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Otto von Bismarck: The Iron Chancellor

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, or simply Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative German statesman and diplomat. From his base in the upper-class of Junker (Prussian nobles) landowners, Bismarck rose rapidly in Prussian politics. He masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871 and served as its first chancellor until 1890. He dominated European affairs for two decades. In the same way that Metternich shaped the European diplomatic scene in the first half of the 19th century, Bismarck shaped it in the second half. He was Prussia's minister president and the minister of Foreign Affairs from 1862 to 1890. Before his rise to the executive power, Bismarck was the Prussian ambassador to Russia and France. He achieved the exclusion of Austria from the German unification and established Prussia as the leader of the new German state. In order to achieve that, Bismarck provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France. He carried out many reforms, which brought economic growth to the German state and later to the German Empire. In this article reference will be made mainly to his foreign policy, but also to the actions with which he succeeded in the German unification.

Fürst Otto von Bismarck by Franz von Lenbach in 1879.
Fürst Otto von Bismarck by Franz von Lenbach in 1879.

Early Life and his Rise into Politics

Bismarck was born at Schönhausen, in the Kingdom of Prussia, in 1815, the year that the Congress of Vienna took place. His father was a Prussian noble, whilst his mother came from an educated bourgeois family. Bismarck studied law at the University of Göttingen. After a brief stint at the University of Berlin, he entered the Prussian civil service. In 1839 he resigned in order to assist his father, who was experiencing financial difficulties. From 1839 to 1847 Bismarck lived the ordinary life of a Prussian country squire. During this period he married Johanna von Puttkamer, the daughter of a conservative aristocratic family (Schmitz, 2007).

Bismarck’s politics were also conservative. He believed in a Christian state that received its sanction ultimately from the deity. His response to the liberal revolution that swept through Europe in 1848 confirmed his image as a reactionary. He opposed any concessions to the liberals and expressed contempt for the king’s willingness to bargain with the revolutionaries. In 1849 he was elected to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies. At this stage he clearly was not a German nationalist. In 1851, the Prussian king appointed Bismarck as the Prussian representative to the federal diet in Frankfurt, a clear reward for his loyalty to him.

He lived in Frankfurt for eight years, where he experienced a commercial and cultural environment quite different from that of a Prussian estate. Bismarck began to reassess his view of German nationalism and the goals of Prussian foreign policy. Not only did he find the constant deference to the Austrians in Frankfurt demeaning, but he also realized that the status quo meant acceptance of Prussia as a second-rate power in central Europe. In 1854 he opposed close cooperation with Austria. Gradually he began to consider the options that would make Prussia the undisputed power in Germany. A vision of a Prussian-dominated northern Europe took shape in his mind. If necessary, a war with Austria to destroy its hegemony was not to be excluded. Implementation of such a policy would be anything but conservative because it would entail radical changes in the map of Europe as it had been drawn by the conservative powers at Vienna in 1815.

Young Otto von Bismarck.
Young Otto von Bismarck.

Prime Minister

At first Bismarck acted as Prussian ambassador in Russia and France. Thus, he had 11 years of experience in foreign affairs before he became prime minister and foreign minister of Prussia in 1862. The king hoped that Bismarck would resolve the differences between the monarchy and the parliament over the issue of the military. The Chamber of Deputies interpreted this appointment as an act of defiance. But Bismarck, who returned to Berlin from Paris, was not the backwoods conservative of 1848. Bismarck had changed to such a degree that he actually returned with the idea of seeking a compromise over the military issue. But the Prussian king rejected a sensible proposal offered by Bismarck, leaving him no alternative but a policy of confrontation. Bismarck then announced that there was a “gap” in the constitution. If the king, the members of the Upper Chamber, and the Chamber of Deputies failed to come to an agreement, the government had to proceed without it. This tactic, applied from 1863 to 1866, allowed him to implement the military reforms without the sanction of Parliament. Bismarck did, indeed, appear to be the reactionary, confrontational aristocrat out of tune with his time.

Bismarck believed that Prussia’s frontiers, as laid down in Vienna, were not conducive to a healthy national life. He intended to use Prussia’s military might for the liberal goal of achieving national unification. The liberal opposition, however, chose to ignore these hints, and in 1863, they informed William I that they would not deal with his prime minister any further. After eight months in office, Bismarck had failed to achieve any agreement with the parliamentary opposition.

Bismarck in 1863 with Roon (centre) and Moltke (right), the three leaders of Prussia in the 1860s.
Bismarck in 1863 with Roon (centre) and Moltke (right), the three leaders of Prussia in the 1860s.

Foreign Policy

Bismarck now turned to foreign policy. Trouble had been brewing since 1848 between the Danes and the German population of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein (more here). When the Danish king ignored the rights of the German population as established in the constitution of 1848, Bismarck made sure that it was Prussia and Austria which represented German interests. A quick successful war against Denmark left the fate of Schleswig and Holstein up to Bismarck and the Austrians. Schleswig was to be administered by Prussia and Holstein by Austria.

In 1866 Bismarck nonetheless continued his efforts to turn liberal interest to the success of Prussian arms. Bismarck had clearly decided to play the German national card in order to achieve a Prussian-dominated Germany. He set about fostering conflict with the Austrians by stirring up Hungarian nationalism against Austria. In 1866, Prussian troops invaded Holstein, and a few days later Austria. Within six weeks Prussia had defeated Austrians. Bismarck then counseled moderation so that Austria would not be humiliated. He urged a quick cessation of hostilities, recognizing that other powers might intervene, if the war continued. Europe was stunned as in a few weeks Prussia had transformed the distribution of power in central Europe. Austria, the major power in Germany for centuries, was now relegated to secondary status.

Bismarck now showed both ruthlessness and moderation. Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, Nassau, and Frankfurt, all of which had fought against Prussia, were annexed. While conservatives were appalled at the German civil war between the two powers who had been opposed to revolution, the liberal middle class supported Bismarck. Their goal of German unification seemed close at hand. Bismarck had achieved one of his major goals; gaining a large part of the middle class to see the Prussian monarchy as their ally.

The North German Confederation was established in 1867 with Prussia as its matrix. Its constitution, on the surface, appeared progressive. It established universal manhood suffrage. Bismarck believed that the vast majority of Prussians would vote for conservative candidates. From this perspective, this measure aided the liberals. Moreover, the lower house, Reichstag, was circumscribed in the areas of military and foreign policy. Ministers were chosen by the king and not the legislature. Nevertheless, the constitution provided a basis for evolution in a democratic direction.

Bismarck’s efforts to establish a unified German parliament failed because of popular opposition in the south. Bismarck then looked for a conflict with France. If he could not bring the south into a united German nation by reason, he would rely on the passions aroused by war. As a master tactician, he worked behind the scenes to be certain that neither Russia nor Austria would intervene. Nor did he have to work hard to produce a conflict, because the French emperor, Napoleon III, was indignant at the sudden emergence of Prussia, especially since he did not receive the compensation he sought to annex Luxembourg.

After a diplomatic trick of Bismarck, the French declared war on Prussia in 1870. When the French were decisively defeated at Sedan in September, it appeared as though Bismarck would be able to score a third rapid victory in seven years. In January 1871, four other southern German states joined the North German Confederation to create the German Empire. The exclusion of Austria, and of seven million German-speaking Austrians, was the result of Bismarck’s three wars. He was showered with honors and hailed as a national hero (BBC, 2014).

Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870 by  Wilhelm Camphausen in 1878.
Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870 by Wilhelm Camphausen in 1878.

Imperial Chancellor

It is important to note that the Germany Bismarck created was the result of cabinet diplomacy and war. Not all German-speaking areas of Europe were included but only as many as Prussia could control. The new constitution included the position of chancellor, designed with Bismarck specifically in mind. Bismarck also remained prime minister of Prussia until 1890. The peace treaty with France was harsh. Alsace and Lorraine, two French provinces with sizable German-speaking populations, were annexed by the Germans. While Austria and Denmark quickly forgot their defeats, France did not. French hostility was to haunt the German Empire until these provinces were returned to France in 1918.

From that point, Bismarck had a relatively free hand in the conduct of foreign policy. After three successful wars, he saw his task as promoting peace and gaining time so that the powerful German Empire would come to be accepted as natural. In 1873, he formed an alliance with Austria-Hungary as he wanted to have a strong ally in Central Europe, but also to prevent the expansion of Russian influence in the Balkans. This alliance lasted until the end of the First World War in 1918 (Burgaud, 2020).

Between 1870 and 1890 European leaders sincerely appreciated Bismarck's earnest efforts on behalf of peace. The German Empire had acted as a satiate power. All of Bismarck’s considerable tactical skills had been successful in creating a powerful German state. For this time period these same skills maintained the peace (Barkin, 2021).

Portrait of Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck by Franz von Lenbach in 1890.
Portrait of Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck by Franz von Lenbach in 1890.


Bismarck was a towering figure who put his stamp on his age, as Metternich had done earlier. When Bismarck became prime minister of Prussia in 1862, Prussia was universally considered the weakest state among the European powers. Less than nine years later, a unified German Empire had emerged in the heart of Europe. When Bismarck left office in 1890, the map of Europe had been changed beyond measure. The center of Europe was now home to the foremost military and industrial power on the continent. Bismarck’s legacy, however, is a much discussed issue. In foreign affairs his skill brought peace in Europe, which gained him a deserved reputation for moderation and a sense of limits. Bismarck remained the undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871. He devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers (Hobsbawm, 1987). Although he had united Germany in one sense, he had failed to create an internally unified people. He also introduced a prudent rhetoric into German politics that forestalled a sense of common destiny. While German industry developed rapidly during his reign in power, he would allow no evolution in the political system toward greater participation. In this sense, Bismarck was the last representative of Metternich’s conservative order and cabinet diplomacy.

Image Sources

Camphausen, W. (1878). Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870 [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Lenbach, F. V. (1879). Fürst Otto von Bismarck. [Painting]. © Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin. Retrieved from:

Lenbach, F. V. (1890). Portrait of Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck. [Painting]. Walters Art Museum, USA. Retrieved from:

Unknown. Young Otto von Bismarck. [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Unknown. Bismarck in 1863 with Roon and Moltke, the three leaders of Prussia in the 1860s. (ca 1863). [Painting]. Retrieved from:


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Miltos Spiratos

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