• Germany's news in English

Bismarck is Germany's first Chancellor

The Local · 19 Mar 2015, 16:41

Published: 19 Mar 2015 16:41 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Bismarck divides opinion: for some he is the ultimate exponent of political manoeuvring, for others a war obsessed tyrant, but one thing is certain – he was the original founder of the German state.

As Minister President of Prussia in the 1860s, Bismarck used brief, successful wars against Denmark, Austria and France to rally support for the dominant Prussia from the other smaller states, which would eventually lead to the unification of Germany in 1871.

The most famous of these was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. Bismarck provoked an attack from the French Second Empire, drawing the southern German states into an alliance with the North German Federation (led by Prussia).

The crushing victory over the French became a central factor in uniting the northern and southern states into the German nation-state in 1871.

Bismarck himself came from the Prussian Junker noble class, which meant his background was aristocratic, traditional and oriented towards military glory.

Proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, (Anton von Werner, 1885). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Iron Chancellor

The Local spoke to Prof. Ulrich Lappenküper, chairman of the Otto von Bismarck Foundation, who shared some of his expertise on the Iron Chancellor.

He said that a lot is uncertain when looking at Bismarck, with some modern historians even questioning his importance in shaping history.

One undisputed fact is that after becoming Chancellor of the newly united state in 1871, Bismarck managed to maintain a period of peace and stability in Europe through his incredible diplomatic skills.

The chaos that followed his forced resignation in 1890 is testament to the role he played in steering the continent through tense times.

Wilhelm II's foreign policy became much more reckless after he lost the man who had made his grandfather Emperor (Kaiser) of all the Germans - and the decision may have contributed to the outbreak of the First World War.

Even close to his end in 1898, Bismarck could see that without him the Empire was heading for calamity.

"Jena [the Prussians' great defeat at the hands of Napoleon] came twenty years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this," he said.

In the event, he was just a few months out.

Man of contradictions

Despite his formidable skills, Dr. Lappenküper questioned whether they would be suitable for the complex crises going on in Europe today.

And his time in power shows how he was a "leader of many contradictions", as Dr. Lappenküper described him.

While Bismarck was the first leader to introduce social security laws in the 1880s, he didn't do so out of a sense of moral obligation, but the hope to boost his country's economic growth with healthier, happier workers.

He conducted a diplomatic campaign against the Catholic Church, hoping to have European leaders agree among themselves on suitable candidates for Pope in a revival of fears of excessive papal power.

And he was notorious for oppressing minorities within the new German state, including Danes in the north, French in Alsace-Lorraine and Poles in the east.

1848 vs. 1871

"The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood," Bismarck said in perhaps his most famous pronouncement, referring to the failed revolutions of 1848.

He rejected the liberalism and egalitarian ideals that were originally associated with the push towards a German nation state before 1848, and which were exemplified in the black, red and gold flag used by the revolutionaries - which would later become the flag of the German nation.

Story continues below…

Instead he tied the concept of the German nation with war, power and conservatism.

The idealism of the Frankfurt Parliament and the 1848 revolutions were erased by his pragmatism and conservation of power, often known as realpolitik – no overarching political beliefs, but instead pure opportunism for self-interested ends.

Complex Legacy

Bismarck's legacy remains a topic for debate today, and Dr. Lappenküper said he strongly disagreed with the idea that Bismarck paved the way for the Third Reich.

There is a stream of thought among German historians who depict Bismarck as "Dämon der Deutschen" (the demon of the Germans), but Lappenküper dismissed this myth as "nonsense"

Although similarities can be drawn between Bismarck and Hitler, such as their common disdain for socialism, Lappenküper doesn’t accept anything more concrete.

"There were too many decisions made and too many different possibilities in the intervening period for any firm links to be established," he said.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
These are Germany's top ten universities
The new library of Freiburg University. Photo: Jörgens.mi / Wikimedia Commons

These are the best universities in all of Germany - at least according to one ranking.

Introducing Swabians - 'the Scots of Germany'
Photo: DPA

These Southern Germans have quite a reputation in the rest of the country.

Woman sues dentist over job rejection for headscarf
Photo: DPA

A dentist in Stuttgart is being taken to court by a woman whom he rejected for a job as his assistant on the basis that she wears a Muslim headscarf.

Isis suspect charged with scouting Berlin attack sites
Photo: DPA

German federal prosecutors said Thursday they had brought charges against a 19-year-old Syrian man accused of having scouted targets in Berlin for a potential attack by the Isis terror group.

Berlin Holocaust memorial could not be built now: creator
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. Photo: DPA.

The architect of the Berlin Holocaust memorial has said that, if he tried to build the monument again today, it would not be possible due to rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Germany and the United States.

'Liberal' Germany stopping Europe's 'slide into barbarism'
Ian Kershaw. Photo: DPA

Europe is not slipping into the same dark tunnel of hate and nationalism that it did in the 1930s - mainly thanks to Germany - one of the continent's leading historians has said.

Eurowings strike to hit 40,000 passengers
Travelers impacted by the strike on Thursday wait at Cologne Bonn airport. Photo: DPA.

The day-long strike by a Eurowings cabin crew union is expected to impact some 40,000 passengers on Thursday as hundreds of flights have been cancelled.

Deutsche Bank reports surprise quarter billion profit
Photo: DPA

Troubled German lender Deutsche Bank reported Thursday a surprise €256-million profit in the third quarter, compared with a loss of more than six billion in the same period last year.

US 'warned Merkel' against Chinese takeover of tech firm
Aixtron HQ. Photo: DPA

The German government withdrew its approval for a Chinese firm to purchase Aixtron, which makes semiconductor equipment, after the US secret services raised security concerns, a German media report said Wednesday.

Long-vanished German car brand joins electric race
Photo: DPA

Cars bearing the stamp of once-defunct manufacturer Borgward will once again roll off an assembly line in north Germany from 2018, the firm said Wednesday.

10 German clichés that foreigners get very wrong
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
10 ways German completely messes up your English
Germany's 10 most weird and wonderful landmarks
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd