Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (Born von Bismarck-Schönhausen; (April 1, 1815 – July 30, 1898), known as Otto von Bismarck he was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890 and was the first Chancellor of the German Empire between 1871 and 1890.
Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire.
In 1862, King Wilhelm I of Prussia appointed Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, a position he would hold until 1890, with the exception of a short break in 1873. He 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 in 1867, leading it as Federal Chancellor.
This aligned the smaller North German states behind Prussia. Later receiving the support of the independent South German states in the Confederation’s defeat of France, he formed the German Empire in 1871, unifying Germany with himself as Imperial Chancellor, while retaining control of Prussia at the same time. The new German nation excluded Austria, which had been Prussia’s main opponent for predominance among the German states.
Wilhelm I, German Emperor and King of Prussia
With that accomplished by 1871, he skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to maintain Germany’s position in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace. For historian Eric Hobsbawm, it was Bismarck who “remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers”. However, his annexation of Alsace-Lorraine gave new fuel to French nationalism and promoted Germanophobia in France.This helped set the stage for the First World War.
In 1888 Kaiser Wilhelm I died, leaving the throne to his son, Friedrich III. The new monarch was already suffering from cancer of the larynx and died after reigning for only 99 days. He was succeeded by his son, Wilhelm II, who opposed Bismarck’s cautious foreign policy, preferring vigorous and rapid expansion to enlarge Germany’s “place in the sun.”
Friedrich III, German Emperor and King of Prussia
Bismarck was sixteen years older than Friedrich III; before the latter became terminally ill, therefore Bismarck did not expect he would live to see Wilhelm II ascend to the throne and thus had no strategy to deal with him. 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.
Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia
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 heated argument in Bismarck’s office, Wilhelm—to whom Bismarck had shown a letter from Tsar Alexander III 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.
“Dropping the Pilot”, a famous caricature by Sir John Tenniel (1820–1914), first published in the British magazine Punch, March 29, 1890.
Bismarck resigned at Wilhelm II’s insistence on March 18, 1890, at the age of seventy-five.