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Otto von Bismarck
Otto von Bismarck:
Germany’s Iron Chancellor and National Legend
Bismarck in military uniform
Bismarck was born in Schönhausen, Prussia on April 1, 1815. His father, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck, was a
estate owner and military officer while his mother, Wilhelmine Luise Mencken, was the daughter of an eminently respectable senior government official in Berlin. The diverging influences of his parents on Bismarck shaped his personality early on. To the outside world, Bismarck resembled his father’s Junker heritage and pride. However, due to his mother’s influence Bismarck was highly educated and ambitious. The man who was to become the first chancellor of the German Empire was deeply rooted in the traditions of his Prussian heritage but far exceeded the intellectual level of the Junker nobility, an attribute that would result in a controversial reign. Nonetheless, Bismarck’s image transformed into that of a national legend.
Upon unification in 1871, Bismarck was appointed to the post of the first chancellor of the German Empire by Wilhelm I while maintaining his Prussian positions as Minister President and Foreign Minister on March 21st, 1871. By using political situations within Germany, Bismarck attained to be considered indispensable to Germany by the Emperor Wilhelm I. The knowledge that the Wilhelm I needed him allowed Bismarck to gain complete control over the domestic and foreign affairs of the New Empire as well as its weak Emperor.
Due to his position in government, Bismarck set out to consolidate the Empire’s position in Europe. Facing thofe ultimate challenge of his reign, Bismarck made use of his diplomatic skills and his ability to manipulate others for his benefit.
Flag of the German Empire 1871
Bismarck - forging the Empire
Map of the German Empire 1871
Listen to the national anthem of the German Empire from the unification in 1871 until 1918 while reading about the Empire's first chancellor.
Bismarck feared the possibility of Germany having to face more than one adversary. He strongly believed that such a situation would prove to be a question of survival for the newly formed Empire. In order for Germany to be strong enough to meet such a challenge, Bismarck undertook all the necessary steps to consolidate the Empire’s power, displaying his political genius. His first goal was to isolate France since Bismarck realized that the relationship between the German Empire and France after the Franco-Prussian War was beyond repair and long-lasting tensions between the two great powers could not be avoided. Afterwards, Bismarck’s next step was to maintain balance and peace. How did Bismarck move from “blood and iron” to the peacekeeper of Europe?
To answer this question, Bismarck did not become Europe’s peacemaker over night. This change can rather be described as a learning process by means of the political developments from 1873 to 1875.
Bismarck controlling the three Emperors
In October 1873, Bismarck achieved his first political success as German chancellor when German Emperor Wilhelm I, Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the Austria-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph agreed on strengthening the peace in Europe by forming the Three Emperor’s League. However, the alliance was proven to be very fragile in 1875. Bismarck was concerned with France’s rearmament and their desire for revenge for having been forced to concede Alsace-Lorraine to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. He decided to threaten France with war but only achieved to arouse the suspicion of other countries. Bismarck’s effort for peace seemed to lose credibility and he received reprehension from the British as well as the Russian government. Having to deal with a diplomatic defeat, Bismarck presented himself solely as peacemaker from now on. Bismarck tried to prove himself in the role of Europe’s peacemaker in the Balkan disputes of 1875-1878. After Russia’s victory against the Ottoman Empire, the peace treaty of San Stefano was drafted, which ordered a reorganization of the Balkan. Across Europe, this resulted in protests and war threats against Russia because European powers felt that Russia was attempting to extend her influence too much. An international congress presided over by Bismarck was set up in Berlin on June 13, 1878, in order to reassess the peace treaty of San Stefano. The result was the revision of the peace treaty in several aspects. Russia’s imperialistic endeavours towards gaining access to the sea was crushed and in return Russia blamed Bismarck and his diplomatic moves. Russian relations with the German Empire cooled down. However, Bismarck’s role as peacekeeper was re-established in Europe. Despite this move, Bismarck was able to renew the Three Emperor’s League in 1881 and eliminated the potential threat of a two-front war as result of a feared French-Russian alliance. In May of 1882, Bismarck formed a defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. Due to Bismarck’s well-woven web of alliances, he had consolidated the German Empire against the threat of a two front war.
He could now focus on another aspect of foreign affairs – the desire for colonization.
Congo Conference under Bismarck's leadership
Germany’s economical recession in 1884/85 caused Bismarck to find another market for profit. In addition, Germany’s foreign political situation was stable, allowing the country to pursue colonization in territories such as Africa and the South Seas. This was not to last. Bismarck’s alliance system was subject to severe tensions and the cry for a war in Europe grew louder within German military lines. Bismarck held on to his standpoint to maintain peace unless an attack on the German Empire occurred. His determination to preserve in this matter was encouraged by Bismarck’s wife, Johanna von Puttkamer. She had been married to Bismarck since 1848 and had proven to be Bismarck’s pillar of strength throughout his entire political career.
Anti-Socialists Laws 1878
Bismarck’s controversial reign becomes apparent through his domestic affairs. On one hand, he vehemently worked against the social democrats but on the other hand, he passed social legislation that is still intact in today’s Germany.
Bismarck’s averseness to social democrats stemmed from his traditional Junker heritage. Having been born into the elite of society, Bismarck had developed distaste for the working faction early on. He was afraid that they would revolt against the existing government and threaten the existence of the monarchy Bismarck had supported throughout his entire his life. When two assassination attempts were made against Emperor Wilhelm I in 1878, Bismarck blamed the social democrats and had finally found a reason to go against them politically. He banned worker’s associations and social democrat newspapers in the so-called anti-socialist laws of October 21st, 1878. However, the social democratic party was still allowed to participate in elections and send representatives to the
. For twelve years, the social democrats were caught in between legality and illegality. Resistance against Bismarck’s public oppression of the social democrats continuously grew until Bismarck had to realize his failure to diminish the influence of the social democrats.
Bismarck saw drawbacks of the social system that was in place and supported government in drafting new laws that would protect the working faction. Social legislation including the Health Insurance Bill 1883, the Accident Insurance Bill 1884, as well as the Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill 1889 was passed. These bills protected the worker in case of accidents, illness, age, and disability. The foundation for a multi-layered insurance system was laid and Germany became known internationally for their modern approach in terms of social politics.
Being the most influential person in the German Empire, Bismarck was aware of his position. Whenever the Emperor disagreed with Bismarck and refused implement Bismarck’s suggestions, Bismarck threatened Wilhem I with resignation. Knowing he was lost without Bismarck, Wilhelm I complied. A puppet to Bismarck, Wilhelm only held power symbolically. When Wilhelm I died, his son Friedrich III ascended the throne but did not outlive his father for long due to incurable throat cancer. Wilhelm II, grandson of Wilhelm I, was the successor. He held views that differed from Bismarck’s conservative outlook and opposed pacific policies regarding foreign affairs. The two statesmen began to clash continuously. Bismarck was sure of his position in the Empire and attempted to dominate Wilhelm II but the Emperor refused to be used as a puppet like his grandfather. Wilhelm II reprehended Bismarck for his disrespect towards Emperor policies in the late 1880s. The final draw that would result in irreconcilable rifts between the two occurred when Bismarck drafted anti-socialists law that would allow the police to expel socialists from their home. Bismarck eventually resigned due to the insistence of the new Emperor on March 20th, 1890.
Caricature on Bismarck
Legend & Death
Upon his forced resignation, Bismarck retired in Friedrichsruh near Hamburg. The death of his wife Johanna (
Johanna von Puttkamer: NY Times
) on November 27th, 1894, after 48 years of marriage led Bismarck to be depressed. He described his feelings in a letter to his sister where he wrote “[What remained was Johanna... Now everything is empty]” (Translated from German). In addition, Bismarck developed a nasty Gangraena senilis (senile gangrene) in his left food, which was diagnosed in fall of 1897. After long suffering, Bismarck died on July 30, 1898 in his home in Friedrichsruh.
Bismarck on his deathbed
Bismarck Statue in Berlin
A growing number of Bismarck’s followers had already made pilgrimages once the chancellor resigned from office but after his death the movement around Bismarck took on a completely new dimension. All over Germany, statues in commemoration of the politician were erected. In addition, Bismarck’s efforts for peace in Europe disappeared behind his image as “iron chancellor” and he became the leading character of fervent nationalism. Bismarck’s legacy was now in the hand of his successors.
Had Bismarck established his peaceful approaches as permanent German foreign policy, how much different would the events in the 20th century have turn out? This question cannot be answered but one thing is sure: The end of Bismarck’s rule lead to an age of destruction and tumult that will follow Germany like a shadow even in the future. However, Bismarck’s legacy is rooted in the social system of today’s Germany. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest statesman in German history.
“A really great man is known by three signs: generosity in the design, humanity in the execution, moderation in success” - Otto von Bismarck
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