellor of Germany, Diplomat
DATE OF BIRTH 1 April 1815
PLACE OF BIRTH Schönhausen, Elbe
DATE OF DEATH 30 July 1898
PLACE OF DEATH Friedrichsruh near Hamburg

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