Founder of the German Empire. For nearly three decades he shaped the fortunes of Germany

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Otto Von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) is considered the founder of the German Empire.  For nearly three decades he shaped the fortunes of Germany, from 1862 to 1873 as Prime Minister of Prussia and from 1871 to 1890 as Germany’s first Chancellor.

After reading law at the Universities of Göttingen and Berlin, Otto von Bismarck entered Prussian service and became a judicial administrator at Aachen.  Bismarck gained prominence (importance) in 1851 when he was chosen to represent Prussia in the Diet (Parliament).

In 1859 he was sent as ambassador to Russia, from where he was recalled in March 1862 to become ambassador to France.  However, after six months Bismarck returned to Berlin as Prime Minister of Prussia, after which he devoted himself to the task of uniting Germany.

In the war of 1866 he succeeded in defeating Austria and excluding it altogether from German affairs.  The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) similarly ended with Prussian success.  Both the 1866 war against Austria and the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war were geared towards German unification.

Bismarck’s victory in 1866 against Austria led the kingdoms of Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse to join the North German Alliance (an alliance of Prussia and 17 northern German states created by Bismarck in the same year). This in turn led to the declaration of the German Empire (Deutsches Reich) in 1870 and the proclamation of King Wilhelm I of Prussia as German Emperor in Versailles in 1871. It was particularly important that Wilhelm was proclaimed Emperor in France, as it was desperately humiliating for the French and would cause a strong desire for revenge.

The Imperial Constitution was declared in April 1871.  Bismarck was appointed Imperial Chancellor.  The Chancellor of the Reich was not responsible to Parliament but to the Emperor.  The Reichstag, the Imperial Parliament, was convened by universal, equal, direct and secret elections.  Next to the Emperor, it was the second most important institution.  However, its political influence was limited to the area of legislation (passing laws).  It exerted only a minor influence over the formation of governments and government policy.

Characteristic of the Reich was the restriction of the peoples’ representation. The system was described at the time as a "Chancellor Dictatorship".

It was Bismarck as Imperial Chancellor who decided upon policy outlines and who proposed the appointment and dismissal of State Secretaries who were, in turn, responsible for the administration of the Ministries of the Reich.

Bismarck’s greatest achievements were administrative reforms: developing a common currency, a central bank and a single code of commercial and civil law for Germany.

Bismarck also became the first statesman in Europe to devise a comprehensive scheme of social security to counter the Social Democrats, offering workers insurance against accident, sickness and old age.

In foreign affairs Bismarck was a master of alliances and counter-alliances. He presided over the Congress of Berlin (1872) diplomatic meeting. Bismarck’s role in the Congress of Berlin symbolised his paramount position as mediator between the great powers (Russia, Austria, France and Great Britain). 

An alliance with Austria-Hungary (1879) marked a new period of conservatism in Bismarck’s foreign policy. But by 1890 his policies began to come under attack.  On March 18 1890 two years after Emperor Wilhelm II’s accession, Bismarck was forced to resign.  His last years were devoted to composing his memoirs.

Wilhelm I

Wilhelm (William) I (1797-1888) was the seventh King of Prussia and the first German Emperor or Kaiser. Under the leadership of Wilhelm and his Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, Prussia achieved the unification of Germany and the establishment of the German Empire.

On January 2 1861 Frederick William, William I’s older brother, died following a stroke and William ascended the throne as William I of Prussia. He inherited a conflict between Frederick William and the Liberal Parliament. He was considered a politically neutral person, nevertheless he found a conservative solution for the conflict: he appointed Bismarck to the office of Prime Minister. According to the Prussian constitution, the Prime Minister was responsible solely to the King, not to Parliament. It was Bismarck as Prime Minister who effectively directed politics, interior as well as foreign. On several occasions he gained William's assent by threatening to resign.

In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, after defeating Emperor Napoleon III, William was proclaimed German Emperor on January 18, 1871 in Versailles Palace. It was particularly important that Wilhelm was proclaimed Emperor in France, as this caused great resentment and desire for revenge amongst the defeated French. When Wilhelm became Kaiser, the North German Confederation (1867-1871) was transformed into the German Empire "Kaiserreich" (1871-1918).

Wilhelm was immediately confronted with a crisis at the beginning of the reign that could have resulted in his abdication. Parliament refused to vote for the military reforms and expansion that Wilhelm thought essential. Roon, who he had appointed Minister of War, urged him to implement the reforms without Parliament's approval. Roon precipitated a crisis by declaring in Parliament that at important moments the Crown must not be dependant on changing Parties and Parliamentary speeches. Wilhelm hesitated to act outside of Parliament and in the ensuing crisis, Roon sent for Bismarck.

Wilhelm was not in favour of appointing Bismarck as Prime Minister and was close to abdication. He told Bismarck that he did not wish to reign if his plans were to be blocked by Parliament. When Bismarck told him that he would support the reorganization, Wilhelm decided against abdication and appointed Bismarck.

Their relationship was at first tentative. Bismarck was able to get Wilhelm the expanded army and military reforms he so desperately wanted. The Prussian Government, under the guidance of Bismarck, began to pursue domestic and international policies designed to make Prussia the dominant force in the German Confederation, which had previously been dominated by Austria. The policies executed by Bismarck were brilliantly conceived and included the suppression of the Prussian democratic movement, expansion of the military and an aggressive attitude toward Austria. Here Bismarck's diplomacy combined with Roon's enlarged Army led to a series of stunning victories. The first outward manifestation of the policy was war with Denmark and the seizure of Danish possessions (Schleswig-Holstein 1864). After that, the struggle with Austria over supremacy among German states was quickly settled through warfare. The ensuing Prussian victory (1866) established the Hohenzollern's as Germany's premier royal family. Several German States were adsorbed by Prussia.

The last obstacle to the creation of the German state was France, ruled by Emperor Napoleon III. The Prussian victory over Austria had fundamentally changed continental power relationships. Napoleon III was confronted with the emergence of a united German state with all that implied for the balance of power in Europe. A diplomatic dispute arising out of Bismarck's attempt to secure the vacant Spanish throne for a Hohenzollern, provided the French Government with a reason to declare war on Prussia (1870). The efficiently organized Prussian Army aided with forces of other German states decimated the army of the French Second Empire, which collapsed on September 4 1870 at the Battle of Sedan. Continued resistance by a new French Republic proved futile and Paris fell in 1871. The peace which followed the Franco-Prussian war resulted in huge indemnities (fined against the French), as well as the Prussian seizure of Alsace Loraine; virtually ensuring a future war between the two countries.

Under the control of Prussia, its largest state, Germany was united into a federal system in 1871. Although outwardly, Imperial Germany was the most powerful country in Europe, the imperial edifice had some basic weaknesses. Bismarck's brilliance had enabled a Prussian landed (land owners) military caste to unify Germany. However, the German Empire was situated between the Russian colossus (giant) and France who, due to the seizure of Alsace-Loraine, was a humiliated enemy.

The German Empire in the 1880s had a royal family with three generations living together. It was arguably the most powerful state in the world. Few realized then that the Empire would not survive the second generation and the baby born to the future Wilhelm II would never inherit the throne.

Wilhelm I died in 1888. 1888 was to be known as the “Year Of The Three Emperors”, because his son Frederick was also sick and dying and only ruled for 3 months. As a result it would be Wilhelm I's grandson that would inherit the throne in 1888 as Wilhelm II. Before dying, Wilhelm I summoned Bismarck to his bed and, knowing that his son was dying, begged him to pledge assistance his grandson Wilhelm II.

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