Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck and Duke of Lauenburg (German: Otto Eduard Leopold Fürst von Bismarck und Herzog von Lauenburg; Born Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen; 1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), known as Otto von Bismarck (German: [ˈɔtoː fɔn ˈbɪsmark] (listen)), was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890 and was the first Chancellor of the German Empire between 1871 and 1890.
In 1862, King Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck as Minister President of Prussia, a position he would hold until 1890, with the exception of a short break in 1873. He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France. Following the victory against Austria, he abolished the supranational German Confederation and instead formed the North German Confederation as the first German national state in 1867, leading it as Federal Chancellor. This aligned the smaller North German states behind Prussia. Later receiving the support of the independent South German states in the Confederation's defeat of France, he formed the German Empire in 1871, unifying Germany with himself as Imperial Chancellor, while retaining control of Prussia at the same time. The new German nation excluded Austria, which had been Prussia's main opponent for predominance among the German states.
With that accomplished by 1871, he skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to maintain Germany's position in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace. For historian Eric Hobsbawm, it was Bismarck who "remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers". However, his annexation of Alsace-Lorraine gave new fuel to French nationalism and promoted Germanophobia in France. This helped set the stage for the First World War.
Bismarck's diplomacy of realpolitik and powerful rule at home gained him the nickname the "Iron Chancellor". German unification and its rapid economic growth was the foundation to his foreign policy. He disliked colonialism but reluctantly built an overseas empire when it was demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations and alliances, he used his diplomatic skills to maintain Germany's position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.
A master of complex politics at home, Bismarck created the first welfare state in the modern world, with the goal of gaining working class support that might otherwise go to his Socialist enemies. In the 1870s, he allied himself with the Liberals (who were low-tariff and anti-Catholic) and fought the Catholic Church in what was called the Kulturkampf ("culture struggle"). He lost that battle as the Catholics responded by forming a powerful Centre party and using universal male suffrage to gain a bloc of seats. Bismarck then reversed himself, ended the Kulturkampf, broke with the Liberals, imposed protective tariffs, and formed a political alliance with the Centre Party to fight the Socialists. A devout Lutheran, he was loyal to his king, who argued with Bismarck but in the end supported him against the advice of his wife and his heir. While the Reichstag, Germany's parliament, was elected by universal male suffrage, it did not have much control of government policy. Bismarck distrusted democracy and ruled through a strong, well-trained bureaucracy with power in the hands of a traditional Junker elite that consisted of the landed nobility in eastern Prussia. Under Wilhelm I, Bismarck largely controlled domestic and foreign affairs, until he was removed by the young Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, at the age of seventy-five.
Bismarck – a Junker himself – was strong-willed, outspoken and overbearing, but he could also be polite, charming and witty. Occasionally he displayed a violent temper, and he kept his power by melodramatically threatening resignation time and again, which cowed Wilhelm I. He possessed not only a long-term national and international vision but also the short-term ability to juggle complex developments. As the leader of what historians call "revolutionary conservatism", Bismarck became a hero to German nationalists; they built many monuments honoring the founder of the new Reich. Many historians praise him as a visionary who was instrumental in uniting Germany and, once that had been accomplished, kept the peace in Europe through adroit diplomacy.
A 2011 biographer of Bismarck wrote that he was
a political genius of a very unusual kind [whose success] rested on several sets of conflicting characteristics among which brutal, disarming honesty mingled with the wiles and deceits of a confidence man. He played his parts with perfect self-confidence, yet mixed them with rage, anxiety, illness, hypochrondria, and irrationality. ... He used democracy when it suited him, negotiated with revolutionaries and the dangerous Ferdinand Lassalle, the socialist who might have contested his authority. He utterly dominated his cabinet ministers with a sovereign contempt and blackened their reputations as soon as he no longer needed them. He outwitted the parliamentary parties, even the strongest of them, and betrayed all those ... who had put him into power. By 1870 even his closest friends ... realized that they had helped put a demonic figure into power.
Bismarck was born in Schönhausen, a wealthy family estate situated west of Berlin in the Prussian province of Saxony. His father, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck (1771–1845), was a Junker estate owner and a former Prussian military officer; his mother, Wilhelmine Luise Mencken (1789–1839), was the well educated daughter of a senior government official in Berlin. He had two siblings: his older brother Bernhard (1810–1893) and his younger sister Malwine (1827–1908). The world saw Bismarck as a typical Prussian Junker, an image that he encouraged by wearing military uniforms. Bismarck was well educated and cosmopolitan with a gift for conversation. In addition to his native German, he was fluent in English, French, Italian, Polish and Russian.
Bismarck was educated at Johann Ernst Plamann's elementary school, and the Friedrich-Wilhelm and Graues Kloster secondary schools. From 1832 to 1833, he studied law at the University of Göttingen, where he was a member of the Corps Hannovera, and then enrolled at the University of Berlin (1833–35). In 1838, while stationed as an army reservist in Greifswald, he studied agriculture at the University of Greifswald. At Göttingen, Bismarck befriended the American student John Lothrop Motley. Motley, who later became an eminent historian and diplomat while remaining close to Bismarck, wrote a novel in 1839, Morton's Hope, or the Memoirs of a Provincial, about life in a German university. In it he described Bismarck as a reckless and dashing eccentric, but also as an extremely gifted and charming young man.
Although Bismarck hoped to become a diplomat, he started his practical training as a lawyer in Aachen and Potsdam, and soon resigned, having first placed his career in jeopardy by taking unauthorized leave to pursue two English girls; first Laura Russell, niece of the Duke of Cleveland, and then Isabella Loraine-Smith, daughter of a wealthy clergyman. He also served in the army for a year and became an officer in the Landwehr (reserve), before returning to run the family estates at Schönhausen on his mother's death in his mid-twenties.
Around age thirty, Bismarck formed an intense friendship with Marie von Thadden, newly married to one of his friends. Under her influence, Bismarck became a Pietist Lutheran, and later recorded that at Marie's deathbed (from typhoid) he prayed for the first time since his childhood. Bismarck married Marie's cousin, the noblewoman Johanna von Puttkamer (1824–94) at Alt-Kolziglow (modern Kołczygłowy) on 28 July 1847. Their long and happy marriage produced three children: Marie (b. 1847), Herbert (b. 1849) and Wilhelm (b. 1852). Johanna was a shy, retiring and deeply religious woman—although famed for her sharp tongue in later life—and in his public life, Bismarck was sometimes accompanied by his sister Malwine "Malle" von Arnim. Bismarck soon adopted his wife's pietism, and he remained a devout Pietist Lutheran for the rest of his life.