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Otto von Bismarck &
German unification

Otto von Bismarck biography

Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck was born on April 1st, 1815, at Schönhausen, a family estate lying near Stendal in the Mark of Brandenburg to the northwest of Berlin. His father was a sometime Prussian army officer who was a member of the landowning nobleman (Junker) class who provided the Prussian state with most of its army officers and administrators and his mother was a notably intelligent and well educated upper middle class commoner whose family, the Menckens, had included notable scholars and high state officials. This unusual background combining an aristocratic rural tradition with an accomplished urbanity invested Otto with a blend of intellectual subtlety and Junker parochialism.

Bismarck's earlier years were passed in Pomerania where his father possessed estates. At the age of six Bismarck was sent to Berlin to school in order to receive a good education in association with others of similar background. In 1832, the age of seventeen, he entered the University of Göttingen where he studied law and history but after a year transferred to Berlin to complete his studies as a Doctor of Law.
In 1836 Bismarck entered government service with the understanding that he was to be trained towards a diplomatic career and received initial postings in Berlin and Aachen and then another in Potsdam. This last posting was brief because Bismarck had not yet fulfilled the requirement that was common to all males who graduated from secondary school i.e. that he put in a years military service. (Other males faced a three year stint!!!)

Bismarck seems to have had an independent streak in his character which did not really suit him for a subordinate post in a bureaucracy. During these times there were problems with the family finances that necessitated the disposal of a part of the family estates and Bismarck, upon leaving the army, together with an older brother, took up the management of some his family's remaining estates in Pomerania.
Within a few years the brothers were able to restore the lands they managed to profitability and, in 1841, the brothers agreed a division of the estates between them. During these years Bismarck found time to read widely in foreign as well as German literature and also to make some trips to England and France.

Another formative influence on Bismarck's life during these years arose from his coming to admire the personal commitment to a Pietistic type of religious faith that was maintained by several of his neighbours and friends. The fact that Bismarck had developed an affection for Johanna von Puttkamer, a young lady from this circle of acquaintance, facilitated Bismarck in being drawn towards an acceptance of Pietism. Bismarck married Johanna von Puttkamer in August 1847.

In the summer of 1847 the functioning of the Kingdom of Prussia featured a considerable novelty in the form of the Vereinigte Landtag - the first general parliamentary assembly it had ever recognised. The convening of this Landtag was necessitated by a requirement for the agreement of a new loan to the state by its citizens. The money being intended for the construction of a railway. Bismarck attended some of its sessions as he was called upon to deputise for a representative who was ill. During the course of proceedings Bismarck was often disconcerted by the sorts of policies advocated by members of liberal views. In several speeches that Bismack made to the Landtag he showed a full acceptance of the christian character of the state and of the "divine right" nature of the monarchy and through this attracted the approving attention of the King and his advisors.

The year 1848 proved to be a year of widespread revolutionism in Europe from which the Prussian state was not immune. Bismarck journeyed to Berlin where he urged King Frederick William IV to forcibly suppress the uprising. It happened that in 1848-9 this revolutionism in Europe featured contradictory aims and social excesses that disillusioned and alarmed many who would have been in favour of modest reform. Given the disillusion of such persons of moderation revolutionism was gradually and increasingly contained by the traditional holders of power in Prussia and elsewhere.
In 1849 Bismarck was elected to a relatively conservative assembly that was returned, through relatively conservative voting arrangements as approved by the King, to replace a radical assembly that had been dissolved. One of the more celebrated of Bismarck's contributions to its proceedings being a speech urging that the king decline the offer of a German Imperial crown that had been made by a "German" Frankfurt Assembly that had been elected in some of the headier days of 1848. Bismarck maintained that such acceptance would have compromised traditional Prussia by effectively recognising the claims of revolutionism to bestow the Imperial crown and also effectively recognise the claims of revolutionism to a say in German affairs.

From these times Bismarck was called upon by the Prussian Royal administration to serve in a number of political and diplomatic roles such as that of being Prussia's representative to the Diet of the German Confederation (from 1851), Prussian ambassador to Russia (from 1859) and Prussian ambassador to France (early 1862).

During these years of politics and diplomacy Bismarck gained much experience of the incessant intrigues that were being played out within the German Confederation and more widely in Europe. One particularly pronounced change that occured in Bismarck's outlook being that where he had once been prepared to approve of co-operation with Austria he now saw Austria as being an avowed rival as she was herself committed to reducing the power of Prussia. Bismarck also no longer was prepared to accept that Prussia, as a conservative power, should seek to co-operate with other conservative powers - he now held that Prussia at all times should look out for her own interests without particular regard to the conservative, or other, nature of states with which she was interacting.

From 1861 a bitter dispute arose between the Prussian government and Parliament over the size of, and length of service in, the army. The Parliament had granted the government additional funds for reforms, but in 1862 it refused to do so without a reduction of compulsory military service from three to two years. One parliament was dissolved only to be replaced by another that was even less amenable to the king's views. King William I considered abdication in favour of his son but was encouraged by his minister of war, von Roon, to call upon the noted conservative Bismarck as an instrument who could well champion the King's cause against the Parliament.

In the hope of breaking the stalemate in line with the king's wishes Bismarck, then 47 years old, was appointed minister-president of Prussia in early October 1862. Bismarck declared that if the parliament refused to accept a budget then the government had the right to collect taxations in line with pre-existing arrangements and proceeded to collect necessary taxes on the basis of the 1861 budget in defiance of the opinion of the Prussian parliament. To justify the increase in the size of the army, he addressed the parliament telling the assembled representatives that "the great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood."

Bismarck was determined that Prussian sway should extend such that Prussia would become the leading power in a northern and western Germany from which Austrian influence was excluded. This reference to "the great questions of the day" referred to Bismarck's agenda of Prussian expansion and consolidation.

In August 1863 the Austrian Emperor invited all the German princes to attend at Frankfurt-am-Main where they could consider, and hopefully approve, Austrian proposals for a reform of the functioning of the German Confederation. This Austrian proposal may well have been motivated in part by the consideration that Prussia was at that time weakened by being divided against itself over the budget and army issues and had also drawn upon itself some hostility from the many liberals in Germany because of Bismarck's defiance of parliament.
King William I was prepared to attend but Bismarck made a case that he should politely decline the invitation. Bismarck held that an Austrian inspired reform could well disrupt his own agenda of Prussian expansion and consolidation.
The interests who supported the proposed meeting of princes at Frankfurt arranged for King William I to be personally encouraged to reconsider by another King, John of Saxony, and the Prussian King again seemed inclined to accept. Bismarck remained opposed to such acceptance and made a strident case against attendance even to the point of threatening his own resignation at this time where King William I and the Prussian parliament were still in disagreement over army reforms.

Bismarck's programme of Prussian consolidation was enabled to proceed somewhat dramatically in 1864 after a succession to the Danish throne (Nov. 1863) gave rise to a renewed intensity to the long running Schleswig Holstein situation. The inhabitants of of Schlewig and of Holstein favouring a different person (a prince of Augustenburg) to succeed as Duke of these two Duchies than the person (a prince of Glücksburg) who was internationally accepted as the successor to Denmark, Schleswig and Holstein under a London Protocol of 1852 which had been agreed to bring a previous act of the Schleswig Holstein situation to a resolution.

Bismarck ordered the Prussian army, in alliance with Austria, to invade the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein in order to secure some long term measures of independence for these Duchies from Denmark. As the conflict continued Denmark refused to agree to the sort of arrangements that were then sponsored by Prussia and Austria with the result that the two Ducal provinces were effectively seized from Denmark by Prussia and Austria.
The fact that the Prussian army had contributed towards preventing arrangements in relation to Schleswig and Holstein that would have been unacceptable to German sentiment allowed the Prussian army and Bismarck to seem more acceptable to many in Prussia and beyond and made the liberal parliamentary opposition to the army reforms seem out of touch and less relevant.

After the conclusion of a Convention of Gastein of August 1865 whereby Prussia was to administer Schleswig and Austria was to administer Holstein Bismarck was ennobled as a Count by the Prussian king.

Although King William I hoped for peace with Austria Bismarck hoped to engineer some dispute or other over the subsequent adminstration of Schleswig and Holstein into a war against Austria that would lead, after a Prussian victory, to Austria being excluded from influence in much of Germany. In order to prepare the way for such a war Bismarck entered into an arrangement (April 1866) with the Kingdom of Sardinia, which hoped to gain the rich province of Venetia from Austrian control, in order to present Austria with the necessity of having to face adversaries on two fronts.
After a Prussian victory in an ensuing "Seven Weeks War" in the summer of 1866, Bismarck incorporated Schleswig, Holstein, Hanover, Nassau and some other territories into the Prussian state. He also brought all north and central German states into a North German Confederation, under Constitutional arrangements that left Prussia with a preponderance of influence. Faced with these amazing achievements, which were greatly pleasing to liberal and national sentiment both in Prussia and more widely in northern and central Germany, the Prussian Parliamentary opposition buckled and passed an Indemnity Act accepting Bismarck's constitutionally questionable budgetary arrangements of the preceding four years.

In 1870 Bismarck engineered another war, this time against the French Empire and in such a way that several southern German states (Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Southern Hesse) which had previously been wary of both the French and Bismarck were effectively obliged to actually participate as allies of the Prussian led North German Confederation against the French Empire.
Bismarck's intended that there would be a strong national enthusiasm extending into the southern German states in the aftermath of this war that he could expoit to draw the reluctant south German states into an extensive Germany under Prussian leadership.

On Jan 18th, 1871 a "second" German Empire, which included the southern Germany states, superseded the North German Confederation. The King of Prussia also became German Emperor. Bismarck was awarded the title of Prince and was appointed as Reichskanzler (Imperial Chancellor).

When a peace was eventually concluded with France its terms included the cession of Alsace and Lorraine by France to Imperial Germany and the payment of an indemnity of 5,000,000,000 francs.

As Reichskanzler Bismarck saw his main task as consolidating and preserving the newly formed German Empire. Externally, he sought to strengthen the empire through a network of defensive alliances that were intended, in large part, to deny France any opportunity of winning back Alsace and Lorraine through participation in a future war against the German Empire.

Although Bismarck was not personally in favour of Germany becoming significantly involved in colonising activities he accpted German colonialism after 1884 when certain German owned commercial enterprises established in parts of Africa that were not yet claimed by other European states sought an extension of German protection to include their operations.

In terms of domestic policy Bismarck sought to subdue any party that offered to challenge his policies. Roman Catholics, who tended to oppose a centralized state under the protestant Hohenzollern dynasty, were subjected to a so-called Kulturkampf or struggle of civilisations. An opportunity for embarking on such a policy occuring after 1870 when many Roman Catholics dissented from the decisions of a Vatican Council of that year.
After 1878, when there were two attempts on the life of the German Emperor that were believed to be associated with revolutionary Socialism, many limitations were placed on activities in support of Socialism through extensive restrictions on the Social Democratic Party; attempts were made to discredit those liberals who were not already "national liberals" through an official questioning of their patriotism.

The Socialist interest was perhaps the most potent of the domestic challenges to Bismarck's Imperial Germany and, although the restriction placed on Socialism failed to subdue support for Socialism, several seemingly radical social security related legislative arrangements devised by Bismarck to provide for systems of accident and health insurance and for old-age pensions effectively drew the teeth of Socialism in Germany when they were passed into law in the mid eighteen eighties. Given that these social security measures were in place the perceived urgency of socialistic reform abated and the working classes in Germany viewed the state with more acceptance and, in most cases, effectively turned away from thoughts of revolution.

Emperor William I died in March 1888 at the age of 91 and was succeeded by his son Frederick who was unfortunately terminally ill and only survived until mid June. The succession then passed to Frederick's eldest son, a young man who was of a strong willed and somewhat unpredictable temperament, who assumed the throne as William II.

The new ruler of Germany was dissatisfied with the cautious foreign policy being followed by Bismarck and also preferred that socialism should be conciliated rather suppressed. Also and importantly William II increasingly felt that an acceptance of his authority was being confined by the immense authority that Bismarck continued to exercise. Matters between Emperor and Chancellor came to a head in the spring of 1890 when William II invited Bismarck to submit his resignation. This was done on the 18th March 1890.

Bismarck was created Duke of Lauenberg as a parting gift by the Emperor and retired to his estate, Friedrichsruh near Hamburg. Despite this gift Bismarck and William II actually parted on bad terms and Bismarck often made his criticisms of the policy being followed by the ministers of William II openly known over these last years of his life. A partial reconciliation between Bismarck and William II was affected in 1893 at a time when Bismarck was gravely ill.

Bismarck died at Friedrichsruh on July 28th, 1898 at the age of 83. He had requested that his tomb should feature the inscription:-

"A true German servant of the Emperor William I."