Germany became a unified and modern nation under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor”, who effectively ruled first Prussia and then all of Germany from 1862 to 1890. A master strategist, von Bismarck initiated decisive wars with Austria, Denmark and France to unite under Prussian leadership 39 independent German states.
Though he was an arch-conservative, Bismarck introduced progressive reforms, including the establishment of the first welfare state and universal male suffrage, in order to achieve his goals. Manipulating European rivalries, he made Germany a world power, but this also laid the groundwork for both world wars. Here are the accomplishments of von Bismarck:
He Assumed Significant Political Roles At a Young Age.
Von Bismarck was educated in Berlin, and after attending university, he took a series of minor diplomatic posts. In 1847, he married and was sent to Berlin as a delegate to the new Prussian parliament, where he was seen as a reactionary voice against the anti-autocratic, liberal Revolutions of 1848. He also served a series of ambassadorships from 1851 to 1862 at the German Confederation in Frankfurt, Paris and St. Petersburg, which gave him valuable insight into the vulnerabilities of the great powers of Europe.
He Became Chief Minister Of The Prussian King William I.
A year after William I became the King of Prussia in 1861, von Bismarck was appointed as the king’s chief minister. Though technically deferring to William, von Bismarck was actually in charge, manipulating the king with his intellect (and occasional tantrum) while circumventing the power of elected officials using royal decrees. In 1864, von Bismarck started a series of wars that would establish Prussian power in Europe. He led an attack against Denmark to gain the territories of Schleswig-Holstein and, 2 years later, provoked Emperor Franz-Josef I into starting the Austro-Prussian War, which concluded in a quick defeat for the Austrian empire. Suring this time, von Bismarck declined to levy a war indemnity against Austria.
He Unified The Loose German Confederations.
Von Bismarck was less discreet in his ordeal of the Franco-Prussian War from 1870 to 1871. When he saw an opportunity to unify the loose confederations of Germany against an outside enemy, he stimulated political tensions between Prussia and France, famously editing a telegram from William I to make both nations feel insulted by each other. This led to France declaring war, but the Prussians, with their German allies, won handily. Prussia then levied an indemnity, annexing the French border provinces of Lorraine and Alsace, and crowned William as emperor of a unified Germany—the 2nd Reich—in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
He Created The First Modern Welfare State In Europe.
With the unification of Germany, William I and Bismarck turned to entrenching their domestic power. Von Bismarck pursued a cultural struggle against Catholics for much of the 1870s by placing parochial schools under state control and expelling the Jesuits. But in 1878, he relented and allied with the Catholics against the growing socialist threat. In the 1880s, he set aside his conservative impulses to fight the socialists by creating the first modern welfare state in Europe, establishing national healthcare and old age pensions.
When William I died in 1888, von Bismarck was forced out, leaving William II in control of a flourishing unified state but ill-equipped to sustain the carefully manipulated balance of international rivalries by von Bismarck. He was respected and honored by the time of his death, quickly becoming a quasi-mythic figure that was invoked by political leaders who called for strong German leadership.