History and Notable Achievements of Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany
Following his appointment as Prime Minister of Prussia by King Wilhelm I, Otto von Bismarck set out to accomplish the monumental task of uniting the various small German states into an empire – an empire that went on to establish itself as one of the leading powers in the world.
Under his political leadership, the Germans were able to defeat France, who were led by Emperor Napoleon III, during the Franco-Prussian War.
With the various German states united under Wilhelm I, Otto von Bismarck became the first chancellor of the German Empire. The Berlin-born politician introduced a host of institutional reforms to support his agenda of making Germany an imperial power and a promoter of peace in Europe.
What were some of those reforms? And what was the legacy left behind by Otto von Bismarck?
Below, WHE explores the life, achievements and major facts about the first German chancellor.
Otto von Bismarck: Fast Facts
Born: Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck
Date of birth: April 1, 1815
Died: July 30, 1898
Place of death: Hamburg, Germany
Parents: Ferdinand von Bismarck-Schönhausen and Wilhelmine Mencken
Spouse: Johanna von Puttkamer (m. 1847; died 1894)
Children: Marie (1848-1926), Herbert (1849-1904), Wilhelm (1842-1901)
Positions: Chancellor of German Empire (1871-1890), Prime Minister-President of Prussia (1862-1871), Chamber of Deputies (1849)
Nickname: The Iron Chancellor
The Prussian legislature
In the late 1840s, Bismarck made his entry into politics at the Prussian legislature, i.e. the Prussian Chamber of Deputies in Berlin, where he quickly became one of the stand-out members of the ultra-conservative royalist.
He was firmly against liberalism and bemoaned what he called as Prussia’s willingness to embrace the liberal revolutionaries of the mid-18th century. For his ultra conservative views, he developed a close working relationship with the von Gerlach family, who were known for their religious conservative ideas. To counter the influence of the liberal revolutionaries, he also contributed to a number of conservative newspapers, including the Kruezzeitung.
An archconservative who supported the monarchy
His argument at the time was for having a stable Prussia that was ruled by a powerful monarch. This made him loyal to the Prussian monarch.
Initially, von Bismarck was not interested in the idea of having a unified Germany as he did not want Prussia’s culture to be mixed with the German states in the south, especially the Catholic-dominated Austria.
Ultimately, his work in the legislature was recognized by King Frederik Wilhelm IV (reign, 1840-1861) who gave him the position of Prussian representative to the German Confederation in 1851. The German Confederation at the time was led by Austria, which had just eliminated the threat of the liberal revolution in central Europe.
Otto von Bismarck’s discontent with Prussia playing second fiddle to Austria
For some time, Bismarck was completely okay with Austria leading the German Confederation; however, he soon had a change of views, which resulted in him gradually taking a tougher stance against Austria’s hegemony in the region. He called on his colleagues to change Prussia’s foreign policy in order to allow the country to assert itself among the German states. It therefore came as no surprise when he opposed a plans for the improvement of ties with Austria.
He longed for a day when Prussia would rise to become the most dominant power in central Europe and beyond. For this, he was even willing to go to war with Austria.
Diplomatic service in France and Russia
Bismarck would go on to serve as a senior diplomat to France and Russia. In Paris, he had the chance to observe and learn a great deal of things from then-French emperor Napoleon III, who would later become Prussia’s enemy. All in all, he spent about a decade abroad before returning home.
Wilhelm I appoints Otto von Bismarck as the Prime Minister of Prussia
After his diplomatic service abroad, he was called back to Prussia by newly crowned Prussian king, Wilhelm I, (reign, 1861-1888), Frederick Wilhelm IV’s successor, to take up the position of prime minister and foreign affairs chief in 1862. Wilhelm I was counting on Bismarck to leverage all the knowledge and experience he had picked up while serving abroad. The king hoped that the young and energetic politician would help him maintain the monarchy’s sovereignty over the military, which at the time was dominated by parliament.
The appointment of Bismarck, a politician known for his opposition to liberals, was seen by the Chamber of Deputies as a challenge to their constitutional authority. To the King’s surprise, Bismarck proceeded to work towards gaining a compromise with the liberals over the issue of size of the military and the years of service. When the compromise could not be reached, he ignored parliament and went on to roll out the military reforms he so much desired.
He argued that the reforms weren’t aimed at maintaining the government’s hold on the country; instead it was intended to secure a more united Prussia. On May 22, 1863, the liberal opposition leaders voted not to work with him.
Bismarck responded by channeling his efforts to foreign policy as he hoped that by showing strength abroad, he would be able to convince the opposition to support his internal efforts.
War efforts against Denmark
Following the escalation of tensions between Denmark and some German-dominated duchies in Denmark, Bismarck found this as a perfect opportunity to direct Prussia’s foreign policy in a more assertive manner. Aligned with the other major German power Austria, Prussia went to war with Denmark on the pretext of being the defender of the interests of Schleswig and Holstein – two German-dominated duchies in Denmark. Following the very successful war, the two duchies were placed in the administration of Prussia and Austria respectively.
As expected by Bismarck, Austria’s involvement in the annexation of those duchies did it more harm than good as the Austrians became diplomatically isolated.
The forging of a Prussian-dominated Germany with “Blood and Iron”
Bismarck’s foreign policy wins and military victory did nothing to convince Prussian liberal lawmakers, who saw Bismarck as working in cahoot with Wilhelm to increase the Prussian monarch’s hold on power.
After the liberals and the Prussian king failed to reach a compromise deal, especially on the budget, Prime Minister-President Otto von Bismarck took matters into his own hands. The 6 foot 4” towering figure informed the two sides that he intended handling the crisis by the use of force. He proclaimed that the days of speeches and majority decisions were long gone; instead Prussia was to assert itself by “iron and blood” in the region. By that phrase, Bismarck meant the rapid industrialization of Prussia as well as the implementation of military reforms that would turn Prussia into a central European power. He bemoaned the mistakes made by Prussia in the late 1840s when Europe was swept by a wave of liberalism and anti-monarchy sentiments.
Bismarck therefore set about to make Prussia’s military more modern and efficient. That military force would then be used to make Prussia more united. This meant the suppression of liberal voices in the country. That in turn allowed Prussia, a Protestant nation, to properly confront its rival Austria, a Catholic German nation.
Bismarck’s Seven Weeks’ War with Austria
With guarantees from European powers, including France, Britain, Russia and Italy, not to come to the aid of Austria, Bismarck baited the Austrians into an all-out conflict. In June, 1866, he marched the Prussian troops on Holstein, which was a duchy firmly in the orbit of Austria. The Catholic-dominated Austria responded by forming a coalition with many German states, including Hesse-Kassel and Hanover, to resist what they saw as Prussia’s aggression. In less than two months, a well-oiled and equipped Prussian army had successfully achieved the goal of defeating Austria.
Not wanting to inflict further disgrace on the Austrians, Bismarck entreated his military generals and even the Prussian king not to demand too many concessions (during the Peace of Nikolsburg) from the Austrians. He even disobeyed the Prussian King’s orders to march on Vienna, which was there for the taking. Instead, he ended the war. This was a very wise strategic move by Bismarck. The reason being that had Prussia continued its hostilities against Vienna, it was very likely that other European powers would have come to the support of Austria. This in turn would have further hampered Bismarck’s long-term goal of attaining national unity among the German states.
As Austria did not receive a humiliating peace treaty, it promised the Prussians not to interfere in the affairs of any future German union. This explains why Austria never became part of any unified Germany.
The North German Confederation
With Austria comprehensively defeated, Bismarck’s Prussia became the new sheriff in town, so to speak. Prussia brought into its orbit the small German states that fought on the side of Austria. This included the likes of Frankfurt, Hesse-Kassel, and Hanover.
Bismarck’s victory over the Austrians caused many liberals to begin singing his praises. They viewed Bismarck as the best person to unify Germany. The liberals were also convinced that the Prussian king was on their side.
With a united front, Prussia was able to establish the North German Confederation in 1867. The confederation even had a constitution, which as expected was pan-German in nature. The new constitution of Bismarck’s North German Confederation made sure that ministers reported to the emperor. Universal manhood suffrage was also established.
The only thing left for Bismarck to do was to find a way to rope what was left of the southern Germanic states into the full unification of all Germanic states. The proposed empire would have all the Germanic states, including those in the south, recognized Wilhelm as German emperor. Unfortunately, his efforts were curtailed as there was some bit of opposition in those southern German states. Bismarck had to come out with a different approach. The approach involved provoking France into a war with Prussia and its Northern German Confederation.
The Ems telegram
By the late 186s, Bismarck had begun drawing up plans that would cause southern Germanic states to seek help from Prussia due to a supposed threat from France. The French, who by then were led by Napoleon III, the second French emperor, wanted to annex Luxemburg. Bismarck saw this as an opportune time to irritate Napoleon into an all-out war. The Prussians stopped the French from annexing Luxemburg, a move that infuriated Napoleon.
Then there was the tension that rose between France and Prussia during the succession crisis in Spain at the time. Bismarck then poured more fuel to the fire by carefully using propaganda and political machinations. After receiving a telegram of the conversation between the senior French diplomat, Vincent Benedetti, and the Prussian king, he leaked a ducted version to the public at Bad Ems. Bismarck made the conversation look like the Prussians were insulting the French.
Prussia’s war with France and the subsequent creation of the German Empire
As expected Napoleon III and his advisors fell for Bismarck’s machinations. The French proceeded to declare war on Prussia on July 19, 1870. And so Bismarck got the war that he had always wanted. The threat of a French invasion caused the remaining four southern German states, excluding Austria, to join Prussia-led German coalition.
Napoleon III was expecting other European powers to support him against the Prussians; however, none came. The Franco-Austrian War would see the French army completely humiliated by a far superior Prussian army. Bismarck decimated the French army and even captured Napoleon on September 2, 1870. The Prussians also invaded France before placing a siege to Paris. The peace treaty that Bismarck signed with France saw the French relinquish two of its provinces – Alsace and Lorraine – to the Germans. The French also had to fork out an indemnity to the sum of five billion franc.
As France capitulated, Bismarck had successfully completed the transformation of a Prussia-led North German Confederation into the German Empire. He was praised as a national hero in Berlin.
Did you know: Those two provinces Otto von Bismarck annexed from France was returned to the French after the World War I?
Bismarck becomes the first chancellor of Germany
The newly formed German Empire had its constitution based on the 1867 Prussian constitution. Bismarck was appointed first Imperial Chancellor of the German Empire, the first of his kind. He also maintained the prime ministry and foreign ministry portfolios. He was further rewarded with the rank of Fürst (Prince) and lieutenant-general.
After Prussia’s impressive show of political and military might of the Germans, Bismarck did not pursue any further military campaigns all throughout his time as chancellor. He embarked on promoting a domestic policy that was less confrontational to his opponents, even the to the ones at home.
Otto von Bismarck’s culture struggle against Catholicism
Bismarck was always anti-Catholic in his views and was very wary of then-pope Pius IX’s attempt to have some kind of political hegemony in Europe and beyond. Known in German as Kulturkampf, the “culture struggle” against Catholicism by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck began around the early 1870s. He introduced a number of bills in parliament to prevent the Catholic Church from gaining a strong foothold in Germany.
The German chancellor even built a coalition in Europe so as to have a say in the pick for the subsequent pontiff. He also unsuccessfully tried to restrict the Vatican’s influence on not just Prussian bishops but the German Catholics, which accounted for about one-third of the population of Germany. Catholic bishops that resisted were either placed behind bars or forced to go into exile.
With the help of the anticlerical National Liberal Party, Bismarck expelled the Catholic religious order Jesuits (also known as the Society of Jesus).
Abroad, Otto von Bismarck’s foreign policy had elements of anti-Catholicism as he tried to remove the papal’s influence in Catholic-denominated countries like France.
His struggle against Catholicism only empowered the Catholics even more. Also some allies of his had begun extending Kulturkampf to other religions, including Protestantism. By the end of the 1870s, the German chancellor had discarded the Kulturkampf as had more pressing issues to deal with, including contending with the rise of socialism. On so many occasions, he fought against the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and many other socialist organizations. Many trade unions and their newspapers were suppressed. Some socialists ditched the SDP so they could run in the elections as independent candidates.
The Berlin Africa Conference of 1884
With interest in the African continent increasing, European powers tried as much as possible not to lock horns with eachother when it came to invasion, conquest and colonization of Africa. Europe was able to relatively do this due to the Chancellor Bismarck’s efforts. As one of the most respected leaders in Europe, his invitation to other European members for the Berlin African Conference in 1884 was duly honored. At the conference, which was attended by about 16 countries, it was decided that imperial powers operating in the continent of Africa abide by an agreed upon set of rules.
Initially Bismarck was not interested in the colonization of Africa as he reasoned that the cost of doing so outweighed the benefit. However, after strong calls for Germany to join the Scramble for Africa, Bismarck was forced to engage actively in colonial acquisitions. Besides, having colonies in Africa would end up providing a boost in German economy. And so the Berlin Africa Conference was organized to formalize the Scramble for Africa. It was also agreed that the Congo Basin be a trade free zone.
Germany acquired colonies such as Togoland (modern day Togo and some parts of Ghana), German East Africa (present day Burundi, Rwanda, the mainland Tanzania), German South-West Africa (present day Namibia), and German Kamerun (parts of Cameroon and parts of Nigeria).
Germany and Europe grapples with an economic depression
Germany’s economy as well as many other economies in Europe began experiencing slight economic issues in the early 1870s. Making the problem worse was the Kulturkampf. The chancellor responded to those economic challenges by scrapping off free trade and erecting a host of protectionist policies to safeguard German farmers and industrialists. Germany, like the rest of Europe, sourly needed new markets.
Resignation and retirement
Otto von Bismarck had very a smooth relationship with Wilhelm I and his son and successor Friedrich III. Having been caught by the surprise death of Friedrich III, who reigned for just 99 days, Otto von Bismarck had difficulties dealing with the newly crowned German emperor Wilhelm II. The new Kaiser began to interfere in Bismarck’s foreign policy. This was unheard of in the reigns of the previous Kaisers. As a result, Bismarck and Wilhelm II’s relationship deteriorated. They disagreed on a number of issues, including the anti-socialist laws that Bismarck was so eager to see passed by the Reichstag. To make matters worse, his political base was voted out of power in parliament.
Owing to those irreconcilable differences, Wilhelm forced Bismarck to tender his resignation. The long-serving chancellor resigned from office on March 18, 1890. The 75-year-old was succeeded by Leo von Caprivi.
Throughout his retirement he was bitter, and he hoped that the Kaiser would lend an olive branch and call him back. None of that happened, as the Iron Chancellor never wielded power again.
He spent his retirement writing books, newspaper articles and pamphlets, many of which were critical of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s government and advisors.
The death of his wife on November 27, 1894 took a huge toll on his health. A year later, he was confined to the wheelchair. In his free time, he wrote down his memoirs – Gedanken und Erinneurungen (Thoughts and Memories).
By 1896, his health was nothing to write home about. At Friedrichsruh in northern Germany, the former German chancellor died on July 30, 1899. He was 83. He was buried in the Bismarck Mausoleum. His cause of death was most likely gangrene in the foot.
Otto von Bismarck facts
Having seized the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine, Bismarck made Germany the sworn enemy of France for quite a long time. The French spent close to four decade trying to reclaim those territories lost. Bismarck’s anti-French sentiments also saw him enter alliance with Austria and Russia to isolate and turn France into some kind of outcast.
He hailed from an aristocratic family in Schönhausen in Northwestern Berlin. For his education, he enrolled at a very elite school called the Plamann Institute in Berlin before going on to study law at the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony, Hanover. He was not a very high-flying student as he slacked around in school, drinking and partying.
After a brief stint at the Prussian civil service, he proceeded to work at his father’s estates for close to ten years. It is said the reason why he left the civil service had to do with his frustration with the red tapism.
At the age of 32, he tied the knot with Johanna von Puttkamer. Johanna’s family were descendants of the Puttkamer noble family. By Johanna, he had three children – Marie (1848-1926), Herbert (1849-1904), Wilhelm (1842-1901).
Married Johanna von Puttkamer on July 28, 1847 at a ceremony near Reinfeld.
After his marriage to Johanna, he subscribed to the Christian tradition of Lutheranism. This conversion helped to gain more self-confidence and clearer vision for his future.
Other notable accomplishments
Otto von Bismarck was one of the greatest European leaders of the 19th century. Before him, many leaders given the unification of the various German states a shot; however, none of them succeeded. Otto von Bismarck’s efforts between the 1860s and the 1880s were very crucial. The unification of Germany therefore stands as his greatest accomplishment. The unification allowed Germany to become a powerful imperial power in the world. Much of that power was used by Bismarck to promote peace within and abroad.
- He introduced social benefits and insurance, including pension, accident and sickness insurance. Some say those welfare programs were aimed to make ordinary Germans more loyal to the nation and the emperor. Flowing from that loyalty and unity, the German Emperor was able to remain a significant European power. However, he failed to properly tackle the workers’ working conditions, women’s rights in the workforce, child labor, and the limitation of work hours. This was because he feared that employers would slash production were any of those issues tackled.
- He was an astute diplomat and statesmanship whose tenure as chancellor did not see Germany engage in any war with a European nation. He ensured that the German military, under the command of Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, acted in a professional manner.
- Europe remained relatively peaceful throughout his time in power, starting from 1871 to 1890. Bismarck was not in the slightest bit interested in acquiring any territory in Europe.
- At the Congress of Berlin, he served as peace broker following the end of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78). The Treaty of Berlin was signed on July 13, 1878. Signatories to the treaty included Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Britain, Russia, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire. The treaty resulted in Russia losing some bit of influence. As the relationship between Russia and Germany soured, Bismarck refused calls from some Germans to go to war with Russia.
- A peacemaker who was previously a war maker. A champion of peace in Europe, he used worked very hard to have a balance of power in Europe. To do this he established the League of the Three Emperors (Dreikaiserbund) which comprised Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary, represented by Wilhelm, Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria-Hungary respectively. He also used this alliance to suppress the Poles. In effect, the league maintained effective control of Eastern Europe. Following the demise of the league, Bismarck entered into the Triple Alliance – a German alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy in 1882.
Did you know?
- Some top figures in the German military accused Bismarck of being too moderate.
- Otto von Bismarck came to be nicknamed the “Iron Chancellor” due to his impressive diplomatic skills and his strong leadership.
- His 22-year stay in the chancellor position makes him the longest-serving German chancellor in history.
- He donned military uniform in public even though he never had any military service.