Prince Otto von Bismarck

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince von Bismarck (1815-1898) was Prime Minister of Prussia, architect of the unified Germany and its first Imperial Chancellor. Iron Chancellor Bismarck is acknowledged as the supreme chess master of European politics in the second half of the 19th century: analytical, persuasive and utterly ruthless. He described politics as the ‘art of the possible’ and predicted World War I with the words ‘some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off’.

Bismarck is remembered as a grim, humourless tactician who transformed Prussia and its surrounding Duchies into a united world power. His upbringing was rather more colourful. He was born into the Prussian Junker class, the landed aristocracy, and educated at Berlin’s Platmann Institute before reading law at the University of Gottingen in Hanover where he developed a reputation for drinking, womanising and pugilism.

Bismarck entered the Prussian civil service but it bored him. In 1848 revolution swept Europe. Louis Philippe, last of the French kings, was forced to abdicate and Prussia’s King Frederick Wilhelm IV was besieged in Berlin with riots protesting against famine, unemployment and the Junker feudal system. It was in this climate of fear and violence that Bismarck stood and was elected to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies.

Bismarck aligned himself with the indecisive king on the brink of abdication declaring ‘I would rather perish with the king than forsake your majesty in the contest with parliamentary government’. In 1858 King Frederick Wilhelm suffered a stroke that left him paralysed and his brother Wilhelm was named Regent. The Regent appointed Bismarck Ambassador to Russia in 1859 and acceded as Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1861. Instead of recalling Bismarck to Berlin, the new Kaiser posted him to Paris as Ambassador to the Court of Emperor Napoleon III. On a visit to London he met future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli who said of Bismarck ‘be careful of that man – he means what he says’.

In 1862 Kaiser Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck Minister President of Prussia. It was the year that Bismarck gave his most famous speech declaring ‘the great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions … but by iron and blood’. Bismarck persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm not to abdicate earning the life-long enmity of Crown Prince Frederick and the British-born Crown Princess Victoria.

Bismarck’s strategy to make Germany the dominant economic power in Europe necessitated keeping diplomatic channels with the Great Powers (Britain, France, Austria and Russia) open and ostensibly cordial while orchestrating a blitzkrieg (lightening war) on neighbouring states. First was the invasion of Danish territories Schleswig and Holstein in 1863 with the former ceded to Prussia and the latter to Austria. In 1866 Prussia entered the seven-week war with Austria and annexed Holstein, Frankfurt, Hanover, Hesse Kassel and Nassau.

In 1870 Bismarck lured Napoleon III into the Franco-Prussian War on the premise that Wilhelm I supported a German Prince’s rights to the vacant Spanish throne. Napoleon III was deposed, Paris was besieged and Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia was declared Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in 1871. Bismarck was elevated to the rank of Prince and named Imperial Chancellor of the German Empire.

The cost of eight years at war earned Germany two further decades of peace during which the Prince von Bismarck ruled in all but name. Bismarck placed colonial ambitions second to the strengthening of Germany’s army and economy. He cemented the League of the Three Emperors between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary in 1873 while keeping diplomatic channels with Great Britain open even though the Crown Princess and her mother Queen Victoria were under no illusions that he was a malign influence.

‘One can never trust Bismarck’ Queen Victoria wrote in her 1876 diary; the year when he is recorded in the Henry Poole & Co measure books. The ledgers record that Count Peter Schouvaloff, Russian Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, recommended the Prince von Bismarck. In 1877 the Russo-Turkish War damaged trade links with Germany leading Bismarck into an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. When the German parliament pushed for a pre-emptive strike against Russia, Bismarck replied ‘preventative war is like committing suicide for fear of death’.

The Prince von Bismarck held power until 1888 when Emperor Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by his son the Crown Prince Frederick. The liberal, reformist Emperor Frederick III was already in the later stages of cancer and died ninety-nine days after his accession. His son Emperor Wilhelm II, precocious, aggressive and rather unhinged in his desire for absolute power, forced Bismarck to resign in 1890. Sir John Tenniel recorded the catastrophic dismissal of the elder statesman in his famous Punch cartoon subtitled ‘Dropping the pilot’.

(c) James Sherwood

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