Two Hundred Years Ago Today Bismarck was Born

Chancellor Angela Merkel has one thing in common with Otto von Bismarck. She dominates European politics. But what a difference!­ Would she have said, as her predecessor did, “The great questions of the day will be decided by blood and iron”?

BismarckBeginning in the revolutionary year 1848, the many elements that made up Germany could have proceeded towards unification along liberal democratic lines, or in a conservative militaristic spirit under the leadership of Prussia. The wrong path was taken. Thanks to Bismarck’s unique political gifts, unification, when it came in 1871, was achieved after the third military victory in wars he had provoked – against Denmark, Austria, France. The Second Reich he created became conservative and militaristic. Its constitution was non-democratic. When he spoke in the Reichstag, he invariably wore a uniform.

Bismarck was a giant. His gifts consisted of single-mindedness, high intelligence, a masterful grasp of strategy, an intuitive understanding of the psychology of his opponents, and a low opinion of mankind. It is one of the ironies of history that he introduced health, old age and disability insurance, the building stones of the modern welfare state. He did it not for any humanitarian reasons but to defang his socialist opposition.

After having achieved unification, he governed Germany for nearly another twenty years, making every effort to avoid war, seeing to it that Germany had good relations with Russia and resisting the temptation to acquire colonies in competition with England and France.

He was unable to see that the non-democratic Germany he created could only survive in the long run if it was governed with his skills. Once the country was under the control of the young, brash, theatrical Kaiser Wilhelm II, who thought he could do without Bismarck and who had none of his talents, the road was downhill all the way. The person ultimately responsible for the disaster was Bismarck, not the Kaiser who eventually turned out to be a mere tool of the general staff. It was Bismarck who had laid the ground for the catastrophe.

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4 responses to “Two Hundred Years Ago Today Bismarck was Born

  1. Thank you for this masterful assessment of Bismarck’s career and influence.

  2. Fred Langan

    Bismarck’s great granddaughter lives in Toronto. There are branches of the family who are rich and socially prominent; this line is not one of them. I wrote onituaries of both her parents.

  3. I would not criticise Bismark for creating a modern state with world leading social benefits, even if those were introduced to lessen support for his political opponents.
    That alone suggests that Bismark’s Germany had a working democracy with a government and an opposition.
    That he did not foresee the damage that could be done once his creation was in the hands of lesser individuals is a tragedy.
    It led to a highly militaristic society, but can Bismark really be blamed for not putting in place stronger checks and balances to prevent the usurpation of German democracy.
    Looking at Germany’s neighbors in the 1860s suggests that they were in no better state and in most cases were far worse.

  4. You are right that one should not blame Bismarck for not being able to foresee the future. But for him: après moi le déluge. There was something mean and vindictive about his character, unlike that of another giant, de Gaulle, who cared deeply about what would happen after him. As to the nature of democracy in the Second Reich, it would not pass today’s standards.