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Otto von Bismarck



The unification of Germany in 1871 was a monumental occasion in the history of Europe. It established the German Empire, and that fact along with the international balance of power in Europe during the next forty years has been largely credited to the political strategy of one man, Otto von Bismarck.

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Bismarck came from a Pomeranian Junker family, was born in 1815 and grew up in the powerful German state of Prussia. He was educated at several German universities and served for a short period of time in the Prussian civil service. However, his most important education came after witnessing the Revolution of 1848.

The year 1848 saw a popular uprising of liberals in Germany. Bismarck opposed the liberal revolution in 1848, as he was a conservative. In 1851 Bismarck became the chief Prussian delegate to the Confederation's Diet. When the Crimean War with Austria broke out, Bismarck convinced the government to refuse to mobilize the troops of the German Confederation to help Austria in the Balkans. Bismarck saw no point to aligning with Austria, as it may have alienated other countries. Bismarck's advice was followed, and in 1859 he became a Prussian ambassador.

He was appointed Prussian Prime Minister in 1862 and began almost immediately to change the reactionary dictionary of the Prussian government.  Traditionally, nationalism had been associated with liberalism, but Bismarck made a conservative nationalism a possibility. In a speech given to the Prussian legislature's Ways and Means Committee in October 1962, he stated that Germany would be united by “iron and blood,” perhaps his most famous statement.

Three wars followed the Crimean: the Danish War, Austro-Prussian War, and Franco-Prussian War. In 1871 Bismarck became chancellor of Germany and also Prime Minister of Prussia. His title was defined in the Constitution of 1871, which established a national state where the Reichstag and government leaders took power away from dynastic kings. Bismarck had created a united German national state, although it is debatable whether German nationalism or Prussian power was more important in his campaign.

After these wars and after unification, Bismarck attempted to maintain peace in Europe through a series of alliances. The Three Emperors Alliance with Austria, Germany, and Russia was signed in 1873. It failed by 1878, but was quickly replaced by a Dual Alliance with Austria and eventually incorporated Italy, which was followed by the Reinsurance Treaty. None of the alliances would last however, and Germany was undecided in their foreign policy when Bismarck left office in 1890.

In 1873 Bismarck established the Kulturkampf through the May Laws, which marginalized Catholics and the Center Party. The Reich instituted many forms of social legislation under Bismarck, and also the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878, which suppressed organizations that represented the working classes. He feared Marxism and the Social Democrats threatening his leadership.

Bismarck left office soon after William II became emperor. The young ruler did not renew the Anti-Socialist Laws or Reinsurance Treaty, and he and Bismarck did not agree on the decision. Bismarck had threatened to resign if the Anti-Socialist Laws were not maintained, and consequently left office abruptly in 1890.



A. J. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (New York; Random House,1955).

Erich Eyk, Bismarck and the German Empire (New York;  W. W. Norton, 1958).

Gordon A. Craig, Germany 1866-1945 (Oxford; Oxfrord Univ., 1978)

Researched, Written and Edited by
David Nelson
December 14, 1999

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