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Otto von Bismarck: Quotes & Biography

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Otto von Bismarck was one of the great statesmen of the nineteenth-century. Bismarck, nicknamed the 'iron chancellor,' served as prime minister and the first chancellor of a unified Germany.

Early Education and Family

The eighteenth-century French critic Voltaire once said of the former Holy Roman Empire, that it was 'Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.' Since its collapse in 1806, Germany had become a series of 39 principalities without a unified government. The two most powerful states were Austria under the Habsburgs and Prussia under the Hohenzollerns. Otto von Bismarck changed all that, when he achieved German unification and turned Germany into a military and industrial powerhouse.

Bismarck was born on his family's estate in Schonhausen, Germany. His father was an army officer and Prussian Junker - or landowning noble, and his mother was an educated middle-class commoner with political connections. He received a solid education and attended the University of Gottingen. He began work for the civil service, but soon quit and spent the next several years working on his family's estate. In 1847, Bismarck married Johanna von Puttkamer, who was deeply religious. Bismarck's conversion to Lutheranism had a deep impact on him. By all accounts, the two were very happily married.

Otto von Bismarck
Otto von Bismarck

Return to Politics

In 1851, King Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck as a representative to the German confederation. From 1851-1862, he served as ambassador to Russia and France. This global experience exposed him firsthand to great power politics. Upon his return to Prussia in 1862, Wilhelm appointed him as prime minister. It was in this role that Bismarck made his mark. His chief goal was to unite the German confederation under a single ruling house. This required uniting the northern German confederation with the southern German confederation.

Prime Minister

King Wilhelm was locked in a struggle with Parliament over military policy. The monarchy wanted to increase military funding and the required years of compulsory service, whereas Parliament would increase spending only if the compulsory time was lessened. Bismarck supported Wilhelm's position and boldly told Parliament that 'the great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood.' This became one of his best known speeches.

L-R, Napoleon III and Otto von Bismarck
Napoloen III and Bismarck

Foreign Policy

Bismarck launched a series of wars in 1864 to drive home German unification. He attacked Denmark to annex the German speaking territories of Schleswig and Holstein. In 1866, he started a quarrel with the Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria, which triggered the short-lived Austria-Prussian War. Prussia won easily, and in addition to having already annexed Schleswig and Holstein, now gained Hanover and Nassau among others territories.

His most notorious war was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 against France. In a remarkably one-sided war, Prussia crushed France. Apart from beating France, his goal was to unite the northern and southern German states against a common foe. In a lavish ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors on January 18, 1871, Wilhelm was crowned emperor of a unified Germany and Bismarck named chancellor.

German Unification

These events had long-term consequences. First, Germany annexed the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine that France only reacquired after the First World War. Second, it forced an alliance between Great Britain and France that pitted these two powers against Germany in the First World War and again in the Second World War. The Congress of Vienna of 1815 carved Europe up into spheres of influence to prevent another Napoleonic super-state dominating the entire continent. However, the balance of power was thrown out of sorts as a unified Germany suddenly became the most powerful industrial and military nation in Europe. Bismarck once stated that: 'Politics is the art of the possible.' He had just made the impossible suddenly possible.

Anton von Werners painting Proclamation of the Second German Empire in 1871
Second German Empire

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