The German statesman Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck (1815-1898) was largely responsible for the creation of the German Empire in 1871. A leading diplomat of the late 19th century, he was known as the Iron Chancellor.
Otto von Bismarck, born at Schönhausen on April 1, 1815, to Ferdinand von Bismarck-Schönhausen and Wilhelmine Mencken, displayed a willful temperament from childhood. He studied at the University of Göttingen and by 1836 had qualified as a lawyer. But during the following decade he failed to make a career of this or anything else. Tall, slender, and bearded, the young squire was characterized by extravagance, laziness, excessive drinking, needlessly belligerent atheism, and rudeness. In 1847, however, Bismarck made a number of significant changes in his life. He became religious, entered politics as a substitute member of the upper house of the Prussian parliament, and married Johanna von Puttkamer.
In 1851 Frederick William IV appointed Bismarck as Prussian representative to the Frankfurt Diet of the German Confederation. An ingenious but cautious obstructionist of Austria's presidency, Bismarck described Frankfurt diplomacy as "mutually distasteful espionage." He performed well enough, however, to gain advancement to ambassadorial positions at Vienna in 1854, St. Petersburg in 1859, and Paris in 1862. He was astute in his judgment of international affairs and often acid in his comments on foreign leaders; he spoke of Napoleon III as "a sphinx without a riddle," of the Austrian Count Rechberg as "the little bottle of poison," and of the Russian Prince Gorchakov as "the fox in wooden shoes."
Minister-President of Prussia
In 1862 Frederick William's successor, William I, faced a crisis. He sought a larger standing army as a foundation for Prussian foreign policy; but he could not get parliamentary support for this plan, and he needed a strong minister-president who was willing to persist against opposition majorities. War Minister Roon persuaded the King to entrust the government to Bismarck. William attempted to condition the Sept. 22, 1862, appointment by a written agreement limiting the chief minister's part in foreign affairs, but Bismarck easily talked this restriction to shreds.
Bismarck's attempt to conciliate the budget committee foundered on his September 29 remark, "The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and resolutions of majorities—that was the mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood." Bismarck complained that the words were misunderstood, but "blood and iron" became an unshakable popular label for his policies.
Bismarck soon turned to foreign affairs. He was determined to achieve Prussian annexation of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein at the expense of Denmark. The history of Schleswig-Holstein during the preceding 2 decades had been stormy, and there were a number of conflicting claims of sovereignty over the territories. Bismarck let the Hohenzollerns, the Prussian ruling family, encourage the Duke of Augustenburg in his claim for Holstein, and the duke established a court at Kiel in Holstein in December 1863. Bismarck then, however, persuaded Austria's Count Rechberg to join in military intervention against the Hohenzollern protégé. This ability to take opposite sides at the same time in a political quarrel for motives ulterior to the issue itself was a Bismarckian quality not always appreciated by his contemporaries. Austro-Prussian forces occupied Holstein and invaded Schleswig in February 1864. The Danes resisted, largely because of a mistaken hope of English help, which Bismarck reportedly assessed with the comment, "If Lord Palmerston sends the British army to Germany, I shall have the police arrest them."
Denmark's 1864 defeat by Austro-Prussian forces led to the 1865 Austro-Prussian Gastein Convention, which exposed Rechberg's folly in committing Austrian troops to an adventure from which only Prussia could profit. Prussia occupied Schleswig, and Austria occupied Holstein, with Prussia to construct, own, and operate a naval base at Kiel and a Kiel-Brunsbüttel canal, both in Holstein. King William made Bismarck a count.
Bismarck gave Austria a number of opportunities to retreat from its Holstein predicament; when Austria turned to the German Confederation and France for anti-Prussian support, however, Bismarck allied Prussia to Italy. In 1866 Austria mobilized Confederation forces against Prussia, whose Frankfurt representative declared this to be an act of war dissolving the Confederation. The resulting Seven Weeks War led to the defeat of Austria at Königgrätz (July 3) by the Prussian general Moltke. Bismarck persuaded king William to accept the lenient Truce of Nikolsburg (July 26) and Treaty of Prague (August 23).
Prussia's victory enabled Bismarck to achieve Prussian annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, Hesse-Cassel, and Frankfurt. The newly formed North German Confederation, headed by Prussia and excluding Austria, provided a popularly elected assembly; the Prussian king, however, held veto power on all political issues. The victory over Austria increased Bismarck's power, and he was able to obtain parliamentary approval of an indemnity budget for 4 years of unconstitutional government. Bismarck was also voted a large grant, with which he bought an estate in Farther Pomerania.
As payment for its neutrality during the Austro-Prussian War, France claimed Belgium. Bismarck held that the 1839 European treaty prevented this annexation, and instead he agreed to neutralize Luxembourg as a concession to the government of Napoleon III. The French were, however, antagonized by Bismarck's actions. In 1870 he heightened French hostility by supporting the claim of Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to the Spanish throne. The French government demanded Leopold's withdrawal, and Vincent Benedetti, the French ambassador to Prussia, requested formal assurance that no Hohenzollern would ever occupy the Spanish throne. William, who was staying at Bad Ems, declined the request and telegraphed Bismarck an account of the interview. Bismarck edited this "Ems Dispatch" and published an abrupt version that suggested that discussions were over and the guns loaded. His action precipitated the French declaration of war against Prussia on July 19, 1870.
Bismarck's treaties with the South German states brought them into the war against France, and his work at field headquarters transformed these wartime partnerships into a lasting federation. Within 6 weeks the German army had moved through Alsace-Lorraine and forced the surrender of Napoleon III and his army at Sedan (Sept. 2, 1870). But Paris defiantly proclaimed a republic and refused to capitulate. The annexation of occupied Alsace—Lorraine became Bismarck's territorial justification for continuing the war, and the siege of Paris ended in French surrender (Jan. 28, 1871). Alsace-Lorraine became a German imperial territory by the Treaty of Frankfurt (May 10, 1871). The Prussian victory led to the formation of the Reich, a unified German empire under Prussian leadership. William was proclaimed kaiser, or emperor, and Bismarck became chancellor of the empire. Bismarck was also elevated to the rank of prince and given a Friedrichsruh estate.
Chancellor of the Reich (1871-1890)
Bismarck modernized German administration, law, and education in harmony with the economic and technological revolution which was transforming Germany into an industrial society. However, he developed no political system, party, or set of issues to support and succeed him. His Kulturkampf, or vehement opposition to the Catholic Church, was unsuccessful, and his anti-Socialist policies contributed to the wreckage of the Bismarckian parties in the 1890 election.
Among Bismarck's major diplomatic achievements of this period were the establishment of the Dreikaiserbund, or Three Emperors' League (Germany, Russia, Austria), of 1872-1878 and 1881-1887 and the negotiation of the 1879 Austro-German Duplice, the 1882 Austro-German-Italian Triplice, and the secret 1887 Russo-German Reinsurance Treaty. He served as chairman of the 1878 Congress of Berlin, and he also guided the German acquisition of overseas colonies.
The alliances that Bismarck established were not so much instruments of diplomacy as the visible evidence of his comprehensive effort to postpone a hostile coalition of the powers surrounding Germany. Restraining Russia, the strongest of these powers, required the greatest diplomatic effort. Bismarck's diplomacy is sometimes described as aimed at isolating France, but this is a misleadingly simplistic description of the complicated and deceptive methods he employed to lend substance to his statement, "We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world."
Fall from Power
William I died March 9, 1888, but Bismarck remained as chancellor for Frederick III (who died June 15, 1888) and for 21 months of the reign of William II, last of the Hohenzollern monarchs. Court, press, and political parties discovered in the 29-year-old William an obvious successor to the power of the 73-year-old chancellor. William was intelligent and glib, with a singular capacity as a phrase maker, and his instability was as yet not widely recognized.
On March 15, 1890, William asked either for the right to consult ministers or for Bismarck's resignation; Bismarck's March 18 letter gave the Kaiser a choice between following Bismarck's Russian policy or accepting his resignation. Suppressing this letter, the Kaiser published an acceptance of Bismarck's retirement because of ill health and created him Duke of Lauenburg. Bismarck referred to this title as one he might use for traveling incognito.
Bismarck did not retire gracefully. Domestically he was happy at Friedrichsruh with Johanna, whom he outlived; and their children, Herbert, Bill, and Marie, frequently visited them there. Bismarck, however, used the press to harass his political successors, and he briefly stumped the country calling for more power to the parliament, of which he was an absent member from 1891 to 1893. Despite charades of reconciliation, he remained, to his death on July 30, 1898, thoroughly opposed to William II.
Historical estimates of Otto von Bismarck remain contradictory. The later political failure of the state he created has led some to argue that by his own standards Bismarck was himself a failure. He is, however, widely regarded as an extraordinarily astute statesman who understood that to wield power successfully a leader must assess not only its strength but also the circumstances of its application. In his analysis and management of these circumstances, Bismarck showed himself the master of realpolitik.
Further Reading on Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck
Bismarck's Gedanken und Erinnerungen was translated into English by A. J. Butler as Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman (2 vols., 1898). Bismarck's The Kaiser vs. Bismarck was translated by Bernard Miall (1920). Werner Richter, Bismarck (trans. 1965), is a readable modern biography of the chancellor. Erich Eyck, Bismarck and German Empire (3 vols., 1941-1944; abr. trans. 1950; 2d ed. 1963), presents critical views. Emil Ludwig, Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (trans. 1927), is melodramatically partisan, while A. J. P. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (1955), is part of the author's view of Germany as "alien".
The Correspondence of William I and Bismarck (trans., 2 vols., 1903) and The Kaiser's Memoirs: Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, 1888-1918 (trans. 1922) supply predictably different views of the chancellor. Norman Rich and M. H. Fisher, eds., The Holstein Papers (4 vols., 1955-1963), presents much useful material on Bismarck's later career. Heinrich von Sybel, The Founding of the German Empire by William I (7 vols., 1890-1898), is ultra-Prussian and tedious but supplies Bismarck's accounts of numerous diplomatic conversations. A brief delineation of Bismarck from contemporary documents is supplied in Louis L. Snyder, The Blood and Iron Chancellor (1967). Other contemporary accounts include Charles Lowe, Bismarck's Table Talk (1895); Moritz Busch, Bismarck (2 vols., 1898); C. von Hohenlohe, Memoirs of Prince Chlodwig of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfuerst (trans. 1906); Alfred von Tirpitz, My Memoirs (trans., 2 vols., 1919); and Alfred von Waldersee, A Field-Marshal's Memoirs (abr. trans. 1924).
Significant monographs on specific aspects of Bismarck's career include Joseph V. Fuller, Bismarck's Diplomacy at Its Zenith (1922); Karl Friedrich Nowak, Kaiser and Chancellor (1930); Lawrence D. Steefel, The Schleswig-Holstein Question (1932) and Bismarck, the Hohenzollern Candidacy, and the Origins of the Franco-German War of 1870 (1962); and William A. Fletcher, The Mission of Vincent Benedetti to Berlin, 1864-70 (1965).