Otto von Bismarck

The father of modern Germany who wasn't a Kaiser, Otto von Bismarck was a crucial figure in the growth of the German Empire, but why was he so influential? What made him a great leader, and how did he unify a group of disparate states into a European force? Read on to find out!

Otto von Bismarck Otto von Bismarck

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Table of contents

    Otto von Bismarck Biography

    Much has been made about Bismarck's politics and decision-making in power. Still, he didn't always seem destined to be instrumental in creating a German Empire or Kaiserreich. Let's see how his early life moulded him into the political behemoth that he would become.

    Early life

    Otto von Bismarck was born in Schönhausen, Prussia, in 1815 into a family of Prussian noblemen or Junkers. He was sent to a prestigious school in Berlin and later attended the University of Göttingen to read law. A mediocre student, he then joined the Prussian civil service but, finding it dull, he left to work on his father's estates.

    In the years before Bismarck's entrance into politics, little is known about his activities. However, he has often been characterised as the "mad Junker" who drank and womanised. One thing is for sure, for a time, Bismarck embraced his rural lifestyle.

    Otto von Bismarck Otto von Bismarck StudySmarterFig. 1 - Otto von Bismarck

    His origins bled into his initial views when he entered politics. After his marriage to Johanna in 1847, Bismarck became involved in Lutheranism. He was an ultra-conservative with fierce loyalty to the King and was dismayed at the notion of the failed 1848 Liberal revolution. This did not go unnoticed, and in 1851 Frederick Wilhelm IV (King of Prussia) appointed him as a representative of the German Confederation.

    Bismarck honed his knack for diplomacy as a foreign ambassador for Russia and France, developing a dislike for Austrians when on duty in Frankfurt. He also realised that for Prussia to remain relevant, it would need to lead a unified German nation.


    The name for a Prussian nobleman. They owned vast amounts of land in the countryside and ruled over the peasants. The Junkers also wielded significant political influence over the King of Prussia and, later, the Kaiser.


    A form of Protestantism that formed as a reaction against the Catholic Church in the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century.

    Prime Minister

    When Wilhelm I became King of Prussia, he failed to garner political support from the Prussian parliament or Landtag for his military spending and expansion plans. He thought about resigning before the appointment of Bismarck as his Prime Minister in 1862. By this point, Bismarck was ardent in his desire to unite the German states under Prussian rule.

    The passive Wilhelm, who needed to preserve his power, provided the perfect foil for Bismarck. Over the next ten years, Prussia would move from a peripheral force to the centre of the Kaiserreich, the supreme power of continental Europe, but how did this happen in such a short space of time?

    The great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches or majority decisions but by iron and blood.1

    - Otto von Bismarck to the Landtag (1862)

    Otto von Bismarck Unification of Germany

    As Prussia was simply a state in the Austria-dominated German Confederation, there seemed little chance that it could become a major player in the German Empire in less than ten years. Bismarck had a plan, though, one dripping in the blood he had promised! Let's examine the three significant conflicts that Prussia partook in, the chess-like Bismarckian rationale behind them, and the result.

    ConflictParticipantsBismarck's RationaleResult
    Second-Schleswig War (1864)Prussia and AustriaVSDenmarkBy attacking the two prominent Danish states, Schleswig and Holstein, Bismarck would gain territory for the German Confederation and maintain the trust of Austria. The two states became part of the German Confederation after the Treaty of Vienna in 1864.
    "Seven Weeks War" or Austro-Prussian War (1866)Prussia and ItalyVSAustria and Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover, and other German southern statesPrussia wanted to replace Austria as the dominant force in the German Confederation. A pretence for the attack was found in the Second-Schleswig War. An alliance with Italy would divert Austrian forces south, and Prussian forces decisively defeated Austria in seven weeks. After the defeat at the Battle of Königgrätz, Prussia made a deal with Austria to spare Vienna but only on the condition that Prussia would be the leading force in a new North German Confederation.
    Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)Prussia, members of the North German Confederation, and German southern statesVSFranceAfter defeating Austria, which formed Austria-Hungary, Bismarck still needed to deal with the southern states that had fought against him. When France tried to reassert their authority across Europe, Bismarck vowed to protect the southern states in return for their cooperation in a future German Empire. They agreed.Prussia and their allies' swift defence and manpower defeated the French. The French lost the Battle of Sedan and became occupied. The North German Confederation annexed Alsace-Lorraine, and French embarrassment was complete when the first Kaiser, Wilhelm I, was crowned in Versailles. The German Empire was unified, and the Kaiserreich was born.

    Bismarck effectively maintained the same position when Wilhelm was King of Prussia. However, his title changed from Prime Minister to Chancellor.


    As Chancellor of a new state, Bismarck continued to be the driving force behind German politics under Kaiser Wilhelm I. He was keen to create a sense of national identity and closely intertwined this with his political interests.

    It was vital that the Kaiser cement his status after a turbulent decade. Therefore, all roots of potential opposition needed to be weeded out. For this reason, Bismarck spent time sparring with the Roman Catholic Pope and the papal influence on German legislation during a period in the 1870s known as Kulturkampf ('Culture Struggle').

    However, in 1887 he made peace with the church, having achieved his goal of reducing their input. Ever the pragmatist, Bismarck also went after the Social Democrats, who were becoming a political threat, eliminating any challenge to Prussian dominance.

    Otto von Bismarck Kaiser Wilhelm I StudySmarterFig. 2 - Kaiser Wilhelm I


    After causing havoc in the 1860s, it was time for Wilhelm I and Bismarck to take a step back from military campaigns. However, Bismarck still had an important role on the European and international stage with his practical use of "realpolitik". His careful agreements with Austria-Hungary, the Mediterranean Agreement with Britain (1887), and the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia (1887) were cases in point and countered the threat of France.


    A term used to describe the foreign policy of Bismarck whereby morals, nationalism, and ideology are cast aside in favour of practical reasoning.

    Bismarck was successful in his role as Chancellor in maintaining peace and at least delaying war until Wilhelm II's reign. This was in stark contrast to his aggression as Prime Minister when he edited a telegram of Wilhelm I's to insult France so they declared war on Prussia. Finally, in 1884 when European powers began to divide up Africa under the Kaiserreich, Bismarck played a crucial role in the conference in Berlin.

    Domestic Policy

    At home, rapid industrial developments took place, and the modernisation of the Kaiserreich was evident. Its military might dovetailed a series of impressive reforms, which can arguably be referred to as the first modern welfare state. Here is an overview of some of the reforms:

    • 1883: Establishment of a national health service that was free for all. Germany was the first country worldwide to do this.

    • 1884: The introduction of Accident Insurance allowed workers to be covered for any illnesses or injuries incurred as a result of their job.

    • 1889: State pensions allowed people to be supported when they retired. Again, the German Empire was the first country to introduce this groundbreaking scheme.

    In other words, despite the decisive military action and resistance to his opposition that earned him the 'Iron Chancellor' moniker, Bismarck is overwhelmingly remembered as a force for good in German politics. Other states would follow such initiatives due to Germany's success.

    Otto von Bismarck Personality

    There is much to dissect about the policies of Bismarck. His knack for anticipation, particularly in foreign policy, has made him a towering figure in German history. However, his early life would not suggest such glory. A distant relationship with his mother characterised Bismarck's childhood. Typically, Junkers would be schooled at home, but Bismarck had to go to school in Berlin. It seemed like his mother wanted to free herself from parental responsibility, which stayed with Otto for most of his life.

    A great leader, Bismarck sought to hide his formative years in his memoirs, Reflections and Reminiscences. He made life difficult for those close to him with the 'need to possess Johanna (his wife) entirely'.2 He also did not allow his son Herbert to marry a Catholic and forced him into a life of diplomatic service. The lack of equality in his personal relationships was the drawback to his forensic understanding of politics and his superiority complex that made him a great leader.

    Otto von Bismarck Quotes

    We have seen the famous line from Bismarck's 'iron and blood' speech; now, let's examine some of his political musings with quotations straight from the horse's mouth!

    Politics is the art of the possible.3

    We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world.4

    Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.5

    Otto von Bismarck Death

    When Wilhelm II became Kaiser, Bismarck felt marginalised and was eventually forced to resign in 1890. The new Kaiser's dominant personality and aggressive foreign policy did not align with Bismarck's "realpolitik". He described his feelings in later life as oscillating between boredom and tiredness. The death of his wife in 1894 heightened his unhappiness, and by 1898 he had developed inflammation of the lungs. Bismarck died later that year.

    In a final swipe against Bismarck, Wilhelm II did not give him a state funeral. Posthumously Bismarck declared that it had been an honour to serve Wilhelm I and his country, with no mention of the current Kaiser. He was gone, but his legacy lived on - even acting as propaganda for Adolf Hitler during World War II!

    Otto von Bismarck Bismarck Gymnasium in Karlsruhe StudySmarterFig. 3 - A secondary school in Karlsruhe, known as Bismarck Gymnasium

    Otto von Bismarck - Key takeaways

    • Bismarck was born into Prussian nobility. He spent his early life in rural Prussia, helping his father on the family estates before entering politics.
    • Bismarck began as a conservative who opposed the 1848 revolution. His politics changed when he saw the necessity of military action to make Prussia the dominant force in the German Empire.
    • In 1862 he became Prime Minister and organised a series of military campaigns culminating in victory in the Franco-Prussian War and the inauguration of the Kaiserreich.
    • As Chancellor to Wilhelm I, Bismarck pursued liberal reforms at home and a "realpolitik" foreign policy.
    • His difficult personal relationships were borne out of the characteristics that made him a great leader.
    • Bismarck left office shortly after Wilhelm II became Kaiser and died eight years later, leaving a political legacy as the father of modern Germany but with no state funeral.


    1. Fred R. Shapiro, The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), pp. 90.
    2. Judith M. Hughes, 'Toward the Psychological Drama of High Politics: The Case of Bismarck', Central European History, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Dec 1977), pp 271-85.
    3. Fred R. Shapiro, The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), pp. 90.
    4. Ibid. pp. 90.
    5. Shamane Tan, Cyber Risk Leaders (2019), pp. 118.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Otto von Bismarck

    What was Bismarck's goal?

    Bismarck's goal was to create a Prussia that was the dominant power in the German Empire. 

    What training did Otto von Bismarck have?

    Bismarck went to the University of Göttingen and then trained in Prussian Civil Service before helping his father manage estates.

    Where did Otto von Bismarck come from?

    Bismarck came from Schönhausen in Prussia.

    Why was Otto von Bismarck fired?

    Otto von Bismarck left his position because he did not have the backing of Kaiser Wilhelm II. After an argument and loss of support, he had no choice but to resign from his position as Chancellor in 1890.

    When did Otto von Bismarck rule?

    Otto von Bismarck ruled as Prime Minister and Chancellor from 1862 to 1890.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was Lutheranism?

    Which country was Bismarck Prime Minister of?

    Who did Prussia and Austria defeat in the Second-Schleswig War (1864)?


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