This Day in History – March 21st, 1871

Reichskanzler-Otto-Fuerst-Bismarck-K

Otto von Bismarck (April 1st, 1815 – July 30th, 1898)

Otto Eduard Leopold (Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg), known as Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. In the 1860s he engineered a series of wars that unified the German states (excluding Austria) into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. With that accomplished by 1871 he skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to preserve German hegemony in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace. On March 21st, 1871 he was appointed Chancellor of the German Empire.

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, devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers.”

In 1862 King Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, a post he would hold until 1890 (except for a short break in 1873). He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria and France, aligning the smaller German states behind Prussia in defeating his arch-enemy France. In 1871 he formed the German Empire with himself as Chancellor, while retaining control of Prussia. His diplomacy of realpolitik and powerful rule at home gained him the nickname the “Iron Chancellor”. German unification and its rapid economic growth was the foundation to his foreign policy. He disliked colonialism but reluctantly built an overseas empire when it was demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations and alliances, he used his unrivaled diplomatic skills to maintain Germany’s position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.

Otto_von_Bismarck_2

He was the master of complex politics at home. He created the first welfare state in the modern world, with the goal of gaining working class support that might otherwise go to his Socialist enemies. In the 1870s he allied himself with the Liberals (who were low-tariff and anti-Catholic) and fought the Catholic Church in a culture war. He lost that battle as the Catholics responded by forming a powerful Center party and using universal male suffrage to gain a bloc of seats. Bismarck then reversed himself, ended the culture war, broke with the Liberals, imposed tariffs, and formed a political alliance with the Center party to fight the Socialists. A devout Lutheran, he was loyal to his king, who in turn gave Bismarck his full support, against the advice of his wife and his heir. While Germany’s parliament was elected by universal male suffrage, it did not have real control of the government. Bismarck distrusted democracy and ruled through a strong, well-trained bureaucracy with power in the hands of a traditional Junker elite that comprised the landed nobility of the east. Under Wilhelm I, Bismarck largely controlled domestic and foreign affairs, until he was removed by young Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890.

BismarckBismarck, an aristocratic Junker himself, had an extremely aggressive and domineering personality. He displayed a violent temper and kept his power by threatening to resign time and again. He possessed not only a long-term national and international vision, but also the short-term ability to juggle many complex developments simultaneously. As the leader of what historians call “revolutionary conservatism”, Bismarck became a hero to German nationalists; they built hundreds of monuments glorifying the iconic symbol of powerful conservative leadership. Historians generally praise him as a statesman of moderation and balance who kept the peace in Europe, and was primarily responsible for the unification of Germany and building its world-renowned bureaucracy and army.

Flourish 3

Trackbacks & Pings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar