Otto von Bismarck—Germany’s Iron Chancellor

From the lecture series: European History and European Lives — 1715 to 1914

By Jonathan Steinberg, PhD, University of Pennsylvania

Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), the “Iron Chancellor,” unified Germany in three wars and came to embody everything brutal and ruthless about Prussian culture. The real Bismarck had a different character—a hypochondriac, a brilliant and well-read man, a convert to an extreme form of Protestant mysticism, and one of the few Prussians who never served in the king’s army.

Monument of the Reichskanzler Otto von Bismarck
Monument of the Reichskanzler Otto von Bismarck on horseback near the Cathedral of St. Peter in Bremen, Germany, March 2019. (Image:paparazzza/Shutterstock)

Otto von Bismarck’s background was unusual for someone of his aristocratic status. He had a thoroughly middle-class education, and it gave him a peculiar status in Prussian life. He never served in the Prussian army, which meant that for some old Prussian types, he was a “pen-pusher”; and of course, he was too clever, and cleverness isn’t a virtue among aristocrats. They like good, solid chaps, but not people who are too bright.

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Otto von Bismarck was born on the family estate Schönhausen, in the Mark of Brandenburg, on April 1, 1815. His father was from an old Brandenburg aristocratic family. Bismarck used to say that the Bismarcks were nobler than the Hohenzollerns, the ruling house, because they were older. His mother Wilhelmine Mencken, however, was bourgeois, the daughter of a prominent Prussian civil servant.

This is a transcript from the video series European History and European Lives: 1715 to 1914. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

His mother was the dominant influence in his life. His father was rather weak, and it was she who decided that he’d go to gymnasium—a German high school in which Latin and Greek were taught—and not to a military academy, which was very unusual.

Oceans of ink have been poured out trying to understand whether Bismarck’s conversion was genuine.

He went to university at Göttingen and Bonn, where he studied law, an unheard-of shame for an aristocrat because it was a low bourgeois profession. Although practically all the pictures of Bismarck show him in uniform, he never served in the army. After holding minor judicial administrative offices, he quit with a characteristic Bismarckian flourish: “If I cannot play first violin,” he wrote to a friend, “I shall not make music at all.”

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Finding Love and Religion

Photograph of Bismarck with his wife. Richard Carstensen. Bismarck anecdotal Munich: Bechtle Verlag. 1981
Bismarck with his wife (Image: Richard Carstensen/Public domain)

The years on his estate turned out to be formative, and his letters from that period are wonderful. He fell in love with the sister of a friend, a noble lady who belonged to the Pietist Christians; German Pietism is a form of “born again” spiritual Christianity, which rejected the so-called “walled churches.” What’s interesting about this, though, is that a group of aristocrats became converted to this Pietist movement. Bismarck eventually married her equally aristocratic and Christian friend Johanna von Puttkamer.

This Christian spiritual connection in the Pietist movement counted among its numbers the most influential aristocratic families, and by marrying into it, Bismarck got connections at court with the king and crown prince, which he otherwise would not have had. He, therefore, owed his political career, paradoxically, to this Christian conversion, and oceans of ink have been poured out trying to understand whether Bismarck’s conversion was genuine.

Oceans of ink have been poured out trying to understand whether Bismarck’s conversion was genuine.

He owed his political career to the von Thaddens, the von Blanckenburgs, the von Puttkamers, and, above all, to the two von Gerlach brothers, who helped him, in the early stages of the revolution, to get elected to the Landtag, the Prussian parliament, and then to begin to write for the new reactionary newspaper.

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Bismarck Takes the Political Stage

Portrait of Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen
Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen 1862 (Image: By German Federal Archives/Public domain)

The first authentic Bismarckian tones were heard in a famous speech on December 2, 1850, when the Prussian parliament debated the so-called “Shame of Olmütz,” a treaty forced on Prussia by Austria. Bismarck coolly got up and defended it on “realist” grounds: “The honor of Prussia does not in my view consist to playing Don Quixote to every offended parliamentary bigwig in Germany who feels his local constitution is in jeopardy,” he sneered.

One of the von Gerlach daughters was in the visitor’s gallery, and she said, “Bismarck has no principles; he is like Frederick the Great in 1740. He just does what politics requires.”

Bismarck’s oratorical brilliance gained him an amazing promotion to be the Prussian minister to the German Diet of Frankfurt from 1851 to 1859, where his “realism in politics,” called realpolitik, horrified his former patrons, who remained Christian conservatives and persons of principle.

The break came when Bismarck defended the establishment of the French Second Empire of Napoleon III because he kept order, but the Gerlachs hated him as a revolutionary, a “red.” He denied that he’d been taken in by Napoleon III. In a letter to Leopold von Gerlach, he wrote: “The man doesn’t impress me at all. The ability to admire people is but moderately developed in me, not unlike a defect of vision that gives me a sharper eye for weaknesses than for strengths.”

Foreign Policy without Sympathy

Bismarck rejected emotions and ideologies in his foreign policy. “You cannot play chess if sixteen out of sixty-four squares are blocked in advance,” and “sympathies and antipathies with regard to foreign powers and personalities are something my sense of duty in the foreign service of my country will not allow me to justify.”

This new tone of realism made Bismarck feared and distrusted in Prussian upper-class circles. King Frederick William IV wrote in the margins of a dispatch, “Bismarck— only to be used when the bayonet rules without limit.”

Bismarck’s realpolitik was then and remains today, a disturbing form of foreign political activity. Bismarck refused to allow sympathy, principle, or even his religious convictions to influence his policy. He announced in 1887: “No great power can, in the long run, be guided by a treaty which conflicts with the real interests of the country.”

Without understanding the peculiar chemistry of Bismarck’s relationship with the king, Bismarck’s career cannot be understood.

Painting showing proclamation of Prussian king Wilhelm I as German Emperor at Versailles, by Anton von Werner 1885
 Proclamation of Wilhelm I as German emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Bismarck is in the center, wearing a white uniform. (Image: By Anton von Werner – Museen Nord/Public domain) (Image: By Anton von Werner – Museen Nord/Public domain)

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Reform, Revolution, or Royal Support

Bismarck became minister-president on September 22, 1862, because the entire Prussian state faced a possible revolution. The Austro-French War, which had led to the unification of Italy, led to a threat of war in general, but Prussia was immobilized. The failure of the army to mobilize properly led to the establishment of a military reform commission, which recommended a complete change of service conditions. The draft was to be extended from two to three years and then to be followed by five years in active service. At a stroke, the Prussians would have a better-trained army, and it would grow in size by 50%.

The liberal parties campaigned against the reforms because they gave parliament no say, and because, once again, the king and the aristocratic generals wished to impose change from above. Successive elections produced huge majorities against the army and the king.

The minister of war in 1859 was Albrecht von Roon, who knew that Bismarck was the only person in the regime clever enough to have solved this problem. On September 18, 1862, he sent a famous telegram to Bismarck that said, “There’s danger in delay; make haste.” Bismarck appeared in Berlin and went to see the king, an audience that changed the history of the world.

Bismarck used his literary talent to convince the king that he’d be no more than the loyal obedient servant. When the king asked him if he would stand by royal policy even if it led to violence, Bismarck used dramatic language: “I feel like … a vassal who sees his liege lord in danger. Whatever I’m capable of is at your Majesty’s disposal.”

Common Questions About Otto von Bismarck

Q: What makes Otto von Bismarck a famous historical figure?

Otto von Bismarck unified a divided Germany into a distinct nation and helped to establish a strong national identity among Germans.

Q: How did Otto von Bismarck unify Germany?

Otto von Bismarck was a brilliant strategist in multiple wars between Germany and France, Austria, and Denmark. This quality, along with his leadership in Prussia, helped him bring together German states that had become independent.

Q: Did Otto von Bismarck unify with Realpolitik?

Otto von Bismarck did engage in Realpolitik to start wars and manipulate political conditions, which ultimately helped him succeed in unification.

Q: Who fired Otto von Bismarck?

Otto von Bismarck was made to resign by Kaiser William the II. William was the new emperor of Germany and clashed with Otto von Bismarck as chancellor over personal as well as political points.

This article was updated on December 1, 2020

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