Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian politician, soldier, and prince, was at the center of Prussian and German affairs during the second half of the 1800’s. As prime minister of Prussia, Bismarck provoked three wars to force the unification of several German states—with Prussia at the head—into the German empire in 1871. Then, as chancellor of Germany, he pursued treaties to balance the distribution of power among European nations. A staunch conservative monarchist, Bismarck declared that the great problems of his time must be settled by “blood and iron” instead of by speeches and resolutions. Yet, circumstances led him to create a national welfare state and introduce universal male suffrage. Bismarck’s aggressive yet pragmatic actions—and attitudes—heavily influenced Germany well into the 1900’s.
Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born on April 1, 1815, in Schönhausen, in the Prussian province of Saxony. The son of a noble family, he studied law at the universities of Göttingen and Berlin. Bismarck served as an officer in the Prussian army before being elected to the Prussian Diet (national assembly). In 1849, his speeches against liberal revolutionaries gained him the favor of King Frederick William IV. Bismarck then represented Prussia in the Diet of the German Confederation from 1851 to 1859. He served as ambassador first to Russia and then to France. He was recalled to Prussia in 1862 to become prime minister and secretary of foreign affairs.
To unify the German states, Bismarck fought a war against Denmark in 1864; the Seven Weeks’ War against Austria in 1866; and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Germany’s harsh peace treaty with France instilled a spirit of revenge among the French, a spirit that sped the path to war in later years.
In January 1871, the king of Prussia was crowned Wilhelm I, emperor of Germany. Bismarck became chancellor and the head of the government of the new German empire. He was soon known as the “Iron Chancellor.” Bismarck’s success in attaining German unity and national power was based on effective military policy, extraordinary political cunning, and considerable diplomatic skill. He devoted his skills to the establishment of treaties that fortified the position of Germany in Europe. He created the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy and created an effective treaty with Russia. He also established the principle that Germany should never fight a two-front war.
To appease considerable Catholic and Socialist opposition within Germany, Bismarck made a number of liberal reforms. He introduced a national health care system, accident insurance, and old age pensions, and he gave the right to vote to all German males. Conversely, Bismarck also created exploitative colonies in Africa.
Wilhelm II, who became emperor in 1888, was jealous of Bismarck’s fame. He forced the aged chancellor to resign in 1890. Bismarck retired to his estates at Friedrichsruh, where he died on July 30, 1898.
In the years following Bismarck’s death, Wilhelm II guided Germany away from Bismarck’s policies. The emperor alienated Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom, and led Germany into World War I (1914-1918), a horrific war with two fronts, east and west. Following Germany’s defeat in the war, the right-wing National Socialists (Nazis) distorted Bismarck’s views to promote and install a new nationalist, antidemocratic government. The Nazis then plunged Europe into World War II (1939-1945)—a tragic war that Germany again fought, and lost, on essentially two fronts.
The famous German battleship Bismarck, sunk during World War II, was named for the “Iron Chancellor,” as were a popular brand of pickled herring, a pastry, and the capital of North Dakota. Several other towns bear Bismarck’s name, as do an archipelago, a sea, and a mountain range.