April 1st in German History: The Birth of Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck - Wikiwand

On April 1st, 1815, Otto von Bismarck was born. Bismarck was, of course, the chief architect of German unification and the most famous practitioner of Realpolitik. Born a junker noble, he first became involved in politics during the Revolution of 1848 when he staunchly supported the monarchy against liberal reformers and revolutionaries. His actions earned him notoriety, but when the dust settled and the revolution failed, he was viewed as too radically conservative for a prominent position in the new government. He was made ambassador to Russia so as to keep him out of Germany. He was called back in the 1860s, though, during the budgetary crisis of 1860, which I have discussed in more detail in another post. He was able to go around the liberal parliament which was blocking the budget by using last year’s budget in place of a new one. In the following years he orchestrated wars with Denmark and Austria to establish Prussia as the dominant power in Germany. Finally, in 1870 he manipulated France into declaring war on Prussia, thus causing the entirety of Germany, except Austria, to go to war and decisively defeat France. Following the Franco-Prussian War, Germany united into one nation centered on Prussia. Bismarck, as Chancellor of the German empire, initiated programs to suppress Socialists and Catholics in his Kulturkampf. To prevent the population from turning to socialism he created the first modern welfare state. In foreign policy, he maintained peace by not engaging in overly aggressive expansionism and he convened the Berlin conference to organize the colonization of Africa. In the end though, his nuanced diplomacy and dislike of colonial expansion frustrated Kaiser Wilhelm the Second who dismissed Bismarck shortly after the death of Wilhelm the First. Bismarck’s successors would alienate Britain and Russia and so precipitate Germany’s downfall in the First World War. Bismarck is perhaps the best example of a leader who failed to protect his legacy. His successors undid much of his good work and started the process that would end in 1945 with the breakup of Germany. Such a phenomenon is common among American presidents. The current president has undone much of his predecessor’s policies. Current leaders should take note that preserving one’s accomplishments are just as important as making them.

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