European History

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Otto von Bismarck (1815 - 1898): key personality

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Bismarck Widely regarded as the greatest German statesman, Bismarck was born in 1815. From the ruling Junker class of Prussia, he served as ambassador to Russia and France. He was appointed Minister President of Prussia in 1862. He wanted to unite Germany as one country under the control of Prussia. The main obstacles to this policy were Austria and France.

In 1864 Prussia and Austria conquered the provinces of Schleswig Holstein from Denmark. Austria and Prussia quarrelled and went to war in 1866. Austria was defeated in the Seven Weeks War and excluded from German affairs.

In 1870 after a crisis over the vacant Spanish throne, Bismarck engineered a war with France (the Ems Telegram). German unification was complete when France was defeated. Bismarck was chancellor of the new Germany. While Wilhelm I was Kaiser, Bismarck controlled German affairs.

Foreign Policy

Dreikaiserbund cartoonBismarck controls the "three emperors"

France was bitter her defeat and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Bismarck’s main aim was to keep France isolated by maintaining on good terms with both Austria and Russia. This he achieved through the Dreikaiserbund (the Three Emperor’s League). In 1878 he prevented war in Europe at the Congress of Berlin. The following year he signed the Dual Alliance with Austria. The Dreikaiserbund was revived in 1881. In 1887 he signed the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to prevent her allying with France..

Domestic policy


Germany experienced an economic boom as her economy prospered. However some of Bismarck’s domestic policies proved very divisive. He was suspicious of the loyalty of Catholics (1/3rd of the pop) to the new state. The May Laws were introduced to reduce Church power and bring education under the control of the state.. The Church resisted his policies and many bishops and priests were imprisoned. This became known as the Kulturkampf or the struggle for civilisation.  Many Protestants in Germany were concerned at the effects of these policies and Bismarck dropped them and fired the minister most associated with the policy (Falk)

The economic boom and the growth of the cities had led to the rise of socialism. Bismarck was now more alarmed by the growth of the SPD. He saw the movement as revolutionary and a threat to the German state. He brought in laws that effectively banned the party and drove it underground. His measures though failed to reduce its support. Bismarck realised that he had to improve conditions for workers as well. .He introduced a number of welfare measures including accident insurance and an old age pension. His measures gave Germany the most advance social legislation in Europe.

Fall from power

In 1888 the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II marked the beginning of the end for Bismarck. The new Kaiser was determined to assert his authority. He opposed a new anti-socialist law that Bismarck proposed and met a deputation of striking miners against the chancellor’s advice. Bismarck tried desperately to hold onto to power. However in 1890 the Kaiser forced his resignation. He retired to his estate and died in 1898.

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11 November, 2013