Bismarck, Prince Otto Edward Leopold von (1815-1898), Prusso-German statesman, who was the architect and first chancellor (1871-1890) of the German Empire.
Bismarck was born on April 1, 1815, at Schönhausen, north-west of Berlin, the son of a landowning nobleman (Junker) and a prosperous bourgeois mother: his multifaceted background accounts for the blend of intellectual subtlety and Junker parochialism in his character. He studied law, and in 1836 entered government service. Unhappy in his subordinate post, he resigned a year later, took over the management of his family's run-down estates, and restored their profitability.
Driven by a strong sense of power, Bismarck entered politics in 1847. As a delegate to Prussia's first diet, he emerged as one of the most rigid conservatives; at the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848 he rushed to Berlin, urging King Frederick William IV to suppress the uprising. His advice was ignored, but his loyalty was rewarded by his appointment in 1851 as Prussia's representative to the German Confederation, a league of the 39 German states. In 1859 he became ambassador to Russia, and in 1862 he was posted to France.
That same year a bitter dispute between the Prussian government and Parliament over the size of the army reached an impasse. In 1861 Parliament had granted the government additional funds for reforms, but in 1862 it refused to do so without a reduction of compulsory military service from three to two years. King William I would not yield for fear that the draftees would be insufficiently imbued with conservative values; for that very reason, the liberal-dominated Parliament insisted on this concession.
In order to break the stalemate, Bismarck was named minister-president. He proceeded to collect the additional taxes on the basis of the 1861 budget, arguing that because the constitution did not provide for the case of an impasse he would have to apply the preceding year's budget. To justify the increase of the army, he warned that “the great questions of the day [meaning German unification] will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions … but by blood and iron”.
Public opinion began shifting to his side in 1864, when he used the expanded Prussian army, in alliance with Austria, to wrest the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein from Denmark. Two years later he escalated a Prusso-Austrian quarrel over these spoils into a war against Austria and other German states, the so called Seven Weeks' War. After their defeat in a whirlwind campaign, he incorporated Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, and some other territories into Prussia. He also united all north and central German states into the North German Confederation under Prussian leadership. Faced with these achievements, the Prussian Parliament gave way and retroactively sanctioned his financial improvisations of the preceding four years.
In 1870 Bismarck trapped France into a war with the German states. His hope was that on the strength of the ensuing national enthusiasm he could bring the reluctant south German states into a united Germany. He succeeded: in 1871 the German Empire, which included south Germany, superseded the North German Confederation, and the king of Prussia became the German emperor.
As imperial chancellor Bismarck saw his main task as consolidating the newly united state. Externally, he sought to strengthen the empire by a network of defensive alliances; at home he fought any and all who questioned his policies. Roman Catholics, who opposed a centralized state, felt his wrath in the so-called Kulturkampf against the church; Socialists were all but emasculated by far-reaching restrictions on the Social Democratic party; liberals were overcome by having their patriotism impugned. Bismarck succeeded in discrediting the liberals, but had to make his peace with the Catholics, and although he failed to defeat the Socialists, the social security legislation he introduced—national accident and health insurance, and old-age pensions—ended whatever revolutionary designs they may have had.
Emperor William II, who disliked the cautious foreign policy of the chancellor and rejected his new plans to crush labour by force, dismissed Bismarck in 1890. He then retired to his estate near Hamburg, where he died on July 30, 1898. In 1847 he had married Johanna von Puttkamer; they had two sons and one daughter.
In striving for German unification Bismarck did not simply resort to “blood and iron”. His moves were all meticulously prepared, and he ended his wars as soon as his immediate objectives had been obtained. He was less restrained in domestic affairs, where he deepened existing political and social differences and created ill-feeling by questioning the good faith of his adversaries.
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