Posts Tagged ‘German unification’

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)


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of



Germanys Unite through Treuhandanstalt

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

How did the two Germanys unite economically after the fall of the Wall? Through a Treuhandanstalt. West Germany was built on a free market system. East Germany was based on a state planned economy. In order for the two Germanys to reunite after the collapse of East Germany in 1989, a common system had to be created.

Creation of a Treuhandanstalt

In mid-1990, East Germany’s legislature created a trust agency, called Treuhandanstalt, which was to become the legal owner of all state-owned property of the former East Germany. On 3 October 1990, the date of the formal German Unification, this holding company was put in charge of privatizing and restructuring around 14,000 state-owned companies, agricultural lands and forests, public housing, property of the former Ministry for State Security (Stasi), and holdings of the former National People’s Army.

Problems facing the Treuhandanstalt

Most of the factories in East Germany had never been modernized so that their productivity was on par with that of developing countries. Following unification, East Germany products simply were no longer in demand. Only high tech enterprises, such as Jenoptik in Jena, Opel in Eisenach, the steelworks EKO, and the Baltic shipyards were considered profitable enough to be restructured. (

Treuhandanstalt is criticized

The operations of the Treuhandanstalt quickly drew criticism. The agency was accused of unnecessarily closing profitable businesses, misusing or wasting funds, and unnecessarily laying off workers (approximately two-and-a-half million employees in state-owned enterprises were laid off in the early 1990s). Affected workforces protested. Supporters of Treuhandanstalt operations argued that not placing these former state-owned enterprises into private hands would cause the loss of even more jobs and slow down economic recovery.

Treuhandanstalt is disbanded

In the end, the trust agency left debts amounting to 137 billion Euros. On this day in history, on 31 December 1994 the Treuhandanstalt was disbanded.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.