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Otto von Bismarck

On the first of April, 1815, there was born at the famous residence of Schouhausen, Brandenburg, Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, a man who by force of character, soundness of judgment, clearness of insight, inflexible resolution and lofty patriotism, became the greatest political personality of the century, and attained a position which has made him the idol of his countrymen, and almost the wonder of the world.

Otto von Bismarck was descended from a very old family belonging to one of the lower branches of the Prussian nobility. A certain Herbord (Herbert) Bismarck, whose name appears on the page of history in 1270, seems to be the remotest traceable ancestor of the great chancellor. The family name is derived from the citadel and town of Bischofsmarck (Biscopesmarck), owned by the Bishops of Havelberg. Some authorities state, tbat the name is derived from a small stream called the Biese which rises in the neighbourhood, and that in the thirteenth century a "mark" (boundary) existed u|ioii it, whose warden, according to the custom of the times, was called " Herr von Biesemark." The Bismarcks belonged to the most respected patrician members of the great cloth guild of this district, and, on leaving it, still retained the name of the district - Bismarck.

The father of this remarkable man was Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck, officer of the Body Guard of King Frederick William III. His mother was Luise Wilhelmine Menken, daughter of Privy Councillor Menken, upon whom the great minister, von Stein, pronounced his well-known eulogy. A year after Bismarck's birth his parents removed to Kniephof, one of their properties in Pomerania, and here the future chancellor grew up under their care. In 1827 he left this institution and entered the Obertertia of the Frederick William Gymnasium, living in his parents' Berlin residence with his brother.

Having served his period of military service, he, in Easter, 1839, was obliged to proceed immediately to take charge of a part of the ancestral estates. The Pomeranian estates had drifted heavily into debt. For the first time, in 1842, when twenty-seven years of age, he seems to have taken an interest in politics. He was called out to the Landwehr as cavalry officer, and served with the Stargard Uhlan regiment several months in the spring of 1842. He returned to Berlin, and took up the duties as Referendarius to the government. During this time he saw a good deal of the world, travelling in France, Italy, and other countries.

On 03 February 1847 the Prussian King, Frederick William IV, issued a patent convoking to Berlin the Prussian Parliament, of whose 617 members Bismarck formed one, being member for Jerichow, a district in the Altmark. The reactionary party, what was called the Junker party, vigorously defended the almost worn-out rights of the knights and lower orders of the nobility, advocated the restraining of the popular spirit and aspiration of the masses of the people, and they condemned the limitation of this absolute power of the monarch. Of this party Bismarck was a prominent member, one might almost say a natural and accepted leader. He expressed motives and opinions with the utmost boldness and fearlessness.

Liberal hopes for German unification were not met during the politically turbulent 1848-49 period. A Prussian plan for a smaller union was dropped in late 1850 after Austria threatened Prussia with war. Despite this setback, desire for some kind of German unity, either with or without Austria, grew during the 1850s and 1860s. It was no longer a notion cherished by a few, but had proponents in all social classes. An indication of this wider range of support was the change of mind about German nationalism experienced by an obscure Prussian diplomat, Otto von Bismarck. He had been an adamant opponent of German nationalism in the late 1840s. During the 1850s, however, Bismarck had concluded that Prussia would have to harness German nationalism for its own purposes if it were to thrive. He believed too that Prussia's well-being depended on wresting primacy in Germany from its traditional enemy, Austria.

It was probably his speeches on German policy which induced the king to appoint him Prussian representative at the restored diet of Frankfort in 1851. The appointment was a bold one, as he was entirely without diplomatic experience, but he justified the confidence placed in him. During the eight years he spent at Frankfort he acquired an unrivalled knowledge of German politics.

In 1862 King Wilhelm I of Prussia (r. 1858-88) chose Bismarck to serve as his minister president. Descended from the Junker, Prussia's aristocratic landowning class, Bismarck hated parliamentary democracy and championed the dominance of the monarchy and aristocracy. Upon becoming Minister-President of Prussia, he made a famous pronouncement: "The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and the resolutions of majorities . . . but by iron and blood."

Bismarck famously remarked that "Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made." Gifted at judging political forces and sizing up a situation, Bismarck contended that conservatives would have to come to terms with other social groups if they were to continue to direct Prussian affairs. The king had summoned Bismarck to direct Prussia's government in the face of the Prussian parliament's refusal to pass a budget because it disagreed with army reforms desired by the king and his military advisers. Bismarck's duty as minister was to carry on the government against the wishes of the Lower House, so as to enable the king to complete and maintain the reorganized army. Although he could not secure parliament's consent to the government's budget, Bismarck was a tactician skilled and ruthless enough to govern without parliament's consent from 1862 to 1866.

The fundamental aim of Bismarck's statecraft was the exaltation of the Prussian monarchy and of the monarchical principle. Living in a century increasingly clamorous for democratic and responsible government, he challenged and defied liberalism in every way and with every accent of contempt and with every term of opprobrium. The idea that the Prussian monarch should become inferior in actual power to his Ministers and that his Ministers should become responsible to the popularly elected parliament - in other words, that the people, not the monarch, should be in the saddle - was an idea utterly repugnant to Bismarck's thought. It had been, he said, the Prussian kings and not the Prussian people who had made Prussia great, and this, the great historic fact, must be preserved and even accentuated still more.

"The Prussian Crown must not allow itself," he announced, "to be thrust into the powerless position of the English Crown, which seems more like a smartly decorative cupola on the state edifice than its central pillar of support, as I consider ours." Called to power by William I in 1862 as a last hope in the critical and desperate struggle which the King was then carrying on with parliament, Bismarck fought and won a decisive victory, defeating liberalism at every point, abasing parliament, and immensely reinforcing the monarchical authority and prestige.

As an ardent and aggressive Prussian nationalist, Bismarck had long been an opponent of Austria because both states sought primacy within the same area -- Germany. Austria had been weakened by reverses abroad, including the loss of territory in Italy, and by the 1860s, because of clumsy diplomacy, had no foreign allies outside Germany. Bismarck used a diplomatic dispute to provoke Austria to declare war on Prussia in 1866. Against expectations, Prussia quickly won the Seven Weeks' War (also known as the Austro-Prussian War) against Austria and its south German allies. Bismarck imposed a lenient peace on Austria because he recognized that Prussia might later need the Austrians as allies. But he dealt harshly with the other German states that had resisted Prussia and expanded Prussian territory by annexing Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, some smaller states, and the city of Frankfurt. The German Confederation was replaced by the North German Confederation and was furnished with both a constitution and a parliament. Austria was excluded from Germany. South German states outside the confederation--Baden, Wrttemberg, and Bavaria--were tied to Prussia by military alliances.

Bismarck's military and political successes were remarkable, but the first had been achieved at considerable risk, and the second were by no means complete. Luck had played a part in the decisive victory at the Battle of Kniggrtz (Hradec Krlve in the present-day Czech Republic); otherwise, the war might have lasted much longer than it did. None of the larger German states had supported either Prussia's war or the formation of the North German Confederation led by Prussia. The states that formed what is often called the Third Germany, that is, Germany exclusive of Austria and Prussia, did not desire to come under the control of either of those states. None of them wished to be pulled into a war that showed little likelihood of benefiting any of them. In the Seven Weeks' War, the support they gave Austria had been lukewarm.

In 1870 Bismarck engineered another war, this time against France. The conflict would become known to history as the Franco-Prussian War. Nationalistic fervor was ignited by the promised annexation of Lorraine and Alsace, which had belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and had been seized by France in the seventeenth century. With this goal in sight, the south German states eagerly joined in the war against the country that had come to be seen as Germany's traditional enemy. Bismarck's major war aim -- the voluntary entry of the south German states into a constitutional German nation-state -- occurred during the patriotic frenzy generated by stunning military victories against French forces in the fall of 1870. Months before a peace treaty was signed with France in May 1871, a united Germany was established as the German Empire, and the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, was crowned its emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Bismarck received the rank of Furst (prince) in 1871 [was had been made a Graf [count] in 1865], at which time the emperor presented him with a large part of the domains of the duchy of Lauenburg. The crash of 1873 and the subsequent depression began the gradual dissolution of Bismarck's alliance with the National Liberals that had begun after his triumphs of 1866. In the late 1870s, Bismarck began negotiations with the economically protectionist Conservative Party and Center Party toward the formation of a new government coalition. Conservative electoral gains and National Liberal losses in 1879 brought a conservative coalition to power. Bismarck then abandoned his former allies in the National Liberal Party and put in place a system of tariffs that benefited the landed gentry of eastern Prussia--threatened by imports of cheaper grains from Russia and the United States--and industrialists who were afraid to compete with cheaper foreign manufactured goods and who believed they needed more time to establish themselves.

Bismarck's alliance with the Prussian landowning class and powerful industrialists and the parties representing their interests had profound social effects. From that point on, conservative groups had the upper hand in German society. The German middle class began to imitate its conservative social superiors rather than attempt to impose its own liberal, middle-class values on Germany. The prestige of the military became so great that many middle-class males sought to enhance their social standing by becoming officers in the reserves. The middle classes also became more susceptible to the nationalistic clamor for colonies and "a place in the sun" that was to become ever more virulent in the next few decades.

Bismarck for a long time was the decided opponent of naval armaments and colonial policy, in short, of imperialism. Even his projects for social reform - insurance against sickness, against old age - which have been accepted as concessions to modern ideas, were due entirely to his monarchical and patriarchal conception of the State. He copied the ancient decrees of Colbert as to naval personnel. He would have gone as far as assurance against non-employment. In the dominion of the King, he said, no one should die of hunger.

Bismarck sincerely regarded the new German Empire as "satiated," that is, having no desire to expand further and hence posing no threat to its neighbors. The chancellor held that the country had to adjust to its new circumstances and that this would take decades. For this reason, he sought to convince the other European states of Germany's desire to live in peace, hoping thereby to secure Germany against attack. He aimed to arrange this security through a system of alliances. Believing that France would remain Germany's enemy because of the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, an action he had opposed because of the enmity it would cause, he turned to other states.

Bismarck arranged an alliance with Austria-Hungary in 1879 and one with Italy in 1882. His triumph, however, was a secret alliance he formed by means of the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887, although its terms violated the spirit of the treaty with Austria-Hungary. However much these agreements contributed to German security, Bismarck's plunge into the European scramble for overseas colonies ultimately weakened it by awakening British fears about Germany's long-term geopolitical aims. Subsequent feelers he put out with a view to establishing an understanding with Britain were rebuffed.

In 1890 Bismarck was dismissed by young Kaiser Wilhelm over a dispute about antisocialist legislation. On his retirement the emperor created him duke of Lauenburg, but he never used the title, which was not inherited by his son.

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