Otto von Bismarck was born in 1815 on his family’s extensive estate, west of Berlin. Before unification, Germany existed as a number of loosely bound together member principalities of the German Confederation. Bismarck played an integral role in unifying most of the Confederation’s members into a single country. In his first speech as Minister-President, Bismarck famously referred to the issue of German unfication: "the great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches and the resolutions of majorities — that was the great mistake from 1848 to 1849 — but by iron and blood." After a slow climb to political supremacy, Bismarck used both to achieve this objective.
His father, Ferdinand von Bismarck was a military officer and his mother, Wilhelmine Mencken came from a well-to-do commoner family. He attended Georg August University of Göttingen and the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin, with the hopes of becoming a diplomat, although could only obtain administrative work in Aachen and Potsdam. He found this work tiresome, preferring to mix with the social elite and took over the management of his family’s estates in 1839.
In 1847-8, he married a Pietist Lutheran, Johanna von Puttkamer, and began to participate in politics, obtaining a position in the new Prussian legislature, Vereinigter Landtag. Bismarck was a royalist, advocating the idea that the monarch had a divine right to rule, but the year was 1848.
Much of Europe faced revolutions in 1848, which overwhelmed the Prussian monarch, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The King conceded to the liberals, promising a constitution and agreeing that Prussia and the other German states should form a single nation. A liberal Minister-President, Ludolf Camphausen was appointed, but the revolution floundered due to infighting, while their conservative counterparts were regaining the support of the King. The resulting constitution fell far short of the liberals initial demands.
In 1949, Bismarck was elected into the lower house of the Prussian legislature, while opposing German unification on the principles of Prussian strength through independence. Emphasizing these ideals, Bismarck joined the Erfurt Parliament, which assembled to discuss the union, only to more effectively prevent such a union from happening. Yet, without the support of Austria and Prussia, the two most powerful German states, such a union was simply impossible.
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Otto von Bismarck
During the 1850s, however, Bismarck’s political views underwent some change. The King appointed him as Prussia’s envoy to the diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt in 1852 where he would spend the next eight years, becoming more moderate in his convictions. After the King’s debilitating stroke in 1858, the King’s younger brother and Regent, Wilhelm sent Bismark to St. Petersburg for four years as the Prussian Ambassador for Russia. This was followed by several years as an ambassador to France, where he still managed to keep his hand in German domestic affairs.
After Wilhelm I came to the thrown in 1861, the Prussian government underwent a crisis when the diet refused funding for the reorganization of the army. Because the new king was unwilling to capitulate the legislature went into deadlock. King Wilhelm I, convinced that no one else could handle the crisis, made the devout royalist Otto von Bismarck the Minister-President and minister in charge of foreign affairs. Bismarck decided that since a new budget could not be approved, he could reapply the previous years budget and tax collection continued this way for four years.
Not surprisingly, this caused the situation between the Bismarck and legislative camps to grow increasingly more difficult. In 1863, the diet passed a resolution that it could not longer work with Bismarck and, although it was not what they were hoping for, the King dissolved the diet. Bismarck took steps restricting the freedom of the press, a move that even gained the disapproval of the Crown Prince and future King Friedrich III. Thus, Bismarck remained an unpopular politician.
Unpopular or not, Bismarck’s strength was that he regularly turned political crisis to his favour. After the crisis of succession in Denamark (1863) and the Second War of Schleswig, Bismarck induced Austria to agree to the Gastein Convention, under which Prussia received Schleswig, while Holstein went to Austria. Three years later, Austria reneged, demanding that the issue go before the diet of the German Confederation. Bismarck took this opportunity to send Prussian troops to occupy Holstein, beginning the Austro-Prussian War (1866).
The Treaty of Prague dissolved the German Confederation. Prussia annexed Schleswig, Holstein, Frankfurt, Hanover, Hesse-Kassel, and Nassau, forcing a promise from Austria not to interfere in German affairs. To solidify the new political alliances Prussia and several other North German states formed the North German Confederation in 1867, with King Wilhelm I as its President and Bismarck as its Chancellor.
Domestically, Bismarck’s liberal opponents lost their majority and the new largely conservative house supported Bismarck more than previous bodies. It retroactively approved the budgets for the past four years, making Bismarck one of the most suave statesmen in history.
Otto von Bismarck
Meanwhile, French Emperor Napoleon III feared that a powerful Prussia could upset the balance of power in Europe. A premise for war arose over the succession of German prince Leopod of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to the Spanish throne, which was blocked by France. Bismarck provoked France to war with the Ems Dispatch, an edited version of dialogue between King Wilhelm and the French ambassador. Prussia then crushed France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), in which France was forced to surrender the controversial territory of Alsace-Lorraine.
Riding on the popularity of military success, Bismarck secured the unification of Germany by opening negotiations with the southern German states. King Wilhelm was crowned German Emperor in the Chåteau de Versailles Hall of Mirrors on 18 January 1871. Raised to the rank of a German prince, Bismarck retained control over German domestic and foreign policy.
Bismarck amended ties with Austro-Hungary in 1872, joining the rulers in the league of Three Emperors in 1872. He then worked to control the influence of the Catholic Church and socialist party in Germany. He instated numerous anti-socialist measures in 1878, forbidding socialist organizations, meetings, and literature. He used paternalist government social insurance policies to appease the working class in the early 1880s.
Bismarck resigned from government in 1890 after disagreements with Wilhelm I’s second successor and grandson Wilhelm II. He died at the age of 83 in 1898 and is honoured in Germany by many buildings and places that have been given his name.
Detailed biography from Wikipedia
The End of the Bismarckian Era
The Iron Chancellor of Germany
Reader’s Companion to Military History
Otto von Bismarck and German Unification Bismarck’s Fall, 1890