The Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck: A Quest for German Unity

Otto von Bismarck shortly after being fired as Chancellor by the young Kaiser Wilhelm II in March 1890 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Otto von Bismarck was arguably the most dominant political figure in Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century. He orchestrated a series of European wars that culminated in the creation of a unified German Empire with himself as the new Chancellor and Prussian King Wilhelm I as Emperor. Under his leadership, the new German Empire quickly became a powerful state whose power rivaled if not arguably exceeded that of France and Great Britain. After establishing a new Empire, Bismarck went on to devote much of his energy to maintaining the peace in Europe through diplomatic means and skillful manipulation. Arguably, aside from Napoleon Bonaparte, no other individual in the nineteenth century was able to impose his or her will upon Europe and leave a legacy that would influence generations to come.

“With a few brusque strokes Bismarck swept away the dilemmas that had baffled the German quest for unity. In the process, he recast the map of Europe and the pattern of international relations.” —Henry A. Kissinger 1

A depiction of a young Otto von Bismarck at the age of 11 in 1826 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Otto von Bismark was born on April 1, 1815 in Schönhausen, Prussia. At the time Prussia was one of many German states throughout Central Europe. His father was a former Prussian soldier and Junker, and his mother came from a well-educated family that emphasized Enlightenment thinking. American diplomat and political scientist Henry A. Kissinger wrote that it was from his parents that Bismarck was introduced to “Prussian aristocracy and bureaucracy,” where he would develop a strong sense of loyalty to the Prussian royal family.2 The young Otto received a classical education and later attended university at both Göttingen and Berlin, at the behest of his mother. Unfortunately, Bismarck was a dismal student, often prioritizing socialization and mundane activities over his studies. Bismarck briefly tried a career in civil service, but struggled to adhere to authority. From 1839 to 1847, Bismarck returned to an ordinary life back home and eventually married his wife Johanna von Puttkamer.3

In 1848, Bismarck reentered Prussian politics by making a name for himself during the Prussian Revolution. He was a staunch defender of the Hohenzollern Monarchy that ruled Prussia, and was against the liberal and democratic revolutionaries of that year, who sought to create a unified German Empire, with Frederick Wilhelm IV as its first Emperor. The Prussian King had refused the offer to have him declared Emperor of a united German State by the Frankfurt Parliament, believing rather that only the princes of the German lands could offer their realms to him.4 And it was Bismark who had urged the Prussian King to reject the Imperial Crown from the Frankfurt Parliament. King Frederick Wilhelm IV had called it a “crown picked up from the gutter.”5 For Bismarck, it would be better for German unity to come through a Prussian display of force and leadership, rather than through a revolution “from below,” which is what he considered the Frankfurt Parliament to be, made up as it was of largely non-aristocratic elements.6

Depiction of Otto von Bismarck as a member of the Prussian Parliament | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The defeat of the liberal revolutions in Europe allowed Austria to reassert its position as the dominant German state in Europe. Austria was at the center of the German Confederation, which also included Prussia. Henry A. Kissinger wrote that Prussia had “accepted a subordinate role” in the 1850s out of fear that there was more to lose domestically than anything they might gain through force. Bismarck began to see things similarly after spending time serving as Ambassador to the German Confederation, Russia, and France. He began to envision a Prussian-dominated Europe and argued that Austria was an obstacle to Prussian interests.7 Austria would never accept a Prussian hegemony; therefore, for Bismarck, Austria was no longer vital to a unified Germany.8

The appointment of Bismarck as Prussia’s Prime Minister was King Wilhelm’s last attempt at retaining control over the military. The Prussian Diet was threatening not to pass a budget over concerns of military reforms instituted by King Wilhelm. To get past this obstacle Bismarck used a loophole that allowed taxes to be collected based on the old budget. Bismarck argued that this needed to occur, because the government needed to function even if a new budget was not passed and that civil servants deserved compensation for their work and service to the Prussian state.9 Despite considering himself a conservative, Bismarck differed in actual application of policies throughout his political career. In order to gain support from Prussian peasants, artisans, and middle class, Bismarck was willing to concede to liberal policies if it benefited his objectives. In doing so Bismarck was able to gain support from the middle class, which also undermined popular support for socialists and liberals. Most of his political enemies saw Bismarck as antiquated and out of touch with the common folk; however, Bismarck had adapted over the years and had become a master of diplomacy.10

Painting of Otto von Bismarck as Chancellor of Germany, age 58 in 1873 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Not long after assuming power, Bismarck began preparations for a new German Empire. He began undermining Austrian influence by politically isolating it from its allies, which was important as Austria depended on its alliances with Prussia and Russia.11 Bismarck manipulated Austria into joining Prussia in the German-Danish War, which resulted in the Germans quickly defeating the Danes. The Prussians gained the region of Schleswig and the Austrians gained Holstein.12

Bismarck’s next target was Austria itself. By stirring up Hungarian nationalism against Austria, he hoped to provoke a war. Once Bismarck was able to determine that Russia would not interfere in the conflict, he established an alliance with Italy and invaded Holstein and, later, Austria in a preemptive strike. Within weeks, Prussia had won the decisive battle at Königgrätz. With Austria, once a dominant power, no longer posing a threat to Prussian interests, Bismarck ended hostilities and Prussia emerged from the war the new dominant German power in Europe.13

After Austria’s defeat, Prussia annexed the German lands of Hanover and Hesse-Kassel. Bismarck, a conservative, was beginning to win support from the liberal Prussian middle class thanks to his goal of German unification, which the middle class supported. The North German Confederation was established in 1867 with Prussia as the de facto leader.14 After failed attempts to unite the German states through diplomacy, Bismarck sought to use war once more. He sought conflict with France and maneuvered diplomatically to assure that neither Russia nor Austria would intervene in a possible conflict between Prussia and France. The emergence of a new Napoleon in France stirred fears in Europe, as many feared another Napoleon would threaten European stability as Napoleon Bonaparte had done previously.15 French Emperor Napoleon III was more than eager to go to war with Prussia, as he saw Prussia as a threat to France’s position as the dominant power in Europe.16

The Proclamation of the German Empire and crowing of King Wilhelm as Emperor at the Palace of Versailles in 1871 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bismarck, through diplomatic actions, forced France to respond with a declaration of war on July 19, 1870. Napoleon III believed that the French Army would easily defeat the Prussian Army. However, in making France seem as the aggressor in the conflict, the southern German states (Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden) sided with Prussia, allowing the Germans to have superiority in numbers. Combined with efficient mobilization, the Germans were able to exploit their superiority in numbers against the French by overwhelming them, resulting in many victorious battles. After a decisive defeat in the Battle at Sedan that culminated with the capture of Napoleon III, it seemed inevitable that Bismarck and the Germans would win the war. On September 4, 1870, the French people deposed Napoleon III, ending imperial rule in France, and established the Third French Republic. On January 18, 1871, King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor at the Palace of Versailles, the famous palace that had been the home of previous French kings and French symbol of absolute rule. Despite attempts at resistance, Paris under the administration of the newly formed Third French Republic, surrendered on January 28, 1871. In less than a decade, Bismarck’s three wars ended French hegemony in Europe and created a powerful dominant German Empire in Europe.17

Depiction of an elderly Otto von Bismarck at the age of 79 in 1894 dressed in a military uniform | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As Chancellor, Bismarck was able to conduct foreign policy mostly uncontested. Bismarck had no imperialist desires to conquer Europe, as Napoleon Bonaparte had in the early nineteenth century. His initial wars were solely for the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership, and now that the objective was complete, much of his attention was focused on maintaining peace in Europe. Most of his concerns were in regard to the unstable situation in the Balkans that could destabilized Europe, and the French who desired revenge. When the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 threatened to disrupt peace in Europe, Bismarck called for a peace congress in Berlin and subsequently dominated the meeting, which resulted in peace. Later, Bismarck negotiated defensive alliances with Austria-Hungary and Russia, later known as the Three Emperors League, in 1881. Italy, fearing French aggression, joined Germany and Austria to create the Triple Alliance. Bismarck’s influence over Vienna and St. Petersburg was able to prevent war from emerging in the Balkans, and his alliances denied the French from having allies, which effectively neutralized French ambitions for revenge. Bismarck eventually became renowned for his realpolitik attitude and despised for his authoritarian rule. Until his resignation in 1890, Bismarck was able to maintain peace in Europe, and he came to be known as the “Iron Chancellor,” a name that alluded to his famous speech of “Blood and Iron.”18

  1. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck, ” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 888.
  2. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 891.
  3. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 895-900.
  4. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 903.
  5. Charles Breunig and Matthew Levinger, The Revolutionary Era: 1789-1850 (New York: W. W. Norton and Co, 2002), 283.
  6. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 904.
  7. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 907.
  8. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 908.
  9. Encyclopedia Britannica, July 22, 2015, s.v. “Otto von Bismarck,” by Kenneth Barkins.
  10. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 905.
  11. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck,” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968): 907.
  12. Encyclopedia Britannica, March 6, 2016, s.v. “Otto von Bismarck,” by Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.
  13. Encyclopedia Britannica, February 4, 2016, s.v. “Seven Weeks’ War,” by Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.
  14. Encyclopedia Britannica, July 22, 2015, s.v. “Otto von Bismarck,” by Kenneth Barkins.
  15. Henry A. Kissinger, “The White Revolutionary: Reflections on Bismarck, ” Daedalus 97, no. 3 (1968):913.
  16. Encyclopedia Britannica, December 11, s.v. “Franco-Prussian War,” by Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.
  17. Encyclopedia Britannica, July 22, 2015, s.v. “Otto von Bismarck,” by Kenneth Barkins.
  18. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia Starters, 2016, s.v. “Otto von Bismarck,” by Gordon Mork. The speech was given to the Prussian Landtag in September 1862, and read in part: “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided–that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849–but by iron and blood.”
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17 Comments

  • This is a great article that showed a man go from nothing and work the system to being one of the most powerful men in European history. Bismark left with a legacy that would be hard for anyone to live up to due to his ability to unite the people. It seems as if he would become a police force in Europe to control everyone and help the entire continent prosper in a peaceful manner.

  • This is a very interesting article to read because although I have heard of Otto Von Bismarck, I had never read about what he did. I feel like this article gave me a good understanding of who Bismarck was and his efforts toward unifying Germany. He was really one to think out the box and somewhat manipulate his way to his goal.

  • I really enjoyed this Otto, especially because I’m gaining knowledge about someone I haven’t heard of until now. I enjoyed his unifying of his people to overcome defeat and become a solidified government. He even gathered peace among his people, even though it was through manipulation, he used a clever mechanism to influence and unification amongst his people. I like his determination, he never gave up until his vision came true.

  • This was a great article, I had no idea who Bismarck was. I was fascinated of how he created Germany through series of wars and diplomatic agreements. I also found it interesting how his personal life influenced his career. You make a good argument that he was the most influential person in the nineteenth century. Over all it was a great article, good job.

  • This article truly did Bismarck justice. For people who know about Bismarck, you know that there are hardly any prominent figures in European history- if any- that was as successful as he was in unifying a nation and playing politics. I liked how you mentioned his beginnings in politics and his childhood to show how he had always been an outstanding individual.

  • Great article, very informative. I found it very interesting and vivid, didn’t really miss a beet, the article was filled with all kinds of interesting battles and situations he was faced with. Its very interesting how his home life effected the way he would be in the future, and how he evolved. excellent article, kept me entwined and fascinated the entire time and it was even a long article!

  • Great article! It was very well researched and organized! I had never really heard of Bismark but you did a very good job in explaining how well of a politician he was and how well he was known around Europe, you were able to contribute a lot of information and dates about when stuff was happening but you managed to maintain it simple and to the point without confusing the reader as well as I liked how his overall achievement was never to conquer and gain but to get to spread peace between people and have more of them believe in it! Good job!

  • The introduction of this article is very strong. It gave an impression of Bismarck without giving anything away, leaving me to wonder exactly how he pulled off unifying Germany. It is amazing how he was able to manipulate both citizens and governments alike for the sake of unification. It is interesting how he used war as his main strategy to accomplish his goals. At first the wars with France and Austria confused me, how was Bismarck going to gain power by picking fights with other countries? He was very, very clever. Great article!

  • Interesting article!I can tell you took a lot of time and did a lot of research for this article! I had heard a lot about Otto Von Bismarck. I loved your approach. The photo of the the Proclamation of the German Empire and crowing of the king was great , as well as your photo of young Otto von Bismarck was a nice touch. Overall great article!

  • Great article! I thought it was very informative and your article was also very detailed and organized. Although you mentioned several countries and events, your article was easy to follow and understand. Bismark was certainly a clever and accomplished politician, because he was able to unify much of Europe under Prussian politics and form an alliance. It was interesting how his goal was not to conquer, but encourage peace.

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