Otto Von Bismarck was made Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Prussia by I in 1862. He stayed in power until 1890. His conduct of foreign policy between 1862 and 1871 is one of the most fascinating and complex parts of the nineteenth century. It ended with the unification of Germany on 18th January 1871, under Prussian dominance, with King William of Prussia being coroneted as Kaiser in Versailles. The German unification is possibly the most important and significant events in history, as it has had so many effects and consequences across the whole world, and still does to this day.
One of the most widely debated topics of the nineteenth century is to what extent is Bismarck responsible for the unification. Basically, was Bismarck’s foreign policy more about conscious design, or a policy by default largely determined by other key personalities and events? Some people try and say that Bismarck was always heading towards German unification, and that he had been planning how to get there all along; but actually, Bismarck hardly planned a thing – he instead was just very good at taking things as they came. His main aim was to strengthen Prussia, and make it into a stronger country.
An example of how Bismarck did not plan what he did is how he came to power. He was not elected, so he was not planning ways in which to gain votes etc. ; instead, he was suddenly catapulted from being ambassador to St. Petersburg, and then Paris, to being chancellor of Prussia. Bismarck was also known for his personality. It was this that initially got him to where he was. He was nicknamed ‘The Iron Chancellor”, and he fitted this name very well. In 1862, when William was refused money by liberals to pay for his army, he threatened to abdicate, but was persuaded to elect Bismarck as chancellor instead.
Everybody who knew Bismarck knew him as being wild, and a bully, a conservative, an army man, and as being a ‘Machiavellian’. He was cunning, scheming, unscrupulous, vicious, manipulative, calculating, brutal, and devious, and also very good at improvising. It was these things that William liked about him, and Williams’s expectations of Bismarck were achieved. Immediately after being put in office, Bismarck suspended the constitution and gave the army the money it needed. Now he was in control of Prussia as it was maturing and reaching power.
Another event that shows how Bismarck did not plan things is the Danish Crisis in Schleswig and Holstein in 1864. Some people say that Bismarck planned this, and did it to get Austria involved, and to be nice to her by giving her some land, but which he could take at any time as it was next to Prussia, and cause up rise. In reality, Denmark unexpectedly attempted to annex Schleswig and Holstein, and Bismarck just saw a chance to gain some land, respect, popularity, and a small advantage over Austria; he did not previously plan any of this, he just ‘played the cards he was dealt well’ e. g. e ended up doing it with Austria – this made him look good in front of everyone else, and also lulled Austria into a false sense of security.
This was a first step towards Bismarck thinking cleverly about how he could get an upper hand over Austria. Although Bismarck did not necessarily plan all of the things that he did, he was very good at playing what came along well, and thinking about all of the consequences of his actions, and how he could use what he had to his best advantage; because of this, he was a great man who was clever and quick thinking, so we have not at all been deceived about him.
It has often been said that Bismarck never meant for what most of what he did to happen, and that what he did was just mainly luck e. g. there was an extraordinary interlude of calmness during his time. This meant that he was able to many things that he should not have been able to do without risking international intervention. Britain is a good example of this international calmness. We were far more concerned with looking after ourselves, and keeping our empire strong and wealthy, than in events in Europe.
The one thing that we did have a view on, and it was a strong view, was that we hated France, and this ended up being good for Bismarck anyway. Austria and France were also calm when Bismarck needed them to be – after Austria lost the war, it took her a reasonable amount of time to recover, and Bismarck used this time wisely; France had previously been hammered during Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Europe, and was hated by many, and so was lying low for some time, and again, Bismarck used this greatly to his advantage. A handful people believe that Bismarck’s legacy is too big for his own good.
As some people say that he caused German unification single-handedly, because this was a huge event which had enormous consequences and effects, people automatically think of Bismarck as being a greater and better person than he actually was, and that he shifted history his way more than he actually did. But, without Bismarck, luck and other things would not have been a big enough factor to cause German unification, and so he was needed, and he was a great man. Bismarck is said to have unified Germany, but there are several other people who contributed to it more than people think, who are often forgotten about, and not so well known.
One of these people is Napoleon III of France. Napoleon III was a very weak, feeble, useless and pathetic ruler. When he was anxious to gain compensation and maintain France’s role as a great power, he was looking at Bismarck and Prussia for anything to grab onto and attack, but Bismarck gave him nothing to react to. This just angered Napoleon even more, and made it easy for Bismarck to use Napoleon when he wanted. Napoleon was such a weak and terrible ruler, that he automatically gave Bismarck an advantage, as Bismarck could easily control Napoleon, and trick him into doing things that he did not realize the consequences of.
Bismarck very easily irritated Napoleon on purpose, but he did not go too far e. g. the Hohenzollem candidature, where Bismarck tried to put a Prussian prince in the Spanish throne. This would mean that Prussia would have a massive advantage, as France would be surrounded by Prussia, and could even face fighting on two fronts. Obviously Napoleon was furious when he heard about this, but Bismarck quickly withdrew the candidature, meaning that Napoleon did not act at all, and Bismarck looked good, as he had withdrawn it ‘to be nice to France’.
Napoleon did not see what was happening, which meant that Bismarck could do almost what he wanted around him. Ludwig of Bavaria was an obstacle to Bismarck. He led the biggest German state (apart from Prussia). When Bismarck was making all of the head of the states agree to letting, acknowledging, and going to William’s coronation of becoming Kaiser of Germany, Ludwig was the only person to refuse, but Bismarck easily got around this problem by coming to an agreement with Ludwig, which was that Ludwig would accept the demands if Bismarck let him keep his ornate postboxes.
This was a major victory for Bismarck, as it was the end of the very old state of Bavaria, which had lots of history, and patriotism, and was at one point a very strong power. Bismarck was controlled and told what to do mainly by William and also by the conservatives and the middle class taxpayers. William especially had absolute control over Bismarck. He had promoted him to chancellor. Prussia’s General (Moltke) was also very important. He was a superb General, and led Prussia’s army very well to its victories.
Bismarck was not a military leader, and without Moltke could possibly not have done nearly as well as he did. Russia was massively important. She did not intervene during Prussia’s wars against Denmark and Austria in 1864 and 1866. If she had, Prussia would have probably lost, leading to a whole different outcome; the war with Austria led to the North German Confederation in 1867. Russia never once stopped the new central power from emerging, even though it was given plenty of opportunities. This may have been because of the Tsar.
He always blamed Austria for his father’s death, and so refused to help her. Bismarck was helped on several occasions by certain countries not intervening – in 1870 with the war with France, Britain did not intervene as she still hated France, neither would Italy, as she owed her acquisition of Venetia to Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866 and also wanted to get the French out of Rome; and Austria was still recovering, and was held back by Russia, who threatened to send in 300,000 men if she got involved. This meant that Bismarck did not need to be scared of fighting on two fronts at all.
Also, without the realignment of the great powers that resulted from the Crimean War, German Unification would probably not have happened. Bismarck himself even said: “It all began with the Crimean War”. Although all of these people and events were important, Bismarck was the fundamental key to the unification. Without him, it would not have happened, so we have not at all been deceived – he was a great man who was the key to the German Unification. When Bismarck came to power, Prussia was coming to its peak in almost every way.
She had a brilliant General (Moltke), she was industrializing – she had amazing railways and weapons and she had a thriving economy. Another help to Bismarck was the fact that Prussia was physically a large state. Some people believe that Bismarck did not need to do much, and he just did well, as it was a coincidence that he was in the right place at the right time. But, although Prussia was doing well at Bismarck’s time, it needed Bismarck to bring it all together, and make it happen! Many people say that German unification was inevitable, and would have happened even if Bismarck had never lived, because of certain preconditions.
For example: nationalism had been growing for many years. This can be shown in the 1848 revolutions; also, it still kept on growing after the revolutions. Nationalism was now a talked about thing – people had written about it, and apart from the monarchs etc. who too were scared of it, people were discussing it among themselves. Also, gradually over the last few decades, there had been becoming less and less German states. Originally there were more than a hundred very small states, similar to the size of a large estate, or maybe a small county today; but as stronger states had engulfed other weaker states, fewer and larger states emerged.
By the time Bismarck was around, there was not much more than twenty states. This gradual reduces in the number of states shows that eventually, there would have been a German unification without Bismarck anyway – he just sped the process up. The 1848 revolutions also showed that there was a want for change already there with the people, even before Bismarck, and so again, there would have been German unification without him. Another thing that shows that there would have been German unification without Bismarck anyway is that the Hapsburg Empire had slowly been on its downfall for many years, starting well before Bismarck’s time.
At the height of its power, the Hapsburg Empire was enormous, and extremely powerful and very autocratic, but it had slowly been becoming less and less of a major power, and other countries were beginning to be able to almost rival it. Many people also say that the struggle between the German states and the struggle between Prussia and Austria had to be settled some time, and this would have happened regardless of whether Bismarck was there or not.
By the time Bismarck came to power, there was as well a want for unification already there, which some say would have caused it anyway if Bismarck had not been there (liberals had wanted unification for a long time, but now there were also others who wanted it, like some of the working class, and some of the middle class – also, there were many who did not think about unification, but would have probably supported it if they could more easily). Also, in 1866, the southern states were becoming increasingly hostile to Prussia, and the other northern states.
A war to resolve the hostility between France and Prussia, and to force the southern states into joining the North German Confederation seemed likely in 1869. This showed that even if Bismarck had not been there, then there would have been the unification anyway. People say that these points show that it was not Bismarck who caused the unification, but it was in fact going to happen anyway; but actually, it was Bismarck who brought all of these separate points together to make the unification happen. Without him these points would not have led to it, they need Bismarck!
He brought these points together, and therefore it was Bismarck who made it possible. So we have not been deceived, as Bismarck was a great man, who shifted these points his way, leading to unification. Bismarck was a great man, and he had a great personality, and was always willing to do things. Bismarck was a great Machiavellian. He was brilliantly sly and cunning, and his truth was flexible. He was happy to put down anyone he needed to, even his friends. He always desired a stronger Prussia, and it was this desire that led to him unifying the German states.
He was fundamentally a conservative, but he cleverly managed to get all different sorts of people to like him, and to be on his side – even many of the liberals. He was very gifted at making people believe something he wanted them to believe, or do what he wanted them to do e. g. he got William to agree to becoming the Kaiser, as he got all of the rulers of the other states to give him the crown. Bismarck was also very good at knowing when to stop – he would irritate someone a lot, but stop just before they exploded. He did this with Napoleon III.
Bismarck also never took any risks that were too big. He always knew what he was doing, even though it often looked the opposite. He would only proceed with something if he was satisfied with his chance of success. This was his key strength – he was an unbelievable decision-maker. This meant that he was also very good at ‘playing things by ear’, which meant that he never had to plan things too far in advance, and he was very good at putting himself into other people’s shoes, and seeing what the consequences of all of his decisions could be.
Bismarck was also very strong willed. He always did what he wanted, and never stopped or hesitated for anything. He was like a steam train going full speed, and having to make hundreds of decisions of what path to take – he was unstoppable. Proof of this is that when he came to power, the majority of people did not want unification, but he still managed to make it happen. William was also nearly useless without Bismarck. He was too weak and slow. Bismarck was a great man, and he certainly did shift history his way when he wanted to.
Courtney from Study Moose
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