Otto von Bismarck or Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince von Bismarck, Count von Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke von Lauenburg--was a Prussian statesman who in 1871 founded the German Empire and served as its first chancellor for 19 years. Once the empire was established, he actively and skillfully pursued pacific policies in foreign affairs, succeeding in preserving the peace in Europe for about two decades. But in domestic policies his patrimony was less benign, for he failed to rise above the authoritarian proclivities of the landed squirearchy to which he was born (Britannica, 1997).
Until his resignation in 1890, Bismarck had a relatively free hand in conduct of foreign policy. After three successful wars, he saw his task as promoting peace and gaining time so that the powerful German Empire would come to be accepted as natural. Bismarck's two areas of concern were the Balkans, where the disintegration of the Turkish empire could easily lead to conflict between the Habsburg monarchy and Russia, and France, where the desire to avenge the defeat at Sedan was strong. In each area a general European conflagration could flare up and involve Germany. In 1873 he embraced a pacific foreign policy when he negotiated the Dreikaiserbund (Three Emperors' League) with Russia and Austria-Hungary. But the alliance did not survive the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. When the Austrians and British threatened war over a Carthaginian peace imposed on Turkey by the Russian victors, Bismarck called for a peace congress in Berlin. The German chancellor succeeded in getting the Russians to moderate their gains, and peace was preserved.
But a European conflagration had barely been averted. Soon after the conference, Bismarck negotiated a defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary, which remained in effect through World War I. Although in the mid-1860s he had rejected such an alliance as harmful, he now considered it advantageous. Because he feared that the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy would lead to Russian expansion into central Europe, he sought the alliance to gain leverage in Vienna. He steadfastly used it to prevent a war in the Balkans. In addition, he did not want seven million Austro-German Catholics seeking admission to the empire.
Having a solid ally, Bismarck demonstrated his virtuosity by negotiating a revived Dreikaiserbund in 1881. He now had influence in St. Petersburg as well as in Vienna to prevent a Balkan war. In 1882, Italy, fearing French hostility, joined the Dual Alliance, making it into the Triple Alliance. On the surface Bismarck had triumphed. France had no allies for a war of revenge, and, for the moment, a Balkan war seemed unlikely.
But the ephemeral nature of all these alliances soon became apparent. A crisis in Bulgaria inflamed Russo-Austrian relations, leading to a breakup the revived league. Once again a war was avoided with Bismarck's intervention, but his efforts could not reconstitute the league. He then negotiated a separate secret treaty with Russia, while maintaining the 1879 accord with Austria-Hungary.
Between 1870 and 1890 Bismarck earned the respect of European leaders for his earnest efforts in behalf of peace. Apart from a few colonial acquisitions in the mid-1880s, Germany had acted as a satiate power. All of Bismarck's considerable tactical skills had been successful in creating a powerful German Empire in his first decade in power. For the next two decades these same skills maintained the peace.
From the defeat of Austria in 1866 until 1878 Bismarck was allied primarily with the National Liberals. Together they created a civil and criminal code for the new empire and accomplished Germany's adoption of the gold standard and move toward free trade. Just as they had earlier written off Bismarck as an archconservative, liberals now viewed him as a comrade--a man who had rejected his conservative roots. Many conservative leaders agreed with this assessment. Bismarck had cashiered kings, gone to war against conservative regimes, and adopted policies that promoted rapid industrialization. Their fears were further enhanced when he joined liberals in a campaign against political Catholicism (Kulturkampf) in 1873.
Bismarck had not counted on the emergence of new parties such as the Catholic Centre or the Social Democrats, both of whom began participating in imperial and Prussian elections in the early 1870s. Along with the left liberal Progressive Party, he labeled them all enemies of the empire (Reichsfeinde). Each in its own way rejected his vision of a united Germany. The Progressives found the empire too conservative and its elite essentially feudal; the socialists questioned its capitalist character; and for the Centre the empire was Protestant and too centralized.
Bismarck's aim was clearly to destroy the Catholic Centre Party. He and the liberals feared the appeal of a clerical party to the one-third of Germans who professed Roman Catholicism. In Prussia the minister of public worship and education, Adalbert Falk, with Bismarck's blessing, introduced a series of bills establishing civil marriage, limiting the movement of the clergy, and dissolving religious orders. All church appointments were to be approved by the state. Clerical civil servants were purged from the Prussian administration. Hundreds of parishes and several bishoprics were left without incumbents.
The Kulturkampf failed to achieve its goals and, if anything, convinced the Catholic minority that their fear of persecution was real. Bismark gradually relented in his campaign, especially after the death of the activist pope, Pius IX, in 1878. But he never relented in his hatred for the Centre leader, Ludwig Windthorst, a Hanoverian who had earlier experienced Bismarck's methods in the annexation of his kingdom. Bismarck's speeches continued to be barbed with anticlericalism until his fall in 1890.
In 1878-79 Bismarck initiated a significant change in economic policy, which coincided with his new alliance with the conservative parties at the expense of the liberals. Tariffs were introduced on iron as well as on major grains. The new policy was a result of the "great depression" that had swept Europe and the United States in the mid-1870s. Bismarck's shift had serious political implications: it signified his opposition to any further evolution in the direction of political democracy. The liberal ministers Falk and Rudolph von Delbrück resigned, and Robert von Puttkamer became minister of public worship and education in 1879 and minister of interior in 1881. The grain tariffs provided the Junker estate owners of Prussia, who constituted the main opposition to political reform, subventions that isolated them somewhat from the world market. From 1879 onward, the landed elite, major industrialists, the military, and higher civil servants formed an alliance to forestall the rise of social democracy. Ever since the Commune of Paris of 1871, Bismarck had developed an uncompromising hatred for socialists and anarchists. His attacks on them were egregious. At one point he wrote, "They are this country's rats and should be exterminated." Another time he called them "a host of enemies bent on pillage and murder." He thus introduced a crude and unsavory discourse into everyday German politics that was to be long-lived. Although only two socialists sat in the Reichstag in 1871, their number and support grew with each election, until they had 35 seats in 1890. As early as 1876 Bismarck had sought legislation to outlaw the party but failed to get a majority. After two assassination attempts against William I he prorogued Parliament and ran a campaign in which the socialists (quite unjustly) were blamed for the failed efforts to kill the emperor. The conservative parties triumphed and the Social Democratic Party was banned in 1878. The ban was renewed until 1890.
The second part of Bismarck's strategy to destroy social democracy was the introduction of social legislation to woo the workers away from political radicalism. During the 1880s, accident and old-age insurance as well as a form of socialized medicine were introduced and implemented by the government. But Bismarck's two-pronged strategy to win the workers for the conservative regime did not succeed. Support for the Social Democrats increased with each election. The election of 1890 was a disaster for Bismarck. The Centre, the Social Democrats, and the Progressives, the parties that he had termed enemies of the empire, gained more than half of the seats in the new Reichstag. The new young emperor William II (b. 1859; emperor and king of Prussia from 1888 to 1918) did not want to begin his reign with a bloodbath or a coup d'état by the state. Seventy-five years old in 1890, Bismarck resigned with a sense of having failed. The antisocialist law was not revived, and the new government set out to win the workers to the regime. Bismarck retired to his estate an embittered man. That he was now a prince and extremely wealthy did not ease his retirement. For the next eight years (he died July 30, 1898) he issued sharp critiques of his successors. Elected to the Reichstag, he chose not to take his seat. He wrote his memoirs, which became best-sellers. To some extent he orchestrated the Bismarck legend that was to dominate German historical writing for the next half century.
Bismarck was a towering figure who put his stamp on his age, as Luther and Metternich had done earlier (Britannica, 1997). When Bismarck became prime minister of Prussia in 1862, the kingdom was universally considered the weakest of the five European powers. Less than nine years later Prussia had been victorious in three wars, and a unified German Empire had emerged in the heart of Europe, arousing envy and fear among its rivals. When Bismarck left office in 1890, after 28 years as prime minister of Prussia and 19 as chancellor of the German Empire, the map of Europe had been changed beyond measure. The European centre, characterized by a weak conglomeration of small and medium-sized states for centuries, was now home to the foremost military and industrial power on the Continent.
Bismarck's legacy to the next generation, however, was a mixed one. In foreign affairs his skill had led to 20 years of peace in Europe, which had gained him a deserved reputation for moderation and a sense of limits. Bismarck's greatest achievement, the German Empire, only survived him by 20 years. Although he had united Germany in one sense, he had failed to create an internally unified people. In domestic affairs--as in foreign policy--he sought to freeze the status quo after 1871. His empire was designed to be conservative. Thus he opposed the Catholic Centre in the 1870s and the socialists in the 1880s because both constituted unforeseen threats to his authoritarian creation. He also introduced a vicious rhetoric into German politics that forestalled a sense of common destiny. While German industry developed rapidly during his decades in power, he would allow no evolution in the political system toward greater participation. In this sense, Bismarck was a last representative of the world of the ancient régime and cabinet diplomacy.