Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898)


Born to an aristocratic family on April 1st, 1815, Otto von Bismarck would rise to great prominence as prime minister of Prussia and later as the chancellor of, by his own creation, a united Germany. His talents in both political maneuvering at home and molding foreign policy enabled him to succeed in the daunting challenge of creating a single German entity, thereby gaining a respected reputation throughout Europe. After this task was complete, Bismarck set about keeping the peace in Europe, succeeding in doing so for two decades. Despite his success abroad, Bismarck was also known for his heavy-handed and authoritarian policies in Germany itself.


At the urging of his mother, Bismarck attended the prestigious Plamann Institute in Berlin at the age of seven and the Frederick William Gymnasium five years later. In 1832, he studied law at the University of Göttingen in Hanover, joining the Prussian civil service after a brief time at the University of Berlin. However, a combination of boredom with his job, an inability to obey authority, and the death of his mother in 1839 caused him to return to his childhood home for some time. The turning point in his life came with his marriage to Johanna von Puttkamer in 1847, wherein Bismarck underwent a religious conversion, (to Lutheranism) and gained the inner strength and confidence that would enable him to prevail in German politics. Bismarck’s outspoken and reactionary nature in the 1840’s and 1850’s allowed him to climb the ladder to several key positions, including ambassador to the German Confederation, France and Russia, Prime Minister of Prussia, and later Chancellor of a united Germany.

Foreign Policy:

Bismarck’s foreign policy was a result of his utilization of realpolitik, a political philosophy defined by a sense of opportunism that recognizes that the challenges in the world often have to be met with practical, pragmatic considerations and solutions. As an ambassador to the German Confederation, and later to France and Russia, Bismarck had extensive experience in this realm when he became Prime Minister of Prussia in 1862. Bismarck’s skillful manipulation of other leaders and countries can be seen in the conflicts that united Germany during the 1860’s and early 1870’s. A quick, sharp war with Denmark in 1864 brought the states of Schleswig and Holstein under Prussian and Austrian control, respectively. In order to usurp Austria’s dominance and later propel Prussia as the major power in Germany, Bismarck stirred up anti-Austrian sentiment in Hungary and invaded Holstein, defeating a coalition of Austria and several smaller states. His masterstroke took place in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, with the defeat of France motivating the four southern German states to join Prussia in creating the German Empire in January of 1871. After the consolidation of the various German states, Bismarck pursued a policy of maintaining peace in Europe, with Germany acting as the center of a bulwark of treaties designed to prevent a conflagration breaking out between the major powers.

Domestic Policy:

While Bismarck achieved great success in the realm of foreign policy and was also later known for his moderation and pursuit of peace, he also is remembered for the often authoritarian and heavy-handed approach he took when dealing with other political parties and policy in Germany. Bismarck held a constant hatred for both socialists and anarchists, even stating that “They are this country’s rats and should be exterminated” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Bismarck was eventually able to implement a ban on these types of parties during his tenure with the objective of destroying them; he also created accident and old-age insurance to placate those with socialist leanings and convince workers not to join those parties. Similar to his dealings with socialists and anarchists, Bismarck also pursued a Kulturkampf, or ‘culture struggle’ against the Catholic Church in Germany. An increasingly stringent list of regulations directed against the Church regarding where clergy could go, and eliminating all clergy from positions in the government, prompted a strong backlash, with the Kulturkampf ultimately failing in its objectives.


It is without a doubt that Bismarck left a lasting mark on Germany through his use of realpolitik in both his masterful foreign policy, and often oppressive domestic policy. Bismarck was able to create a geographically united Germany that was transformed from one of the weakest powers in Europe to one of its most influential. However, for all his efforts to create a single German entity, his domestic policies alienated many citizens and resulted in a lack of internal unity. After the creation of the German Empire he was able to maintain peace for roughly two decades, but resentment still festered in France over their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, something that would not be forgotten when World War I broke out or afterwards. Ultimately, Bismarck’s rule brought Germany a number of benefits but also upset the balance of power in Europe, a paradigm shift that would later have significant consequences for Germany.

Steinberg, Jonathan. “How Did Bismarck Do It?.” History Today 61.2 (2011): 21-27. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Jan. 2014.

ger/102/2014/winter/otto_von_bismark.txt · Last modified: 2014/01/25 20:39 by tjdrozd
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