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Otto von Bismarck: Germany's Iron Chancellor

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Otto von Bismarck was one of the most famous statesmen in 19th Century Europe. Named the "Iron Chancellor," he was the driving force behind the 1871 unification of Germany and was a powerful force for the balance of power in the decades between the Congress of Vienna and the end of the century.

Bismarck was born in the year of the Congress of Vienna, 1815, into a Junker family. (This was the Prussian term for wealthy landowners.) He did his schooling in Berlin and was a diplomat of sorts for a few years before, in quick succession, getting married and getting named as a delegate to the new Prussian parliament.

Bismarck served in both houses of parliament before undertaking a series of ambassadorships, including stints in France and Russia. He also served as a Prussian representative at the German Confederation, in Frankfurt. 

Bismarck so impressed Wilhelm I that the latter named the former chief minister in 1861, when Wilhelm became kaiser. The minister turned out to be the stronger personality and ended up influencing most of the king's decisions.

These decisions included words and actions that led to brief wars with Denmark, Prussia, and France, all of which resulted in great gains in territory and prestige for Prussia. The conflict with Denmark resulted in Prussia's annexation of the important territories of Schleswig-Holstein. The Austro-Prussian War lasted just seven weeks (in 1866) and gave Prussia even more land and money.

At this time, Bismarck convinced several northern German kingdoms to join Prussia in the North German Confederation. Correctly predicting that the rest of the German kingdoms would side with Prussia in a war with France, Bismarck helped create the Franco-Prussian War by editing a telegram from Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm I so that it could be construed as containing a great insult to France and its emperor. This telegram, known as the Ems Dispatch, gave Napoleon III the excuse he wanted to declare war on Prussia. France, eager to contain the growth of Prussia while at the same time regain some of the prestige lost after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, assumed that victory would be in the offing.

Victory certainly came, but not for France. The Prussians proved much more adept at getting troops and weapons to the front and then at prosecuting the war. In just more than six months, the war ended in the surrender of Paris and all of France.

In the same year, Bismarck presided over the creation of a unified Germany. Already the President and Foreign Minister of Prussia, he was named Chancellor of Germany. 

Bismarck's tenure as leader of first Prussia and then Germany was punctuated by broad, public disagreements with religious and political elements. The Catholic Church was powerful in Germany, and Bismarck's planned reforms to modernize Germany ran against the Church's interests. Bismarck devised a strategy to counter Catholic influence, terming it Kulturkampf (culture struggle). This resulted in the imprisonment or exile of many bishops and priests.

Birmarck is perhaps most well-known for embracing and publicizing the term Realpolitik, a German term that meant "real politics." In practical terms, this was a strategy of confronting the world's problems as they were in reality, not viewed through the lens of a certain ideology. (This would have been in stark contrast to religious leaders and to other political leaders.) A modern interpretation of this term is "power politics."

Much of Europe suffered a Depression in 1873, and Germany was no exception. In response, Bismarck instituted tariffs that went some way toward bringing money into the German government coffers.

Bismarck also targeted various political parties, including the Socialists. The German government passed a series of Anti-Socialist Laws in 1878. Partly to block influence of Socialists, Bismarck introduced in the 1880s what is thought to be the world's first welfare state, a set of provisions to aid the poor.

In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I died. His son Frederick succeeded him, becoming Kaiser Frederick III. But this kaiser lasted just 99 days on the throne before dying of cancer. He was succeeded by his son, who became Kaiser Wilhelm II.

This Kaiser Wilhelm did not want Bismarck to run things as the Chancellor had under the older Kaiser Wilhelm. Emperor and Chancellor struggled for a tense two years before Wilhelm demanded, and got, Bismarck's resignation. 

The Iron Chancellor lived just eight years after he left government. He published his memoirs but was not again involved in politics. His legacy was as a strong leader on the world stage and one of the architects of the Unification of Germany.

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