(This article was published in the The Commune Mag portal)
Otto von Bismarck, the illustrious statesman of Prussia, is a towering figure in world history. Bismarck’s unshakable commitment to Realpolitik and his keen understanding of military strategy helped to unify Germany and make it a world power. He was a follower of the Machiavellian principle .With his formidable intellect, he could build alliances with neighbouring powers of Prussia and maintained a balance of power in Europe-something that Europe strived for in every century. In Henry Kissinger’s words: “With a few brusque strokes, Bismarck solved the riddle that had stymied European diplomacy for two generations: how to unify Germany and reorganize Central Europe. He had to overcome the obstacle that Germany comprised 39 sovereign states grouped in the so-called German Confederation.”
Born on the first day of April in the year 1815 in the charming village of Schönhausen in Prussia, Bismarck’s life would be marked by a relentless pursuit of power and a singular vision of a united and strong German nation. His father, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck was a Junker (landed nobility) estate owner and a former Prussian military officer and his mother, Wilhelmine Luise Mencken was the well-educated daughter of a senior government official in Berlin. The nobility and army of Prussia were predominantly from Bismarck’s ancestors, leaving a legacy that characterized his childhood and adulthood. Bismarck was educated at Johann Ernst Plamann’s elementary school, and the Friedrich-Wilhelm and Graues Kloster secondary schools, where he took a keen interest in learning German, Latin and history. In 1832, he joined the University of Goettingen to study law. As a student in the University of Goettingen, he fought many duels and made many friends. With an effortless fluency in French, English, and Russian, Bismarck was well equipped to navigate the complex and shifting political landscape of 19th century Europe
In 1838, Bismarck began a shortened compulsory military service in the Prussian Army and afterwards returned to Schönhausen, to run his family estates. In 1847, Bismarck, aged thirty-two, was chosen as a representative to the newly created Prussian legislature. There, he gained a reputation as a royalist and reactionary politician with a gift for incisive rhetoric. Throughout his reign, Bismarck has held many positions, including ambassador to Russia and Paris among many other positions. In 1851, he was appointed Prussian representative to the Federal Diet of the Confederation in Frankfurt where he strived to maintain Prussian supremacy. In 1859, he was moved to a new position in St Petersburg, Russia, however, he continue his struggle for Prussia within the confederation. On 23 September 1862, Wilhelm-I, the king of Prussia (Prussia was ruled by the House of Hohenzollern), appointed Bismarck Minister President and Foreign Minister. Bismarck took charge at a time when relations among the Great Powers (Great Britain, France, Austria and Russia) were at a low due to the Crimean War and the First Italian War of Independence. In the midst of this disarray, Bismarck’s plan was to restructure the European balance of power with the creation of the German Empire as the dominant power in continental Europe through diplomacy, reorganization of the army and military strategy. He gave the famous ‘Blood and Iron’ speech infront of the Budget Committee, when the Prussian House of Representatives weren’t willing to increase the budget for Prussian military. This was one of the first signs of Bismarck being a man of Realpolitik, and not a mere politician with oration skills.
Before unification, Germany was a collection of small kingdoms that came into existence following the Treaty of Verdun in 843 AD. These kingdoms would form the basis of the Holy Roman Empire. Yet, there was no homogenous German identity until the 19th century. This was in part due to the autonomy of the princely states and most inhabitants not ruled directly by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire largely identified with their prince instead of the German emperor. The scenario changed upon the defeat and dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire by France during the Napoleonic Wars in 1806. Even though a German Confederation was re-established following the French defeat in 1815, a huge wave of German nationalism swept through the region at the beginning of the 19th century
Bismarck’s political ideology was firmly rooted in the conservative tradition, which emphasized the importance of a strong monarchy and was suspicious of any activity or movement that would threaten the stability of the State. Bismarck was a proponent of Realpolitik, a pragmatic approach to politics that emphasized practical solutions over ideological purity. He recognized that military power was an essential component of national strength and was willing to use it to great effect in his efforts to unify Germany. Bismarck oversaw three major wars during his time in office: the Danish War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. In each of these conflicts, Bismarck was able to secure significant territorial gains for Prussia, which helped to strengthen the country’s position in Europe. The German Empire was formed on January 18, 1871, when King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed the Emperor of Germany at Versailles.
Proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, France. Wilhelm I stand on the dais, and Bismarck wears white in the center of the painting. By Anton von Werner, public domain.
Once the German Empire was established, Bismarck skilfully pursued a policy of maintaining dominance and preventing large-scale armed conflicts within Europe. For this aim, Otto von Bismarck navigated with the principles of keeping France at bay – to avoid French revanchism. The second objective was to maintain cordial relations and form an alliance with Austria and Russia – the two other major powers. Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm I called Bismarck’s work in building and maintaining a complex system of alliances “juggling on horseback”, as it was incredibly delicate. Without a diplomat of Bismarck’s skill holding everything together, the system seemed likely to collapse. In 1871, Bismarck was raised to the rank of Fürst (Prince) and was also appointed as the first Imperial Chancellor of the German Empire.
As the Chancellor, Bismarck pursued a conservative state-building strategy in designed to make ordinary Germans—not just his own Junker elite—more loyal to throne and empire, implementing the modern welfare state in Germany in the 1880s.Some of the legislations passed during Chancellorship- Sickness Insurance Law of 1883, Accident Insurance Law of 1884 and Old Age and Disability Insurance Law of 1889. Germany, along with many parts of Europe, was affected by the Long Depression of 1870s. A downturn hit the German economy for the first time since industrial development began to surge in the 1850s. To aid faltering industries, the Chancellor abandoned free trade and established protectionist import-tariffs.
Just as everything comes to an end, Bismarck’s Chancellorship came to an end in 1890, over differences with the young monarch-Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm-II. It was the ultimate paradox that the man, who had dominated Europe by exalting stability, would conclude his career at the whim of a young inexperienced sovereign. The First World War broke out during Wilhelm-II’s reign.
After being active in German politics for few years, Bismarck retired to his estate near Hamburg, Germany and finally passed away on 30th July 1898, at the age of 83.Bismarck’s contribution to German society was immeasurable, and his legacy as a statesman and politician is still felt in Germany and Europe today. His efforts to modernize the country’s economy and infrastructure helped to make Germany one of the leading industrial powers in the world, and his social welfare policies improved the lives of the working class and reduced social unrest.
A number of geographical locations around the world have been named in Bismarck’s honour, the famous ones being Bismarck Sea, Bismarck Strait and Bismarck Archipelago. Indian freedom fighter and first Home Minister- Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who merged 500 princely states into India after it got Independence from the British, has been famously called as the Bismarck of India
In conclusion, Otto von Bismarck was one of the famous visionary statesmen in the history of Europe, whose life and accomplishments continue to inspire awe and admiration. Bismarck is often cited as the quintessential realist, relying on power at the expense of ideals. With an unshakable commitment to Realpolitik, a fierce intellect, and a singular vision of a united and strong German nation, Bismarck left an indelible mark on the course of history that will be felt for generations to come.