Otto von Bismarck

Franz von Lenbach's portrait of Bismarck in his 75th year.
Franz von Lenbach’s portrait of Bismarck in his 75th year.

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), known as Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. In the 1860s he engineered a series of short, decisive wars that unified most of the German-speaking states (excluding Austria) into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. With that accomplished by 1871 he then skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to preserve Germany’s new role and keep Europe at peace.

Upon his appointment by King Wilhelm I as Minister President of Prussia (1862–90), Bismarck provoked three short, decisive wars against Austria and France, and aligned the smaller German states behind Prussia. In 1871 Bismarck became the first Chancellor of a united German Empire. He largely controlled its domestic and foreign affairs until he was removed by Emperor Wilhelm II in 1890. His diplomacy of realpolitik and powerful rule gained him the nickname the “Iron Chancellor”. German unification and the rapid economic growth gave a strong economic foundation to his foreign policy. He disliked colonialism, but reluctantly built an overseas empire when it was demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations and alliances, he used his unrivaled diplomatic skills to maintain Germany’s position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.

Otto von Bismarck.

He was the master of complex politics at home. He created a new bureaucratic, efficiency-oriented nation-state. He created the first welfare state in the modern world, with the goal of gaining working class support that might otherwise go to the Socialists he opposed. He allied himself first with the Liberals (who were anti-Catholic) and fought the Catholic Church in a culture war (the Kulturkampf). He lost that battle as the Catholics responded by forming a powerful Center party and using universal male suffrage to gain a bloc of seats. Bismarck then reversed himself, ended the culture war, broke with the Liberals, and formed a political alliance with the Center party. A devout Lutheran, he was loyal to his king, who in turn gave Bismarck his full support, against the advice of his wife and his heir. While Germany’s parliament was elected by universal male suffrage, it 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 that represented the landed aristocracy of the east. Under Wilhelm I, Bismarck largely controlled domestic and foreign affairs, until he was removed by the young Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, at the age of seventy-five.

Bismarck, an aristocratic Junker himself, had an extremely aggressive and domineering personality. He displayed a violent temper and kept his power by threatening to resign time and again. 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” Bismarck became a hero to German nationalists; they built hundreds of monuments glorifying the iconic symbol of powerful conservative leadership. Many historians praise him as a visionary who was instrumental in uniting Germany and, once that had been accomplished, kept the peace in Europe through adroit diplomacy.

Otto von Bismarck.

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