Posts Tagged ‘cultural struggle’

Otto von Bismarck – visionary or villain?

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was a powerful Prussian statesman, credited with unifying 25 previously independent German states in 1871. As a result of the unification, Germany became one of the most powerful nations in Europe. During most of his nearly 30-year tenure, Bismarck held undisputed control over the government’s policies.

Bismarck’s rise

Born in 1815 to a Prussian nobleman, Bismarck spent his early years studying law and running the family estate. In 1847, he became a delegate to the new Prussian parliament in Berlin. From 1851 to 1862 he held various ambassadorships: he served as an ambassador at the German Confederation in Frankfurt, in St. Petersburg (Russia) and in Paris (France). These posts gave him valuable insight into weaknesses of the great powers of Europe, an understanding he later used to his advantage.

In 1862, Prussian King Wilhelm I appointed him as his Minister President and Foreign Minister. Although technically subservient to the king, it was Bismarck who actually pulled the government strings. In the mid-1860s he orchestrated and won three successive short wars against Denmark, Austria and France. He engineered the wars in order to unify the German states into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. In 1871, Wilhelm I became Emperor and raised Otto von Bismarck’s rank to Fuerst (Prince). The Emperor then appointed him as the first Reichskanzler (Imperial Chancellor) of the German Empire.

For much of the 1870s Bismarck pursued a Kulturkampf (cultural struggle) against Catholicism by placing parochial schools under state control and expelling the Jesuits. But in 1878 Bismarck reversed his position and aligned himself with the Catholics against what he perceived to be a growing socialist threat. To gain the support of the working class and to stave-off calls for more radical socialist alternatives, Bismarck created the world’s first comprehensive government social safety net by establishing national healthcare (1883), accident insurance (1884) and old age pensions (1889). In 1890, following the death of King Wilhelm I, Bismarck resigned at Wilhelm II’s insistence.


Otto von Bismarck statue across from the victory column in Berlin, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2016,

Otto von Bismarck statue across from the victory column in Berlin, photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2016,

Bismarck – the visionary

Many historians praise Bismarck as a visionary for uniting Germany while keeping the peace in Europe. He was able to do so through skilled diplomacy and powerful rule at home and by carefully manipulating the balance of international rivalries. Bismarck has been called a master strategist who possessed not only a long-term national and international vision but also the short-term ability to juggle multi-faceted developments.

 U.S. historian William L. Langer, sums up the statesman by saying, “Bismarck at least deserves full credit for having steered European politics through this dangerous transitional period without serious conflict between the great powers.” (Langer, European Alliances and Alignments: 1871–1890 pp 503–04)

Bismarck – the villain

Other historians condemn Bismarck as a villain who dominated his cabinet ministers and smeared their reputations as soon as he no longer needed them. The historian Jonathan Steinberg portrays him as a demonic genius who was deeply vengeful, even toward his closest friends and family members. Bismarck’s friend, German diplomat Kurd von Schloezer, describes him as a kind of evil genius who successfully concealed his contempt for his fellow men while being determined to control and ruin them. British historian Richard J. Evans states that Bismarck was “intimidating and unscrupulous, playing to others’ frailties, not their strengths.” (Evans ,February 23, 2012, “The Gambler in Blood and Iron,” New York Review of Books)


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