Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck
Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck was born on April 1, 1815, at his family’s estate of Schoenhausen in Prussia. The same year, Prussia became again the most important country in Germany when its army under Field Marshal von Blücher would help the British duke of Wellington defeat Napoleon I at Waterloo, on June 18, 1815.

Bismarck came from the hereditary warrior caste of the Junkers, Prussian nobles who had centuries before formed the cutting edge of the campaigns of the Teutonic knights in their wars in eastern Europe.

At first, Bismarck did not follow the traditional Prussian Junker calling into the military, but took up legal studies in Hanover, Göttingen, and Berlin. Bismarck showed a disinclination toward the practice of law; his interest centered on a career in diplomacy.

When the wave of revolutions swept throughout Europe in 1848, Bismarck was a conservative and relieved to see the revolutions largely fail. In France, the revolution did succeed, and Napoleon III, the nephew of Prussia’s old nemesis Napoleon, was elected to power.

Nevertheless, Bismarck was not a doctrinaire conservative but more of a political pragmatist ready to adopt ideas from political liberalism that would benefit Prussia. Throughout his career, Bismarck was characterized by this political adaptability, which helped to make him the master statesman of his day.

Bismarck became a rising star in the Prussian diplomatic service, which had been the fast track to success in the kingdom since the time of Frederick the Great, who by his death in 1786 had made the comparatively small monarchy one of the great powers in Europe.

He was sent to represent Prussia in France in 1862 and in czarist Russia in 1859, two of the three countries that could either help—or inhibit— Prussian foreign interests.

The Austrian Empire, as heir to the old Holy Roman Empire that Napoleon had destroyed in 1806, would prove to be the most important diplomatic threat to Prussian ambitions. While the Holy Roman Empire might be no more, the German Confederation existed in its place, and Prussia chafed at being subordinate to Austria.

In 1851 King Frederick William (Friedrich Wilhelm) IV, in recognition of Bismarck’s loyalty during the 1848 uprising, appointed him to the Diet, or assembly, of the Confederation as Prussia’s representative.

In one way or the other, von Bismarck would remain at the center of German affairs for the next four decades. At this time, Britain, ruled by Queen Victoria, treated developments in Europe, so long as one power did not become too powerful, as a second-class interest against those of Britain’s developing empire overseas.

Bismarck made clear from the start that he had little liking for letting Austria take the lead in German affairs and believed that Prussia should lead instead. After serving as Prussia’s minister to France and Russia and as Prussia’s representative to the German Federal Diet in Frankfurt, he was rewarded with the positions of Prussian foreign minister and prime minister in 1862.

Well-schooled in diplomacy among the Great Powers, he would find politics within Prussia to be an entirely different game than the diplomatic game of nations. The kings and Bismarck came grudgingly to live with the political liberals and to realize that some accommodation with liberalism was needed if the country was to be governed at all.

Bismarck saw the army as the key to Prussia’s future. On February 1, 1864, a combined Prussian-Austrian army swept over the German frontier to invade Schleswig-Holstein and the Danish garrison occupying it.

In August 1865 the Convention of Gastein apportioned Holstein to Austria and Schleswig to Prussia. Although the situation seemed resolved, Bismarck secretly hoped for a casus belli, a cause of war, with the Austrians.

Mutual attacks in the parliament of the German Confederation between the Prussian and Austrian representatives were finally followed by a Prussian invasion of Austrian-held Holstein. Open hostilities soon broke out between Prussia and Austria.

To Bismarck, the defeat of Austria was only a means to remove Austria from the German equation— to leave Germany’s destiny in Prussian hands. Accordingly, out of the war came the North German Confederation, which Bismarck saw as a stepping stone to complete Prussian domination of the Germanic states.

Bavaria, a southern contender for prominence, had also been humbled—but not crushed—during the Austrian war. With Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary removed from the equation, there was only one player on the European scene with plans for Germany: Emperor Napoleon III of France.

Although popularly elected in the wake of the French Revolution of 1848, in 1852, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power in a military coup, much as his uncle had done in November 1799. Napoleon began to see himself also as the arbiter of German affairs, which was something Bismarck could not abide.

At first, Napoleon desired only territorial compensation from Bismarck in return for his neutrality in the Six Weeks’ War. However, when Napoleon decided he wanted Luxembourg, Bismarck was able to marshall German opposition to French desires on German land.

The flash point, however, came in Spain. There was a succession crisis when Queen Isabella II of Spain was deposed in 1868. Spain looked for a candidate for the throne and decided on a member of the House of Hohenzollern—the reigning house of King Wilhelm I of Prussia.

Napoleon feared encirclement, and tension rose in both France and Prussia. The Hohenzollern candidacy was withdrawn, but Napoleon III foolishly kept up the diplomatic pressure to make it appear as a clear-cut French triumph.

Rather than suffer a strategic blow, Bismarck doctored the infamous Ems Telegram to King Wilhelm I to make it appear that the French had deliberately tried to humiliate the Prussian monarch.

The end result was predictable. French pride rose up, and Napoleon answered with hostility. On July 19 France declared war on Prussia. By August 1870 France and Prussia, backed by the North German Confederation, began hostilities.

From the beginning, the odds were in the favor of the Prussians and their allies: In the face of their 400,000 troops, Napoleon III only was able to muster about half of that number. On September 2, 1870, Napoleon surrendered to the Germans. With peace of a sort in place with France, Bismarck had achieved his goal. Germany was united under the new emperor, or kaiser, Wilhelm I.

Bismarck had no more territorial aspirations. Instead, he devoted his career so that the new imperial Germany could progress in peace. With France militarily neutralized (at least for a time), Bismarck devoted his attention to the Austrian Empire, the Dual Monarchy, and czarist Russia.

Bismarck’s goal was essentially to re-create the balance of power that had been put in place by the Congress of Vienna, which had brought 40 years of peace until Britain and France had confronted Russia in the Crimean War of 1854–56. The peace he sought for imperial Germany would also benefit the rest of Europe and became his lasting contribution to history.

Bismarck, the minister-president (prime minister) of Prussia and the Iron Chancellor of the German Empire, died on July 30, 1898. He did not live to see the adventurist policies of Wilhelm II contribute to the coming of World War I in August 1914 and the ultimate destruction of the German Empire that he had worked so passionately to create and to preserve.