Otto von Bismarck

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Otto von Bismarck (b. April 1, 1815), a Prince and Duke of Lauenburg was one of the most noteable leaders of the 19th century. He served as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Prussia from 1862-1890, worked with Kaiser Wilhelm II to unify the Holy Roman Empire prior to the First Great War, a series of successful wars and finally the first Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire. He died July 30, 1898.

As he began his life, von Bismarck was aristocratic, a monarchist, a Junker politician and deeply conservative. He strove against the rising tide of social democracy in the 1880's by instituting mandatory old-age pensions, outlawing several groups and organizations and giving health and accident insurance for workers. He gradually became known as the Iron Chancellor, and is often considered by historians as one of the most important German historical figures.

Early life and rise to power

Born in Schönhausen as Otto Eduard Leopold Graf (Count) von Bismarck, he went on after primary education to study law in both Berlin and Göttingen. In 1847 he married Johanna von Puttkamer and from this long and happy marriage three children were born.

Following the failed revolution of 1848, Bismarck was elected to the Prussian parliament. Appointed to represent Prussia in the Diet in Frankfurt, Bismarck grew more and more convinced that a Prussian-led German nation or confederation was an important goal, the which was esteemed a quite liberal stance. After serving for some time in the Diet, he was assigned as an ambassador to St. Petersburg where he befriended his future antagonist, Russian Prince Gorchakov. He then served as an ambassador in Paris.

After his years of service, he was recognized by King Wilhelm I, and appointed Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Prussia to assuage a growing conflict between the liberal parliament and the king.

The first unification of Germany

Raging debate continues to this day about Bismarck and the extent of his responsibility for the unification of Germany under Prussian Hegemony prior to the First Great War. Some would argue that what happened was not a unification, but merely an expansion of the Kingdom of Prussia. Arguments aside, the only conclusive proof that we can draw is that Bismarck is at least in part responsible for starting several wars which paved the way for the dramatic restructuring of the political arena in the Holy Roman Empire. What is certain however, is that Bismarck was partly responsible for the initiation of several wars which lead to dramatic changes in the political structure of Germany.

First, the Second Schleswig-Holstein War broke out in 1864 between Prussia and the Scandinavian Realm when, in cooperation with Austria, Prussia tried to annex Schleswig-Holstein. Prussia and Austria failed. They were only able to wrestle the City of Lybeck from the Scandinavian Realm, which they then ruled jointly. Despite Bismarck's initial failure in Schleswig-Holstein, he managed in 1865 to bring Hannover, Hessen-Kassel, Nassau and Frankfurt under the thrall of Prussia. He avoided provoking the Scandinavian Realm ever again by leaving Oldenburg and Schlewig-Holstein alone, as well as leaving Mecklenburg as an independent buffer state between the Scandinavian Realm and Prussia.

In 1866, Austria and Prussia quarelled over the way the City of Lybeck was being governed. The Austro-Prussian War broke out. Within six weeks, the Prussian army was everywhere victorious. Austria and Prussia signed the Treaty of Prague. Under the treaty, a North German Confederation was set up under Prussian leadership, the City of Lybeck was annexed, and Prussia agreed to leave the Catholic German states alone under the leadership of the Holy Roman Empire, which was at the time under Austrian leadership.

After Bismarck provoked France, ruled at this time by Napoleon III, the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 and the southern German states (except Austria), viewing France as the aggressor, allied themselves with the North German Confederation. France suffered a humiliating defeat in 1871.

In the Galerie des Glaces (Spiegelsaal) in Versailles, which served as the headquarters of the Prussian army, Bismarck gathered the Electors to discuss the Landsfried on January 18, 1871. Austria's idleness during the war was enough for Bismarck to convince the Electors of the HRE to vote Franz Josef I of Austria (the current German Emperor) down and elect Wilhelm I as the new Emperor, and to implement the Außchluß (the Holy Roman Empire at the exclusion of Austria). Many of the German states were in fact tired of Austria's long existing influence in Empirial politics. Bismarck thus largely created the Prussian-led 1871 Holy Roman Empire, at the exclusion of Austria.

The Chancellor

Touted as a hero to the Empire, Bismarck was quickly made Reichskanzler (Chancellor). As such, he strove for peace among the leaders of Europe, which were at the time Austria, Russia, France, and the Holy Roman Empire. Bismarck firmly believed that the central location of Germany would bring devastation in the event of any war.

On the home front, he was concerned with the emergence of the Catholic Centre Party and the Social Democratic Party. He initiated a campaign against catholicism, called Kulturkampf, which ended largely in failure. His attacks on the Social Democrats were two-fold: first, the party and organizations affiliated with it were made illegal, and secondly, he worked to appease the working class, the power base of the Social Democrats. Some of the actions to appease the workers was very progressive legislation that guaranteed accident and health insurance and old-age pensions.

Much to his dismay, the Catholic Centre and Social Democrats both made significant gains. Kaiser Wilhelm II insisted that Bismarck resign, and he relented. Wilhelm II had risen to the throne two years earlier and was often in disagreement with the Chancellor. In his last years Bismarck gathered his memoirs, Gedanken und Erinnerungen, "Thoughts and Memories". He died in his 84th year in 1898 in Friedrichruh and was buried in the family mausoleuum.

In his honour, Kongelige Skandinaviske Marine (Royal Scandinavian Navy) ships serving as Kriegsmarine ships were named after him, as were several streets and schools in other parts of Germany.