Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Emperor Alexander III of Russia, Emperor Friedrich III, German Emperor, German Emperor and King of Prussia, Minister President of Prussia, Reichstag, Wilhelm II
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was sixteen years older than Emperor Friedrich III. Therefore, Bismarck did not expect he would live to see Emperor Wilhelm II ascend to the throne and thus had no strategy to deal with him. All of that changed with the early death of Emperor Friedrich III in June 1888?and the accession of his son Emperor Wilhelm II.
Conflicts between Wilhelm II and Bismarck soon poisoned their relationship. Their final split occurred after Bismarck tried to implement far-reaching anti-socialist laws in early 1890. The Kartell majority in the Reichstag, including the Conservative Party and the National Liberal Party, was willing to make most of the laws permanent.
However, it was split about the law granting the police the power to expel socialist agitators from their homes, a power that had been used excessively at times against political opponents. The National Liberals refused to make this law permanent, while the Conservatives supported only the entirety of the bill, threatening to and eventually vetoing the entire bill in session because Bismarck would not agree to a modified bill.
As the debate continued, Wilhelm II became increasingly interested in social problems, especially the treatment of mine workers during their strike in 1889. Keeping with his active policy in government, he routinely interrupted Bismarck in Council to make clear his social views. Bismarck sharply disagreed with Wilhelm’s policies and worked to circumvent them.
Even though Wilhelm II supported the altered anti-socialist bill, Bismarck pushed for his support to veto the bill in its entirety. When his arguments could not convince Wilhelm, Bismarck became excited and agitated until uncharacteristically blurting out his motive to see the bill fail: to have the socialists agitate until a violent clash occurred that could be used as a pretext to crush them.
Wilhelm countered that he was not willing to open his reign with a bloody campaign against his own subjects. The next day, after realizing his blunder, Bismarck attempted to reach a compromise with Wilhelm by agreeing to his social policy towards industrial workers and even suggested a European council to discuss working conditions, presided over by the Emperor.
Still, a turn of events eventually led to his breaking with Wilhelm. Bismarck, feeling pressured and unappreciated by the Emperor and undermined by ambitious advisers, refused to sign a proclamation regarding the protection of workers along with Wilhelm, as was required by the German constitution.
His refusal to sign was apparently to protest Wilhelm’s ever increasing interference with Bismarck’s previously unquestioned authority. Bismarck also worked behind the scenes to break the Continental labour council on which Wilhelm had set his heart.
The final break came as Bismarck searched for a new parliamentary majority, as his Kartell was voted from power as a consequence of the anti-socialist bill fiasco, the remaining forces in the Reichstag were the Catholic Centre Party and the Conservative Party.
Bismarck wished to form a new block with the Centre Party and invited Ludwig Windthorst, the parliamentary leader, to discuss an alliance. That would be Bismarck’s last political maneuver. Upon hearing about Windthorst’s visit, Wilhelm was furious.
In a parliamentary state, the head of government depends on the confidence of the parliamentary majority and has the right to form coalitions to ensure their policies have majority support. However, in Germany, the Chancellor depended on the confidence of the Emperor alone, and Wilhelm believed that the Emperor had the right to be informed before his minister’s meeting.
After a another heated argument in Bismarck’s office, Wilhelm—to whom Bismarck had shown a letter from Emperor Alexander III of Russia describing Wilhelm as a “badly brought-up boy”—stormed out, after first ordering the rescinding of the Cabinet Order of 1851, which had forbidden Prussian Cabinet Ministers from reporting directly to the King of Prussia and required them instead to report via the Chancellor.
Bismarck, forced for the first time into a situation that he could not use to his advantage, wrote a blistering letter of resignation, decrying Wilhelm’s interference in foreign and domestic policy. The letter, however, was published only after Bismarck’s death.
On March 18, 1890, Wilhelm dismissed Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and assumed direct control over his nation’s policies, embarking on a bellicose “New Course” to cement Germany’s status as a leading world power. Over the course of his reign, the German colonial empire acquired new territories in China and the Pacific (such as Kiautschou Bay, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Caroline Islands) and became Europe’s largest manufacturer. However, Wilhelm often undermined such progress by making tactless and threatening statements towards other countries without first consulting his ministers.
He was succeeded as Imperial Chancellor and Minister President of Prussia by Leo von Caprivi. After his dismissal he was promoted to the rank of “Colonel-General with the Dignity of Field Marshal”, so-called because the German Army did not appoint full Field Marshals in peacetime. He was also given a new title, Duke of Lauenburg, which he joked would be useful when traveling incognito.