Otto von Bismarck

From New World Encyclopedia

Otto von Bismarck

Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen, duke of Lauenburg (April 1, 1815 – July 30, 1898) was one of the most prominent European aristocrats and statesmen of the nineteenth century. As minister-president of Prussia from 1862 to 1890, he engineered the unification of the numerous states of Germany. From 1867 on, he was chancellor of the North German Confederation. The latter was enlarged in 1871 to the German Empire, and Bismarck served as the empire’s first chancellor until 1890. He is nicknamed the Iron Chancellor ("der Eiserne Kanzler"). He was made the count of Bismarck-Schönhausen in 1865, and in 1871 became Prince (Fürst) of Bismarck. In 1890 he was also made the duke of Lauenburg. Initially, he refused the ducal title, which he received upon his dismissal from office, only to later accept—which was the highest rank of the non-sovereign nobility, and was styled “serene highness.”

A Junker, Bismarck held deep conservative, monarchist and aristocratic views. His most significant political objective was that of turning Prussia into the most powerful state within the German Confederation. He took advantage of his great skills in the field of diplomacy and led two wars to achieve this goal. After that, Bismarck broke France's supremacy over continental Europe in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

It was only with reluctance that Bismarck had accepted the idea of uniting Germany. However, from 1871 onwards, Bismarck carefully built the external security of the new German state upon his skillful diplomacy, which isolated France internationally and created a vast and complex system of alliances for mutual military support with most of Europe's nations. In the role of an “honest broker,” Bismarck was also successful in maintaining peace and stability in Europe by settling arising political conflicts through negotiations.

Essentially a cautious politician, Bismarck never pursued an imperialistic course in Europe. In Africa, however, Bismarck followed a policy of imperial conquest in a manner similar to the other European powers. Bismarck, however, changed the face of Europe by placing Germany at its center in terms of economic and military power. Some surmise that his preference for strong government paved the way for Adolf Hitler's autocracy, although it would be difficult to argue for any direct cause and effect between Bismarck and Hitler. The two men did, though, share pride in the ideal of a strong Germany and believed that greatness was the German destiny.

In the area of domestic policies, Bismarck was less successful. In the Kulturkampf, he wrested some important cultural powers away from the Protestant and Roman Catholic Church. Bismarck's Sozialistengesetze failed to suppress the labor movements but made him appear as a reactionary, a reputation he partially refuted with the new and generous social reform and welfare legislation he enacted.

Emperor Wilhelm I died in 1888 and his successor, Emperor Friedrich III, succumbed to cancer the same year. The crown finally went to 29-year old Emperor Wilhelm IIwho disliked Bismarck personally and forced him to resign all his political offices in 1890.

Personally, Bismarck was a celebrated entertainer who greatly appreciated funny stories and wordplay. Other than his native German, he was fluent in English, French, Russian, Polish — and a diplomat of excellent manners and politeness. His friends were chosen independent of origin, creed, or political beliefs, with the exclusion of socialists and social democrats, whom he despised. Bismarck loved good food and drink and had a tendency to indulge in both excessively. His most important tool in politics was his talent in successfully planning complex international developments.


Bismarck in 1836

Bismarck was born in Schönhausen, his family's estate in the Old Prussian province of Mark Brandenburg (now Saxony-Anhalt), west of Berlin. His father, Ferdinand von Bismarck, was a landowner and a former Prussian military officer; his mother, Wilhelmine Mencken, originally belonged to a well-off commoner family. Otto von Bismarck had several siblings, but only an elder brother and a younger sister (Malvina) survived into adulthood.

Bismarck was educated at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium and the Graues Kloster-Gymnasium. Thereafter, at the age of 17, he joined the Georg August University of Göttingen, where he spent only a year as a member of the Corps Hannovera before enrolling in the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin. Although he hoped to become a diplomat, he could only obtain minor administrative positions in Aachen and Potsdam. As his work proved monotonous and uninteresting, his years were marked by conscious neglect of his official duties; he instead preferred to mix with "high society."

Upon his mother's demise in 1839, Bismarck took over the management of his family's estates in Pomerania. About eight years later, he returned to Schönhausen, where he became engaged in local politics. He married the noblewoman Johanna von Puttkamer in 1847. Like Puttkamer, he became a Pietist Lutheran. Their long and happy marriage produced one daughter (Marie) and two sons (Herbert and Wilhelm), all of whom survived into adulthood. He also had a hand in the upbringing of an orphan neighbor, Vally von Blumenthal, whom he called "my Sunday's Child."

Early political career

In the year of his marriage, 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; he openly advocated the idea that the monarch had a divine right to rule.

In March of the next year, Prussia faced a revolution (one of the Revolutions of 1848 which shook many European nations), which completely overwhelmed King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The monarch, though initially inclined to use armed forces to suppress the rebellion, ultimately succumbed to the revolutionary movement. He offered numerous concessions to the liberals: he promised to promulgate a constitution, agreed that Prussia and other German states should merge into a single nation, and appointed a liberal, Ludolf Camphausen, as minister-president. The liberal victory, however, was short-lived; it ended late in 1848. The movement became weak due to fighting between internal factions, whilst the conservatives regrouped, gained the support of the king, and retook control of Berlin. Although a constitution was still granted, its provisions fell far short of the demands of the revolutionaries.

In 1849, he was elected to the Landtag, the lower house of the new Prussian legislature. 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, in any event, failed to bring about unification, for it lacked the support of the two most important German states, Prussia and Austria.

In 1852, Friedrich Wilhelm appointed Bismarck as Prussia's envoy to the diet (assembly) of the German Confederation in Frankfurt. His eight years in Frankfurt were marked by changes in his political opinions. No longer under the influence of his ultraconservative Prussian friends, Bismarck became less reactionary and more moderate. He became convinced that Prussia would have to ally itself with other German states in order to countervail Austria's growing influence. Thus, he grew more accepting of the notion of a united German nation.

In 1858, Friedrich Wilhelm IV suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and mentally disabled. His brother, Wilhelm I of Germany, took over the government of Prussia as regent. Shortly thereafter, Bismarck was replaced as the Prussian envoy in Frankfurt; he was instead made Prussia's ambassador to Russia. This was a promotion in his career as Russia was one of the two most powerful neighbors (the other being Austria). Other changes were made by the regent; Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was appointed the new chief of staff for the Prussian army, and Albrecht Graf von Roon was appointed Prussian minister of war and given the job of reorganizing the Prussian army. Over the next 12 years these men would transform Prussia.

Bismarck stayed in Saint Petersburg for four years, during which time he befriended his future adversary, the Russian prince Alexander Gorchakov. In June 1862, he was sent to Paris, so that he could serve as the Prussian ambassador to France. Despite his lengthy stay abroad, Bismarck was not entirely detached from German domestic affairs; he remained well-informed due to his friendship with Albrecht von Roon, together they formed a lasting political alliance.

Ministerpräsident (prime minister) of Prussia

The regent became King Wilhelm 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 were unable to convince legislators to pass the budget, and the king was unwilling to make concessions, so the deadlock continued. Wilhelm believed that Bismarck was the only politician capable of handling the crisis, but was ambivalent about appointing a man 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 September 23, 1862, Wilhelm appointed Bismarck prime minister-president and foreign minister of Prussia.

Bismarck was intent on maintaining royal supremacy by ending the budget deadlock in the king's favor, 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.

Bismarck's conflict with the legislators grew more heated during the following years. In 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, and later Friedrich III of Germany. 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 Progressive Party, or Fortschrittspartei) won over two-thirds of the seats in the House of Deputies.

Despite unpopularity and numerous conflicts with the Diet, Bismarck retained power because he had the support of the king. Wilhelm I feared that if he dismissed Bismarck, a liberal ministry would follow; thus, he did not dismiss the minister-president, despite the repeated calls of the House of Deputies.

The defeat of Denmark and Austria

Before unification, Germany consisted of a multitude of principalities loosely bound together as members of the German Confederation. Bismarck played a crucial role in uniting most of the Confederation's members into a single nation. In his first speech as minister-president, he had referred to the issue of German unification in a now famous remark: "the great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and the resolutions of majorities—that was the great mistake from 1848 to 1849—but by blood and iron." He was referring to the failed Frankfurt Parliament as the great mistakes of 1848 and 1849. Bismarck used both diplomacy and the Prussian military in order to achieve the objective of German unification. He excluded Austria from a unified Germany, for he sought to make Prussia the most powerful and dominant component of the nation.

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

Bismarck faced a diplomatic crisis when King Frederick VII of Denmark died in November 1863. Succession to the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein was disputed; they were claimed by Christian IX of Denmark (Frederick VII's heir as king) and by Frederick von Augustenburg (a German duke). Prussian public opinion strongly favored Augustenburg's claim; however, Bismarck took an unpopular step by insisting that the territories legally belonged to the Danish monarch under the London Protocols signed a decade earlier. Nonetheless, Bismarck did denounce Christian's decision to annex the duchy of Schleswig to the Denmark proper. With support from Austria, he issued an ultimatum for Christian IX to return Schleswig to its former status; when the Danes refused, Austria and Prussia invaded, commencing the Second War of Schleswig. As a result of the German victory, Denmark was forced to cede both duchies. Originally, it was proposed that the Diet of the German Confederation (in which all the states of Germany were represented) determine the fate of the duchies; however, before this scheme could be affected, Bismarck induced Austria to agree to the Gastein Convention. Under this agreement, Prussia received Schleswig, while Holstein went to the Austrians.

In 1866, Austria reneged on its prior agreement with Prussia by demanding that the Diet of the German Confederation determine the Schleswig-Holstein issue. Bismarck used Austria's demand as an excuse; charging that the Austrians had violated the Convention of Gastein, he 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. With the aid of Albrecht von Roon's army reorganization, the Prussian army was nearly the 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.

Prussia quickly defeated Austria and its allies, deciding the conflict with a crushing victory at the Battle of Königgrätz (also, "Battle of Sadowa"). As a result of the Peace of Prague, the German Confederation was dissolved; Prussia annexed Schleswig, Holstein, Frankfurt, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, 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.

Military success brought Bismarck tremendous political support in Prussia. In the elections to the House of Deputies held in 1866, the 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. Hence, Bismarck is considered one of the most talented statesmen in history.

The establishment of the German Empire

Prussia's victory over Austria increased tensions with France. The French emperor, Napoleon III, feared that a powerful Prussia would upset the balance of power in Europe. Bismarck, at the same time, sought war with France; he believed that if the German states perceived France as the aggressor, they would unite behind the king of Prussia. 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. The French not only blocked the candidacy, but also demanded assurances that no member of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen become king of Spain. Bismarck then published the Ems Dispatch, a carefully edited version of a conversation between Wilhelm and the French ambassador to Prussia. The publication was intended to provoke France into declaring war on Prussia.

Wilhelm I was crowned in the Hall of Mirrors in Palace of Versailles, France

The Ems Dispatch had the desired effect. France mobilized and declared war, but was seen as the aggressor; as a result, German states, swept up by nationalism and patriotic zeal, rallied to Prussia's side and provided troops (the Bismarck family contributed its two sons to the Prussian cavalry). The Franco-Prussian War (1870) was a great success for Prussia. The German army, commanded by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, won victory after victory. The major battles were all fought in one month (August 7 to September 1) and the French were defeated in every battle. The remainder of the war featured very careful German operations and massive confusion on the part of the French.

At the end, France was forced to pay a large indemnity and surrender Alsace and part of Lorraine. Bismarck opposed the annexation, arguing it would be the "Achilles' Heel" of the new empire, but Moltke and his generals insisted that it was needed to keep France in a defensive posture.[1]

Bismarck decided to act immediately to secure the unification of Germany. He opened negotiations with representatives of southern German states, offering special concessions if they were to acquiesce to unification. The negotiations were successful; Wilhelm I was crowned German emperor on January 18, 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles (thereby further humiliating France). The new German Empire was a federation: each of its 25 constituent states (kingdoms, grand duchies, duchies, principalities, and free cities) retained its autonomy. The king of Prussia, as German emperor, was not sovereign over the entirety of Germany; he was only primus inter pares, or first amongst equals.

War with Austria

In the case of Austria, Bismarck did not initiate the quarrel. Although his aim was always the aggrandizement of Prussia to a state of equality with the then dominant Austria, he was carrying on a policy established by his predecessors since 1849. For decades, Prussian statesmen had insisted that equality was the necessary condition for Austro-Prussian friendship. Manteuffel refused to back Austria during the Crimean War; Schleinitz demanded military supremacy north of the Main in 1859; Bernstorff repeated this demand in 1861.

In December 1862, Bismarck told the Austrian ambassador that the situation would eventually lead to war unless equality became a fact. This was not a demand that Austria be excluded from Germany, but a repetition of the old demand to divide influence at the River Main. Bismarck hoped and believed that the demand could be achieved without war, as he could not believe that Austria would risk war for such a purpose. He misjudged Vienna, however, as later developments would show.

In May 1866 Bismarck again offered Austria a peaceful division of hegemony along the Main; the offer was again refused. The countries slid into war later that year—there were no formal declarations of war, hostilities simply beginning of their own accord.

The Franco-Prussian War

Bismarck spent much of the year prior to the outbreak of hostilities at Varzin, his country home, recovering from jaundice, and was hardly in a position to initiate a war. There is no evidence that he worked deliberately for the war with France. Bismarck had not shown any traces of hostility towards France—on the contrary, he made repeated gestures of friendship towards Napoleon III.

The situation was worsened by the fact that Wilhelm disliked the French; although Bismarck tried to improve relations he was not always successful.

The trouble came to a head in May 1870, when Napoleon quarreled with his pacific foreign minister, Daru. Gramont, Daru's replacement, was an extreme cleric who intended to humble Prussia at the first opportunity. Gramont, egged on by the Empress Eugenie, with a sick Napoleon bringing up the rear, chose to take the nomination of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern to the throne of Spain as his opportunity. Had he wished merely to bar Leopold from the throne of Spain he should have protested in Madrid and the Spaniards would have given way, as they did a fortnight later. But, after the realignment caused by the Prussian war with Austria, Gramont wanted to humiliate Prussia so as to restore French primacy in Europe. Gramont said on July 6: "We have unanimously agreed to march. We have carried the Chamber with us, we shall carry the nation also."

Meanwhile, Bismarck remained at Varzin, ignoring the Wilhelm's requests for advice. On July 12, 1870, Bismarck at last left Varzin. By the time he arrived in Berlin, Napoleon III and Gramont had fired a new shot from Paris. They made further extreme demands, intended to either humiliate Prussia or force a war. These demands were:

  • Wilhelm must endorse Leopold's withdrawal
  • Wilhelm must apologize for the candidature
  • Wilhelm must promise that the candidature should never be renewed

These demands were presented to Wilhelm at Ems on July 13, and were promptly rejected. When Wilhelm's report of these proceedings reached Berlin, Bismarck took charge at last. He cut out Wilhelm's conciliatory phrases and emphasized the real issue: the French had made certain demands under threat of war, and Wilhelm had refused them. Bismarck's emendation, the so called Ems telegram was followed by a second message from Wilhelm confirming Bismarck's version. To the French it was a provocation of war.

Chancellor of the German Empire

Otto von Bismarck became chancellor of Germany in 1871

Until 1871 Bismarck had been a Graf (count), when he was raised to the rank of Fürst (prince). He was also appointed imperial chancellor of the German Empire, but retained his Prussian offices (including those of minister-president and foreign minister); thus, he held almost complete control of both domestic and foreign policy. The office of minister-president of Prussia was temporarily separated from that of chancellor in 1873, when Albrecht von Roon was appointed to the former office. By the end of the year, however, Roon resigned due to ill health, and Bismarck once again became minister-president.

In the following years, one of Bismarck's primary political objectives was the reduction of the influence of the Catholic Church in Germany. This may have been due to the anti-liberal message of Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors, 1864 and the dogma of papal infallibility, 1870. Prussia (with the exception of the Rhineland) and most other northern German states were predominantly Protestant; however, many Catholics lived in the southern German states (especially Bavaria). In total, Catholics accounted for around one third of the population. Bismarck believed that the Roman Catholic Church held too much political power; moreover, he was concerned about the emergence of the Catholic Centre Party (organized in 1870). Accordingly, he began an anti-Catholic campaign known as the Kulturkampf. In 1871, the Catholic Department of the Prussian Ministry of Culture was abolished, and in 1872, the Jesuits were expelled from Germany. The emerging anti-Roman Old Catholic Churches as well as Lutheranism were somewhat supported by Bismarck instead. More severe anti-Roman Catholic laws passed in 1873 allowed the 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. These efforts, however, only strengthened the Catholic Centre Party. Largely unsuccessful, Bismarck abandoned the Kulturkampf in 1878. This date was significant as Pius died that same year, replaced by a more pragmatic Pope Leo XIII.

The Kulturkampf won Bismarck a new supporter in the secular National Liberal Party. The National Liberals were Bismarck's chief allies in the Reichstag until the end of the Kulturkampf. During 1873, Germany, and much of the rest of Europe, had endured the Long Depression since the crash of the Vienna Stock Exchange in 1873, the Gründerkrise. To aid faltering industries, the chancellor decided to abandon free trade and establish protectionist tariffs; by doing so, however, he alienated the National Liberals. For the first time in Germany since vast industrial development in the 1850s after the 1848-1849 revolutions, a downfall had hit the German economy. This marked a rapid decline in national liberal support, who advocated free trade, and by 1879, the close ties Bismarck had enjoyed had all but ended. Bismarck, on the other hand, returned to conservative factions—including the Centre Party—for support.

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. Bismarck’s policies concerning the Poles were usually motivated by tactical considerations of what is best for Germany and were generally unfavorable to Poles and became a grave burden for German-Polish relations.

Bismarck was worried about the growth of the socialist movement—in particular, that of the Social Democratic Party. In 1878, he instituted a variety of anti-socialist laws. Socialist organizations and meetings were forbidden, as was the circulation of socialist literature. Moreover, socialist leaders were arrested and tried by police courts. Despite these efforts, the movement continued to gain supporters. Although socialist organizations were forbidden, socialists could still gain seats in the Reichstag; under the German Constitution, candidates could run independently, unaffiliated with any party. The strength of the socialists in the Reichstag continued to grow steadily despite Bismarck's measures.

The chancellor then adopted a different approach to tackling socialism. In order to appease the working class—and thereby reduce socialism's appeal to the public — he enacted a variety of paternalistic social reforms, which can be considered as the first European labor laws. The year 1883 saw the passage of the Health Insurance Act, which entitled workers to health insurance; the worker paid two-thirds, and the employer one-third, of the premiums. Accident insurance was provided in 1884, whilst old age pensions and disability insurance were established in 1889. Other laws restricted the employment of women and children. These efforts, however, were not entirely successful; the working class largely remained unreconciled with Bismarck's conservative government.

Foreign policies

In foreign affairs, he devoted himself to keeping peace in Europe, so that the strength of the German Empire would not be threatened. He was, however, forced to contend with French revanchism—the desire to avenge the loss in the Franco-Prussian War. Bismarck adopted a policy of diplomatically isolating France, whilst maintaining cordial relations with other nations in Europe. In order to avoid alienating the United Kingdom, he declined to seek a colonial empire or an expansion of the navy. In 1872, he extended the hand of friendship to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia, whose rulers joined Wilhelm I in the League of the Three Emperors. Bismarck also maintained good relations with Italy.

After Russia's victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), Bismarck helped negotiate a settlement at the Congress of Berlin (1878). Russia had previously secured great advantages in southeastern Europe when it made peace by ratifying the Treaty of San Stefano. Bismarck and other European leaders, however, opposed the growth of Russian influence, and sought to protect the power of the Ottoman Empire. The 1878 Treaty of Berlin revised the Treaty of San Stefano, reducing the concessions offered to Russia. As a result, Russo-German relations suffered; the Russian prince Gorchakov denounced Bismarck for compromising his nation's victory. The relationship between Russia and Germany was further weakened by the latter's protectionist policies. The League of the Three Emperors having fallen apart, Bismarck negotiated the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879. The Dual Alliance became the Triple Alliance in 1882 with the addition of Italy. Attempts to reconcile Germany and Russia failed to have any lasting effect: the Three Emperors' League was re-established in 1881, but quickly fell apart, and the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 was allowed to expire in 1890.


At first, Bismarck opposed the idea of seeking colonies, arguing that the burden of obtaining and defending them would outweigh the potential benefits. During the late 1870s, however, public opinion shifted to favor the idea of a colonial empire. In this regard, Germans were not unique; other European nations also began to acquire colonies rapidly. During the early 1880s, Germany joined other European powers in the “Scramble for Africa.” Among Germany's colonies were German Togoland (now part of Ghana and Togo), Cameroon, German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania), and German South-West Africa (now Namibia). The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 established regulations for the acquisition of African colonies; in particular, it protected free trade in certain parts of the Congo River.

Premonition about a European war

In February 1888, during a Bulgarian crisis, Bismarck addressed the Reichstag on the dangers of a European war. For the first time he dwelled upon the imminent possibility that Germany will have to fight on two fronts and expressed a desire for peace, not of the certainty thereof; and then he sets 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.[2]

Last years

Bismarck on his 80th birthday (April 1, 1895)

Wilhelm I died in 1888, leaving the throne to his son, Friedrich III of Germany. The new monarch, however, was already suffering from cancer and spent all three months of his reign fighting the disease before dying. He was replaced by his son, Wilhelm II. The new emperor opposed Bismarck's careful foreign policy, preferring vigorous and rapid expansion to protect Germany's "place in the sun."

Early conflicts between Wilhelm II and his chancellor soon poisoned the relationship between the two men. Bismarck believed that Wilhelm was a lightweight who could be dominated, and he showed scant respect for Wilhelm's policies in the late 1880s. Following an attempt by Bismarck to implement a far-reaching anti-Socialist law in early 1890, the final split between monarch and statesman occurred soon after.

It was during this time that Bismarck, after gaining a favorable absolute majority toward his policies in the Reichstag, decided to make the anti-socialist laws permanent. His Kartell majority of the amalgamated Conservative Party and the National Liberal Party was favorable to make the laws permanent with one exception: the police power to expel socialist agitators from their homes, a power used excessively at times against political opponents. Hence, the Kartell split on this issue, with the National Liberal Party unwilling to the make the expulsion clause of the law permanent. The Conservatives supported only the entirety of the bill and threatened to and eventually vetoed the entire bill in session because Bismarck wouldn't give his assent to a modified bill.

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 Bismarck's arguments couldn't convince Wilhelm, he 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 wasn't willing to open his reign with a bloody campaign against his 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 by the German emperor.

"Dropping the pilot"

Despite this, a turn of events eventually led to his distance 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 Labor Council that Wilhelm had set so dearly to his heart.

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 powers 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 maneuver. 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, but in Germany, the chancellor depended on the confidence of the emperor alone, and Wilhelm believed as emperor he had the right to be informed before his minister's meeting. After a heated argument in Bismarck's estate over imperial authority, Wilhelm stormed out and both parted ways permanently. 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 only published after Bismarck's death.

Bismarck resigned at Wilhelm II's insistence in 1890, at age 75, to be succeeded as chancellor of Germany and minister-president of Prussia by Leo von Caprivi. Bismarck was discarded ("dropping the pilot"), given a new title, the duke of Lauenburg, and entered into restless, resentful retirement to his estates at Varzin (in today's Poland). After the death of his wife on November 27, 1894, Bismarck moved to Friedrichsruh near Hamburg.

As soon as he had to leave his office, citizens started to praise him, collecting money to build monuments like the Bismarck Memorial. There was much honor given to him in Germany and many buildings were given his name, books written about him were bestsellers, and he was often painted.

Bismarck spent his final years gathering his memoirs (Gedanken und Erinnerungen, or Thoughts and Memories). He died in 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 his eldest son Herbert.

Last Warning and Prediction

In December 1897, Wilhelm II visited Bismarck for the last time. Bismarck again warned the emperor 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.[3]

Subsequently, Bismarck made the accurate 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 almost to the month.[4]


Memorial to Otto von Bismarck, Tiergarten, Berlin

Bismarck's most important legacy involves the unification of Germany. Germany had existed as a collection of separate principalities and free cities since the era of Charlemagne. Over the next thousand years, various kings and rulers had tried to unify the German states without success—until Bismarck.

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's diplomatic feats were subsequently entirely undone, however, by Wilhelm II, whose arrogant policies succeeded in not only offending and alienating, but actually unifying other European powers against Germany in time for World War I.

During most of his nearly 30-year tenure, Bismarck held undisputed control over the government's policies. He was well supported by his friend Albrecht Graf von Roon, the war minister, as well as the leader of the Prussian army Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. 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.

Bismarck took steps to silence or restrain political opposition, as evidenced by laws restricting the freedom of the press, the Kulturkampf, and the anti-socialist laws. His king (later emperor), Wilhelm I, rarely challenged the chancellor's decisions; on several occasions, Bismarck obtained his monarch's approval by threatening to resign. Wilhelm II, however, intended to govern the country himself, making the ousting of Bismarck one of his first tasks as emperor. Bismarck's successors as chancellor were much less influential, as power was concentrated in the Emperor's hands.

Two ships of the German Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine)—as well as a German battleship from the World War II era—were named after him. Also named in his honor were the Bismarck Sea and Bismarck Archipelago (both near the former German colony of New Guinea), as well as Bismarck, North Dakota (a city and state capital in the United States).

Memorial dedicated to Bismarck as a student at the Rudelsburg

Numerous statues and memorials dot the cities, towns, and countryside of Germany, including the famous Bismarck Memorial in Berlin. The only memorial showing him as a student at Göttingen University (together with his dog Ariel) and as a member of his Corps Hannovera was re-erected in 2006 at the Rudelsburg.

His student fellow at Göttingen university, John Lothrop Motley, describes Bismarck as Otto v. Rabenmark in his novel Morton's Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial (1839).


  1. Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Ballantine Books, 1962), p. 35.
  2. Emil Ludwig, Wilhelm Hohenzollern: The last of the Kaisers, translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne (New York, 1927), p. 73.
  3. Alan Palmer, Bismarck (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), p. 267.
  4. A. J. P. Taylor, Bismarck (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1969), p. 264.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Crankshaw, Edward. Bismarck. New York: The Viking Press, 1981. ISBN 067016982X
  • Eyck, Erich. Bismarck and the German Empire. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1964. ISBN 0393002357
  • Hiss, O. C. Bismarck: Laws and Sausages. Berlin: Sans Souci Press, 1931.
  • Palmer, Alan Warwick. Bismarck. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976. ISBN 0297770721
  • Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990. Vol. 1: ISBN 0691055874, Vol. 2: 1 ISBN 0691055882, Vol. 3: ISBN 0691055890
  • Stern, Fritz. Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder and the Building of the German Empire. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. ISBN 0394740343
  • Taylor, Alan John Percivale. Bismarck: the Man and the Statesman. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1985. ISBN 0241115655
  • Taylor, Alan John Percivale. Bismarck. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.


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