Bismarck, Otto Eduard Leopold von

Bismarck, Otto Eduard Leopold von
(1815–1898)
   Known as the “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck was a European statesman, the architect of German unification, and the first Chancellor of the German Empire. Born into a conservative Junker family from Pomerania, Bismarck went on to study law before entering the Prussian civil service in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848. From 1851 to 1859, he served as chief Prussian delegate to the Frankfurt Diet where he frequently clashed with his Austrian counterparts over federal policy and their leadership of the German Confederation. Bismarck distinguished himself as an able diplomat during stints as Prussian ambassador to Russia, 1859–1862, and France in 1862, before being appointed Prussian Chancellor in 1862 as part of an effort to break a parliamentary crisis over army reforms.
   Soon after his appointment as chancellor, Bismarck orchestrated German unification under Prussian leadership via the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars, in 1866 and 1870–1871. The German Empire was officially created in January 1871 with the coronation of Wilhelm I as Kaiser. Thereafter, Bismarck assumed a dual role as Prussian and Imperial Chancellor and committed his political career to safeguarding the newly unified German state. As part of this process, he not only created and controlled a complex alliance system aimed at preserving the balance of power in Europe, but also oversaw a series of domestic social welfare reforms designed to ease the sting of rapid industrialization and ensure continued Prussian dominance. Although earlier in his career Bismarck had been a vocal opponent of colonialism, arguing that colonies would generate unnecessary political dangers and expense, in the mid-1880s, he oversaw the creation of a German colonial Empire. The reason for the sudden reversal of his anticolonial policy remains the subject of historical debate, with explanations ranging from a simple change of heart, a calculated response to domestic political pressures, or the desire for Germany to keep pace with other great nations in Europe. The combination of Belgian activities in the Congo and growing pressure from German colonial interest groups convinced Bismarck to play host to the Conference of Berlin in 1884–1885, which sought to guarantee free trade in the Congo River basin and laid ground rules for the partition of Africa. In the mid- 1880s, Germany quickly acquired colonies in Cameroon, Togo (now parts of Ghana and Togo), German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania), German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), New Guinea, and various Pacific Islands. Despite years of loyal and effective service, starting in 1888, Bismarck began quarreling with the brash, ambitious, and egotistical new Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1890, he resigned and spent the remainder of his life working on his memoirs and engaging in vocal criticism of the Kaiser and his government.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Crankshaw, Edward. Bismarck. New York: Viking Press, 1981;
    Feuchtwanger, E. J. Bismarck. New York: Routledge, 2002;
    Förster, Stig, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson, eds. Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: the Berlin Africa Conference 1884-1885 and the Onset of Partition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988;
    Waller, Bruce. Bismarck. Oxford: Blackwell 1997;
    Wehler, Hans Ulrich. The German Empire, 1871-1918. New York: Berg Publishers, 1997;
    Williamson, D. G. Bismarck and Germany, 1862-1890. New York: Longman, 1998.
   KENNETH J. OROSZ

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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