Otto von Bismarck : The Iron Chancellor

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born on 1 April 1815 in Schönhausen in the Prussian province of Saxony. His father, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck, was a wealthy Junker and a former Prussian military officer. Otto was raised as a typical Prussian Junker, well-educated though still carrying those Prussian values and traditions with him. He started studying law in the University of Göttingen in 1832, he then transferred to the University of Berlin and studied there three more years. After graduating, he practiced law for a short time but soon lost interest in the job and resigned. He served in the army for a year and became a reserve officer. Hearing about his mother’s death, he moved back to his family estate in 1839. He married Johanna von Puttkamer, his life long wife, in one of the many years he spent there. His wife was a very religious woman, which later affected Bismarck’s views on religion as well.

Bismarck’s political career began when he was chosen as a member of the newly established Prussian political assembly, the Vereinigter Landtag. He gained fame there as a keen supporter of monarchism and an enemy of liberalism. During the revolution of 1848, Bismarck went to Berlin, to try and persuade the Generals and the Monarch himself to use military force to suppress the rebellion. Despite Bismarck’s efforts, a military intervention never happened. Towards the end of the year, the revolution lost momentum and was effectively over when the King declared a constitution and opened the new Landtag in the capital in December 1848. Bismarck was elected in this new Landtag, too.
Frankfurt Parliament, pro-unification and pro-liberal, offered the crown of a unified Germany to the Prussian King while the revolutions were still a hot issue. Bismarck himself wasn’t a supporter of unification cause he thought Prussia wasn’t yet strong enough to protect its interests and independent policies within a unified Germany. He wasn’t, however, in a high enough position to impact things at that point. Luckily for him, the King refused the offer anyway. In 1851, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV appointed Bismarck as Prussia’s envoy to Frankfurt Parliament.
Bismarck spent eight years in Frankfurt as an envoy, engaging in many diplomatic relationships and debates with other representatives from other German states, especiallly with Austrian representatives. During his stay there, Bismarck experienced a radical change in his ideas. He left his ultra- conservative stance and arrogance behind and became a lot more pragmatic. He grew the idea that Prussia had to develop friendly relations and alliances with other German states in order to counter Austria’s ambitions over Germany.

In 1857, Friedrich Wilhelm IV was unable to rule properly due to poor health and was regented by his brother Wilhelm. Wilhelm relieved Bismarck from his duties in Frankfurt and appointed him as Prussia’s ambassador to Russia. The new regent also made changes in other important positions, by making Helmuth von Moltke the new Prussian Chief of Staff and Albrecht von Roon the new Minister of War. Bismarck spent four years in St.Petersburg, but wasn’t entirely disconnected from internal politics in Germany thanks to his friend Albrecht von Roon, with whom Bismarck developed a long-lasting friendship. After spending years in Russia, he was appointed to France as Prussian ambassador in 1862. This new duty of him allowed him to get closer to his (as he perceived) enemies, such as Napoleon III and other French politicians and officers. In 1862, the new King Wilhelm I started struggling with the overwhelmingly liberal Prussian Landtag. Albrecht von Roon advised Bismarck, who was a royalist and anti-liberal, to be appointed as the new Minister President. Wilhelm initially hesitated giving such an autocratic man the duty, but got persuaded by the idea by time and made the appointment on 23 September 1862. Bismarck was now both the Foreign Minister and Minister President of Prussia.

In his first year as Minister President, Bismarck made an impression as an authoritarian president, as expected. He faced serious opposition and he responded by making even more authoritarian decisions. Things got to a point where even the Crown Prince himself, who was pro-liberal, started openly criticizing Bismarck. The King kept supporting Bismarck to prevent a liberal overtaking of the Landtag. In 1864, Second Schleswig War broke out, in which Prussia and Austria combined forces against Denmark. The war ended in decisive German victory, as Denmark ceded Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg to Prussia and Austria. In the following year, and after long debates, Prussia received Schleswig, while Austria received Holstein.
The victory in Schleswig War helped Bismarck alleviate the opposition in the Landtag. Bismarck also started gaining support of some of the liberals by privatizing railways and some other state assets. Securing his internal position, Bismarck began working on a system of alliances using other states’ ambitions against each other. He knew a war against Austria was imminent, therefore he started alienating Austria in European diplomatic scene as a great power. Russia was easy to persuade to stay at least neutral as they were already a long time enemy of the Austrian Empire.

The hard part was persuading France. Bismarck met with Napoleon in person and made some intentions in allowing some sort of French expansion over the east part of the Rhine. Bismarck was also smart enough to hide Prussia’s real military capabilities, which made Napoleon believe that the war might actually result in an Austrian victory -which Bismarck knew was not possible-. As soon as Bismarck made sure Prussia’s borders would be secure during the war against Austria, war was declared on Austria. Bismarck had already received promises from Moltke and Roon that Prussian army was in many ways superior to the Austrians. These promises turned out to be quite true, as Prussian army decisively defeated Austrian army in a series of battles within a month. The King, the generals and officers all wanted to march right towards Wien after these decisive victories. Bismarck, however, didn’t want the war to last longer than it needs to be. Bismarck conceived Austria as a potential future ally against French and Russian threats, which he thought were much more dangerous than Austria. Peace talks took place in July 1866 and Prussia annexed all of Austrian allies in Northern Germany. Prussia also formed the Northern German Confederation with its already present allies in the north. This war effectively ended German dualism and ensured Prussian hegemony over Germany and eliminated Austria from the race to dominance over Germany.

Prussia’s victory against Austria was quite a bit of a shock for Napoleon III. He changed his whole stance against Prussia when he understood he was fooled by Bismarck’s unreliable promises. Napoleon faced violent opposition from Bismarck when he brought upon the subject of French expansion across the Rhine. Bismarck was happy to fuel the unrest between French and Prussian diplomats and monarchs. He kept making comments that angered the French and baited them into declaring war on Prussia. Bismarck didn’t want to be the aggressor in the war against France, as he thought if it was France to declare the war, it would make other German states unite under Prussian banner to protect Germany. Bismarck reached his goal by using his sheer diplomatic intelligence and tricked France into declaring war on 19 July 1870. Prussian armies proved their strength quickly in a series of battles, and ultimately in the Battle of Sedan, in which Napoleon III was forced into surrender. Napoleon’s capture didn’t make Bismarck happy, nevertheless. His thought was that if Napoleon’s wasn’t captured he would be forced into peace talks with favourable terms for Prussia. But now the war would have to continue for a longer while as there wasn’t a proper government to make peace with. Prussian successfully went on to besiege Paris, which was under control of the newly formed French Commune. At this time, Prussia was stronger than it had ever been in its history. Bismarck knew this was the perfect time for a unification, so he made negotiations with Southern German states’, offering them concessions if they agreed to a unification under Prussia’s leadership. The negotiatons paid off, and Wilhelm I was declared as the German Emperor on 18 January 1871, in the Palace of Versailles.

Bismarck was appointed as the first Chancellor of the German Empire, he also kept his Prussian duties. Now that the country’s demographics and internal policies had drastically changed, Bismarck started developing new policies as well. He lead an anti-Catholic policy, Kulturkampf. This was a move against newly acquired southern German territories, whose population mainly consisted of Catholics. Bismarck wanted to shut down Catholic church’s power in Germany and spread Prussian secularism and values into all other German lands. During the following years, Bismarck took serious measures against Catholicism in Germany and things got quite extreme at some point. This policy of Bismarck, however, backfired very hard since it forced Catholics to unite and politically resist against Bismarck’s anti-Catholicism. Bismarck made non-political bishops and clergymen into famous politicians by openly targeting them. He gradually withdrew from this policy, realizing his mistake by time. Kulturkampf was effectively over towards the end of 1870’s. Bismarck was quick to find a new enemy for himself though: Socialists. According to the anti-Socialist law of 1880, many socialist establishments and syndicates were shut down. In order to fill the vacuum created by anti-Socialism, Bismarck launched for the first time in history, social welfare policies with retirement and health insurances. These policies toned down the socialist voter base within the country and passivized them for a while.

Kaiser Wilhelm I died in 1888 and was succeeded by his pro-liberal son Friedrich III. Friedrich despised Bismarck’s conservative politics for a long while, and was an open supporter of many of Bismarck’s political rivals. Luckily for Bismarck, Friedrich was already very ill when he was crowned and he died 99 days after his coronation. Now, Friedrich was succeeded by his militarist and conservative son, Wilhelm II. Wilhelm initially started getting on well with old Bismarck, showing him respect and consulting him often. But later, things started to fall out. Wilhelm wasn’t the patient and pragmatic man like his grandfather was. He didn’t like Bismarck’s complicated system of alliances and diplomacy. He thought Prussia’s success in the previous years happened simply because Prussians fought better. He didn’t have the acute mind to grasp the delicacy of proper diplomacy. Bismarck slowly lost its favourable position in the crown’s eyes, and his socialist rivals started growing rapidly in the parliament. Bismarck refused Wilhelm’s demands on passing social-democrat laws through the parliament and asked the Kaiser to dissolve the parliament and form a new and conservative one, independent from socialist influence. The young Kaiser refused Bismarck’s final wish. This marked the end for Bismarck’s political career, as he was now without allies in the parliament and wasn’t even supported by the crown anymore. He resigned from “Chancellorship” office on 18 March 1890, at the age of 75. He entered into full retirement and moved to his own estate in the countryside. His wife died on 27 November 1894. His health kept deteriorating. In his final years, Bismarck collected his memoirs into a book. He died at the night of 30 July 1898.


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