Franco-Prussian War, German Emperor Wilhelm I, German Emperor Wilhelm II, Imperial Chancellor of Germany, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia, Unification of Germany
Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, (April 1, 1815 — July 30, 1898) was a conservative German statesman and diplomat. Later created Prince of Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg
In 1847, Bismarck, aged thirty-two, was chosen as a representative to the newly created Prussian legislature, the Vereinigter Landtag. There, he gained a reputation as a royalist and reactionary politician with a gift for stinging rhetoric; he openly advocated the idea that the monarch had a divine right to rule.
In March 1848, Prussia faced a revolution (one of the revolutions of 1848 across Europe), which completely overwhelmed King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The monarch, though initially inclined to use armed forces to suppress the rebellion, ultimately declined to leave Berlin for the safety of military headquarters at Potsdam. Bismarck later recorded that there had been a “rattling of sabres in their scabbards” from Prussian officers when they learned that the King would not suppress the revolution by force.
The King offered numerous concessions to the liberals: he wore the black-red-gold revolutionary colours (as seen on the flag of today’s Germany), promised to promulgate a constitution, agreed that Prussia and other German states should merge into a single nation-state, and appointed a liberal, Gottfried Ludolf Camphausen, as Minister President.
Bismarck had at first tried to rouse the peasants of his estate into an army to march on Berlin in the King’s name. He travelled to Berlin in disguise to offer his services, but was instead told to make himself useful by arranging food supplies for the Army from his estates in case they were needed.
The King’s brother, Prince Wilhelm, had fled to England; Bismarck tried to get Wilhelm’s wife Augusta to place their teenage son Friedrich on the Prussian throne in Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s place. Augusta would have none of it, and detested Bismarck thereafter, despite the fact that he later helped restore a working relationship between Wilhelm and his brother the King.
In 1849, Bismarck was elected to the Landtag. At this stage in his career, he opposed the unification of Germany, arguing that Prussia would lose its independence in the process. He accepted his appointment as one of Prussia’s representatives at the Erfurt Parliament, an assembly of German states that met to discuss plans for union, but he only did so to oppose that body’s proposals more effectively.
The parliament failed to bring about unification, for it lacked the support of the two most important German states, Prussia and Austria. In September 1850, after a dispute over Hesse (the Hesse Crisis of 1850), Prussia was humiliated and forced to back down by Austria (supported by Russia) in the so-called Punctation of Olmütz; a plan for the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership, proposed by Prussia’s Minister President Radowitz, was also abandoned.
In 1851, Friedrich Wilhelm IV appointed Bismarck as Prussia’s envoy to the Diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt. Bismarck gave up his elected seat in the Landtag, but was appointed to the Prussian House of Lords a few years later.
Bismarck’s eight years in Frankfurt were marked by changes in his political opinions, detailed in the numerous lengthy memoranda, which he sent to his ministerial superiors in Berlin. No longer under the influence of his ultraconservative Prussian friends, Bismarck became less reactionary and more pragmatic.
He became convinced that to countervail Austria’s newly restored influence, Prussia would have to ally herself with other German states. As a result, he grew to be more accepting of the notion of a united German nation. He gradually came to believe that he and his fellow conservatives had to take the lead in creating a unified nation to keep from being eclipsed. He also believed that the middle-class liberals wanted a unified Germany more than they wanted to break the grip of the traditional forces over society.
In October 1857, Friedrich Wilhelm IV suffered a paralysing stroke, and his brother Wilhelm took over the Prussian government as Regent. Wilhelm was initially seen as a moderate ruler, whose friendship with liberal Britain was symbolised by the recent marriage of his son Friedrich to Victoria, Princess Royal, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. As part of his “New Course”, Wilhelm brought in new ministers, moderate conservatives known as the Wochenblatt after their newspaper.
Prince Wilhelm became King of Prussia upon his brother Friedrich Wilhelm IV’s death in 1861. The new monarch often came into conflict with the increasingly liberal Prussian Diet (Landtag).
A crisis arose in 1862, when the Diet refused to authorize funding for a proposed re-organization of the army. The King’s ministers could not convince legislators to pass the budget, and the King was unwilling to make concessions.
Wilhelm threatened to abdicate in favour of his son Crown Prince Friedrich, who opposed his doing so, believing that Bismarck was the only politician capable of handling the crisis. However, Wilhelm was ambivalent about appointing a person who demanded unfettered control over foreign affairs.
It was in September 1862, when the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Deputies) overwhelmingly rejected the proposed budget, that Wilhelm was persuaded to recall Bismarck to Prussia. On September 23, 1862, Wilhelm appointed Bismarck Minister President and Foreign Minister.
Despite the initial distrust of the King and Crown Prince and the loathing of Queen Augusta, Bismarck soon acquired a powerful hold over the King by force of personality and powers of persuasion. Bismarck was intent on maintaining royal supremacy by ending the budget deadlock in the King’s favour, even if he had to use extralegal means to do so.
Under the Constitution, the budget could be passed only after the king and legislature agreed on its terms. Bismarck contended that since the Constitution did not provide for cases in which legislators failed to approve a budget, there was a “legal loophole” in the Constitution and so he could apply the previous year’s budget to keep the government running. Thus, on the basis of the 1861 budget, tax collection continued for four years.
Bismarck masterminded the unification of Germany. He cooperated with King Wilhelm I of Prussia to unify the various German states, a partnership that would last for the rest of Wilhelm’s life.
Bismarck provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France. Following the victory against Austria, he abolished the supranational German Confederation and instead formed the North German Confederation as the first German national state, aligning the smaller North German states behind Prussia, and excluding Austria. Receiving the support of the independent South German states in the Confederation’s defeat of France, he formed the German Empire – which also excluded Austria – and united Germany.
Bismarck served as the Chancellor of Prussia from 1862 until 1867 when he became Chancellor of the North German Confederation from 1867 to 1871 and with the creation of the German Empire in 1871 Bismarck was also appointed as the first Imperial Chancellor of the German Empire on March 21st 1871, but retained his Prussian offices, including those of Minister-President and Foreign Minister. He also continued to serve as his own foreign minister. Because of both the imperial and the Prussian offices that he held, Bismarck had near complete control over domestic and foreign policy.
Bismarck resigned at Wilhelm II’s insistence on 18 March 18, 1890, at the age of seventy-five. retired to write his memoirs (Thoughts and Memories). In the memoirs Bismarck continued his feud with Wilhelm II by attacking him, and by increasing the drama around every event and by often presenting himself in a favorable light.
Bismarck’s health began to fail in 1896. He was diagnosed with gangrene in his foot, but refused to accept treatment for it; as a result he had difficulty walking and often used a wheelchair. By July 1898 he was a full-time wheelchair user, had trouble breathing, and was almost constantly feverish and in pain. His health rallied momentarily on the 28th, but then sharply deteriorated over the next two days.
He died just after midnight on July 30, 1898, at the age of eighty-three in Friedrichsruh, where he is entombed in the Bismarck Mausoleum. He was succeeded as Prince Bismarck by his eldest son, Herbert. Bismarck managed a posthumous snub of Wilhelm II by having his own sarcophagus inscribed with the words, “A loyal German servant of Emperor Wilhelm I”.