Count Otto von Bismarck (Germany, 1815-98)

Figure 1.--This engraving was from a painting of Bismarck in 1826 by Franz Krüger. Otto. Bismarck would have been about 11 years old. The jacket looks to be styled like that of a Napoleonic-era Hussar.

Otto von Bismarck, Germany's "Iron Chancellor", is one of the most significant political figures of the 19th century. He is considered the founder of the German Empire. He changed Germany from a weak, loose confederation of conflicting kingdoms and principalities to a united Empire that dominated Europe by the end of the 19th century. He created this new German Empire under the Prussian monarchy and embed it with Prussian anti-democratic military traditions. While he began as a representative of Prussian Junker interests, he sought to gain the support of Germany's rising industrial class. His primary goal was to unify German and once that was achieved he became a master of balancing alliances to keep the European peace, primarily by isolating France. His skill as a diplomat was unrivaled in Europe. Bismarck was the first important European leader to champion a system of social security for workers. Kaiser Wilhelm who fired Bismarck was more interested in imperial expansion and less interested in the Bismarckian alliance system. He believed that the powerful Germany army and a new German navy could be used through bombastic threats to achieve German goals.


Otto von Bismarck's father was Ferdinand von Bismarck (1771- ), the descendent of a nobel family Prussian family. The father had been an officer in the calvary, but during the Napoleonic wars retired to his Farther Pomeranian estate at a age of only 23, angering the king.

His mother Wilhelmine Mencken (1790- ) was of middle-class origins and much younger than her husband. She was hostile to the nobility. She dominated the family, but the two were estranged from as early as he can remember. Unlike his father, she was a social climber interested in society. Otto thought she took no interest in him and rarely had a kind word. He also came to resent her attitude toward his nobel ancestors and her efforts to break his pride of birth. Even as an older man, Bismarck is not known to have ever commented favorably on his mother. [Ludwig, pp. 7-8.] She dies in 1839, but his father lives until 1845. Curiously, American author H. L. Mencken was a relative of Bismarck's mother.


Otto had a brother and sister, although I know little about them at this time. Bismarck was a middle child, 5 years younger than his older brother Bernhard (1810- ). His younger sister, Malwine (1827- ) was the darling of the family. She apparently married Count Rantzau and became the Duchess von Rantzau-Bismarck. They had three sons, one of them married Bismarck's daughter Marie.


Otto von Bismarck was born in 1815, the year that Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo. He was born at Schönhausen in Saxony, but when his father inherited land. His aristocratic family moved to Farther Pomerania. His childhood must have been colored by the lack of a loving relationship with his mother. He did get along with his father. The workers on their estate were little more than serfs. He even as a boy was called Herr Junker. He seems to have greatly enjoyed the land of the family estate, Kniephof.

Childhood Clothing

I have no information on how Bismarck was dressed as a boy, although the image here gives some idea (figure 1). He clearly liked to dress well. As a university student he describes "disagreeable scenes" with his father over his spending on clothes. He dresses consciously in an apple green frock coat with exceptionally long skirts, or in a velvet coat with mother-of-pear buttons when the fashion among students was "ordinary plaid and cap". [Ludwig, p. 15.]

Figure 2.-- This image is from a miniature painted in 1834. We are not sure what kind of shirt he is wearing, but we clearly see a stock. The artist is unknown. Bismarck would have been 18-19 years old, but looks a little younger.


We have no information on Otto's first school. He was sent to Plamann Academy, a Spartan boarding school in Berlin, when he was 8 years old. He hated it and blamed his mother for sending him there. At the age of 12 he began at the Graue Kloster high school, a gymnasium. He did not do well in school. His only good subject was German. Even in history he did poorly. His teachers thought him arrogant which undoubtedly was an accurate assessment. He studied law in Hanover at the University of Göttingen. The liberal university was a strange choice for the aristocratic Bismarck who felt himself superior to the other students. His hatred of liberalism intensified during his time there. He joined a student association or corps and spent much of his time drinking with his fellows students. His was an aristocratic fraternity. Bismarck showed no great aptitude as a student, except at dueling in the university. Out at place in the liberal atmosphere at Göttingen, he eventually transferred to the University of Berlin. He passed his university examinations in 1835 at age 20, with the aid of a crammer.


Bismarck's realism showed at a fairly early age. He abandoned religion at about age of 16 when he was confirmed. He writes, "Not out of indifference, but as the outcome of mature conviction, I abandoned the practice to which I had been accustomed since early childhood, and gave up saying my prayers, for prayer seemed to me to be in conflict to my view as to the nature of God. I said to myself that either God ordained everything in virtue of his omnipresence, that is to say, independently of my thought and will; ... oe else, that if my will be independent of God, it would be arrogant ... to believe that God could be influenced by human petitions." Later as Chancellor he would adhere to the outer trappings of religion, knowing otherwise would upset King Wilhelm.

Prussian Service

Bismarck bridled at authority as a young man. His teacher's complaint that as a boy he was arrogant was apt. The same ??? some continued as a university student and young man. This is one reason he avoids military service. When he has to join the Yager Guards, he quarrels with his superior officers. He enters the Prussian diplomatic service, but does not last long because of disagreements with his superiors. He retires to the country side for nearly 10 years, spending a great deal of time reading. He becomes a sub-lieutenant in the Uhlans. He then becomes a judicial administrator at Aachen.

Political Career

Bismarck entered political life in 1847. He was an ultra-conservative champion of the Prussian landed aristocracy (Junker) interests. Bismarck's politics at first those of a typical Prussian country squire. He joined the conservative Gerlach group who advocated the interests of the nobility. His first reaction to the liberal revolutions of 1848 was armed resistance and is appalled by King Friederich Wilhelm's vacillation and Prince Wilhelm fleeing the capital. Bismarck gradually develops a more reasoned flexible approach.

Bismarck's defense of the Prussian Government's failed German policy in 1850 earned him the King's gratitude and an appointment to what was then Prussia's most important diplomatic post, representation in the Federal Diet. [Hoffman] The Federal Diet was the congress of the German Confederation at Frankfurt-am-Main. It was here that Bismarck first gained national prominence in 1851. He served there until 1858 Learning much about German politics beyond Prussia. During this time his hatred for Austria grows as he sees the Austrians as blocking the expansion and influence of Prussia within Germany. Bismarck, although an arch-conservative, he is unwilling to maintain the status quo under which Austria dominates the German Confederation. His goal became to make Prussia the dominant power in Germany and northern Europe.

Napoleon III

Bismarck has several personal meetings with the French Emperor Napoleon III. The first while he is still a Deputy of the Federal Diet in 1855. The two develop an interesting relationship. Later Bismarck is briefly appointed an envoy to Paris in 1855. The two again meet in 1865. This was crucial as French intervention at this stage may have delayed or presented German unification. In essence Bismarck plays off Napoleon masterfully, using him to distract the Austrains in Italy and tempting him with offers of Belgium.

Private Life


Bismarck had trouble finding a wife. Not surprising given his character. He goes through several ultimately unsuccessful engagements, two of them in 1836-37 and another in 1842. He finally marries Johanna von Puttkamer (1824-94) in 1847 and it proves to be a happy union. Johanna is chosen perhaps because she is so different than Bismarck. She has no interest in politics and is not ambitious or world minded. She has to be encouraged to learn French and ride horses which are needed for the social life of a diplomat. She is plain spoken and not the least devious--which would have irritated Bismarck to no end. She was devoted to him and supportive, although her health as not good. Commenting on his wife and daughter, a lady friend says that it is a shame that they do not share some of his interests, Bismarck replies, "... this has its good side. I get into quite a different atmosphere at home." [Ludwig, p. 498.] She did help to moderate some of his rough edges in the early years, but by the 1870s this was no longer the case. In fact by always taking his side and making no attempt to heal relations, she may have intensified some of his disputes with others. The two continue to be fond toward each other. She might rearrange his tie even in the presence of noted dignitaries. [Ludwig, pp. 476-477.] She made no real demands that may have complicated his public life. Johanna died in 1894 a few years after his resignation.


Otto and Johanna had three children. We know very little about their childhood. Their father apparently indulged them, but was often absent from home given the demands of his official duties. He appaers to have been little involved in their upbringing. The three were all born over a short period of 4-5 years. One biographer writes about the children, "to whom he forgave everything and allowing everything, except personal freedom". [Ludwig, pp. 372 and 489.]
Marie (1848- ): A family friend describes her as, "peculiar rather than attractive". One of Bismarck's biographers notes little positive to say of Marie "... who becomes outwardly more ungainly , and inwardly more stupid, as the years pass". Other adjectives used to describe her are slothful, scaoffing, and untidy. She married Count Kuno zu Rantzau (1843-1917) in 1878. She has no interest in politics are literature. Her only concerns are family domestic matters, in this regard sounding rather like the ideal German house frau, although not a tidy one. There three children were Count Otto zu Rantzau (1879-…), Count Christian zu Rantzau (1881-…), and Count Heinrich zu Rantzau (1882-1962).
Herbert (1849- ) : Herbert fought in the Franco-Prussian War. He assisted his father and for a time his father hoped that Herbert would succeed him as Chancellor for Wilhelm II. Herbert resigned when Wilhelm forced his father to resign. There was a strain between the two when Herbert wanted to marry a woman his father thought unsuitable. He married Countess Marguerite Hoyos (1871-1945) in 1892. Their children included: Countess Hannah von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1893-1971), Countess Goedela von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1896-1981), Otto, Prince von Bismarck (1897-1975), Count Gottfried von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1901-1949), and Count Albrecht von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1903-1970).
Wilhelm (1852- ) : Wilhelm was wounded in the Franco-Prussian War, for a time his father thought that he had been killed. Both boys are subsequently withdrawn from combat. Wilhelm also assists his father for a time. Although more gifted than Herbert, Wilhelm is less diligent. Her marries a cousin, Sibylle von Arnim (1864-1945) in 1885. Their children include: Countess Hertha von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1886-1954), Countess Irene von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1888-1982), Countess Dorothee von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1892-1975), and Count Nikolaus von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1896-1940).

Rantzau Family

The Bismarck family appears to have been close to the Rantzau family. Bismarck's sister married into the family and became the Duchess von Rantzau-Bismarck. Apparently worked with Count Rantzau at the Foreign Office. We note some members of the family involved with German diplomacy in the 19th and 20th Century. Bismarck's daughter Marie married Count Kuno zu Rantzau in 1878. We do not yet have full details about this family.


Bismarck served in two key diplomatic positions. He was appointed Prussian ambassador to Russia in 1859 a few years after the Crimean War. Next he was made Ambassador to France in 1862, but returned to Berlin after only 6 months to become the Prussian prime minister.

Wilhelm I

Bismarck for nearly three decades shaped the fortunes of Germany. Under Wilhelm I he served as Prussian Prime Minister (1862-73) and then Chancellor of the German Empire (1873-90), working closely with King Wilhelm I. Wilhelm appointed Bismarck reluctantly. There was no political faction behind Bismarck and he was widely disliked by most important political leaders. The two succeeded, however, in the unification of Germany. This was something in which that Bismarck as a younger man showed little interest. Wilhelm at first was very cautious and and had to drawn along by Bismarck and then injudicious and may have failed had he not acceded to Bismarck's carefully crafted strategy. Bismarck perhaps more than anything was a profound judge of men. He had knew the King's character. The King came to give his confidence to Bismarck unconditionally. The two not infrequently quarreled, but Bismarck knew that on major issues a threat of resignation would bring the King over to his side. Bismarck's influence over the King were complicated by the more urbane Queen Augusta who developed a profound dislike for him. A further complication is the liberal-minded Crown Prince Frederich and his English wide Crown Princesses Victoria. [Ludwig, pp. 212-219.] On major issues such as the War with Denmark, Austria, and France, Bismarck almost always succeeded it getting the King to at least accept his point of view, albeit often with great difficulty. Bismarck once said, "The things for which the king is now glorified, are things which I wrung out of him with great labour." [Ludwig, 455.]

Unification of Germany

Bismarck for most of his life was not an ardent proponent of German unification. His love was for Prussia. Interestingly, the movement for German unification came primarily from democratically minded liberals within Germany and not the Prussian Junker class. Perhaps in part because unification was so promoted by the liberals, Bismarck in his early career had no enthusiasm for it. One of the tragedies of German history is that it was not the liberals that united Germany. It could have been very different. Crown Prince Frederick and his English wife Victoria were liberally minded. King Wilhelm's rule, however, was very long and Frederick ruled only a few before dying of cancer and being replaced by his son Wilhelm II. Germany was, however, united by Bismarck pushing and cajoling the King Wilhelm. Bismarck eventually devoted himself to the task of unifying the German states. This was accomplished through both diplomatic persuasion backed by a series of successful wars, earning him the title of "The Iron Chncellor" and stamping the character of the new German Empire with Prussian anti-democratic military traditions.

Bismarckian Diplomacy

The hard terms of the peace imposed on France by the Germans is often compared to the soft terms offered the Austrians in the Austro-Prussian War (1866). The generous terms offered Austria helped make policy friendly relations and alliances after the war. The heavy indemnity and especially the annexation of Alsace-Loraine made France an implacable enemy eventually leading to World War I. It is interesting to assess why two such different policies were pursued. Austria was a German state and a hard piece against a fellow German state would have been unpopular within Germany. As it was, the Prussians annexed several German states such as Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, Hessen-Kassel (Kur-Hessen), Nassau, a part of Hessen-Darmstadt as well as the Free city of Frankfurt/Main. They had sided with the Austrians. Interestingly King Wilhelm had been reluctant to launch the war, but once won he had to be dissuaded by Bismarck from triumphantly entering Vienna and demanding a large indemnity. This caused some ill will, the King feeling that he had been cheated, With the French, Bismarck had no great interest in Alsace and especially Loraine. It was German public opinion that demanded that Alscace be annexed. German newspapers insisted that Alsace be annexed "as a guarantee against a future attack by our hereditary enemies". [Ludwig, p. 353.] The Army wanted Loraine because of the fortress at Metz. [Ludwig, p. 353.] Bismarck sensed future danger here. Before the War he had told a colleague, "Besides, if Prussia were to gain the victory over France, what would be the result? Supposing we did win Alsace, we would have to maintain our conquest and to keep Strasbourg perpetually garrisoned. This would be an impossible position, for in the end the French would find new allies--and then we might have a bad time." [Ludwig, p. 356.] Despite these misgivings, Bismarck gave in. On this issue he did not want to take on German public opinion and the Army.


Otto von Bismarck is widely considered to be the greatest German leader of all time. This is becaise it ws Bismarck that finally after millenia suceeded in uniting the German people. He built Germany into the the most powerful European state. Only the rise of two disasterous leader (Wilhelm II and Adol Hitler) managed to almost destroy Bismarck's achievement. Bismarck is best known for his foreign policy achievemnents. Less heralded, but bybno means unimportant were his domestic policies. Bismarck failed in umportant areas. He failed to understand the danger of Prudssian militarism or the fundamental importance of democracy. This of course is understandable given his Prussian and aristocrtic origins. But the impact was to result in the tragedy of 20th century totalitarianism.

Imperial system

The new German Imperial constitution was declared (April 1871). Kaiser Wilhelm I appointed Bismarck the new German Empire's first Chancellor in 1871. Unlike the British parliamentary system, the chancellor of the German Empire was not responsible to parliament but personally 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 in the Empire. Its political power, however, was limited to the area of legislation. It exerted only a very small influence over the formation of governments and government policy. Characteristic of the Empire was the "government over the parties" and the limitation of elected representatives to essentially expressing non-binding opinion on important political questions. The system was described at the time as a "chancellor dictatorship". It was Chancellor Bismarck who outlined policy, proposed the appointment and dismissal of the state secretaries who were responsible for the administration of the imperial ministries.

Domestic policies

Bismarck is best known for his foreign policy achievemnents. Less heralded, but bybno means unimportant were his domestic policies. Bismarck’s most enduring accomplishments were a series of administrative reforms. He developed a common German currency and central bank, steps of enormous benefit to developing the largest economy in Europe. He also helped fashioned a single code of commercial and civil law for Germany. Although generally seen as an arch-conservative, Bismarck pursued important social reforms. He was the first statesman in Europe to create a comprehensive scheme of social security. The system offered workers insurance against accident, sickness and old age. The system was finally passed in the final years of Bismarck's chamcellorship (1889). It took even Bismarck 8 years to convince the Reichstag. The German system was implemented decades before similar reforms were instituted in many other European states and the United States. Few today realize the modern social welfare state originated with the arch-conservative Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck. The connection between the Iron Chancellor and social welfare seems so counter-intitive. It should be remembered that European public school systems began in Prussia as well. Historivally Prussians and subsequently Germans are not particularly known for their humanitarian spirit. Just ask oeople nordering on Germany, especilly the Poles and French. The Germans in the popular mind are more associated with militarism, regimentation, discipline, and in some quarters brutality. (This interestingly was the view of the Roosevelt family which spent some tine in Germany, including a young Franklin. Thus some will dind it surprising that the welfare state had in originns with Bismarck and Whilhemite Germany. Some will dismiss this because Bismarck's motivations were apparntly political and not humanitarian. There is no soubt thatv heart he was a committed nationalist whi concerned with growing influence of the international socialist movement, especially in Germany. Germany at the time was rapidly industrializing and undergoing wide-spread social change. Bismarck's response was essentially to adopt conservative policies that would better serve the needs of the industrial working class. His thoughts may have been more political than economic, but in fact they were highly effective. He explained, "My idea was to bribe the working classes, or shall I say, to win them over, to regard the state as a social institution existing for their sake and interested in their welfare." Bismarck's social welfare programs did not destroy the socialists politically. The ideology of socialism despite repeated failures is so alluring that it continue to have advocates to this day. Bismarck did succeed in winung over the loyalty of a substantil part of the woirking class. And they had an impact on the socialist movement which came to see tht they could make major achievements through constitutional means. The Germans thus provided the model for the welfare states as they deveoped around the world, including America. Notably the German welfare system unlike many such systems in Western Europe and America is sustanable and not being supported by by massive defecits and borrowing. Bismarck thus playd a najor role in sparing Western Europe the horrors of Communism which rose to power in Russia and was imposed on Eastern Europe as well as China and other Asian countries. He also created as sustaninable system, something modern socialists refuse to understand. Bismarck pursued his social secirity system in large part to limit the influence of the Social Democrats (socialists). Since the Paris Commune at the end of the Franco- Prussian War (!870-71), Bismarck exhibited a hatred for anarchists as well as socialists--often not decriminating between the two. Social security was not theonly social reforms pursued by Mismarck. He also helped emancipate the Jews. [Ludwig, p. 320.] Later he launched a vicious attack on Catholics enacting what came to be called the May Laws. [Ludwig, 417.]

Foreign policies

Bismarck was a master of foreign affairs, fashioning the Bismarckian system designed primarily to keep France, who he saw as Germany's mortal enemy, isolated. He fashioned a series of alliances and counter-alliances, one of the most important was with Russia. At the Congress of Berlin (1878) after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, he demonstrated his paramount position as mediator between the then Great Powers such as Britain Austria-Hungary, France, Italy, and Russia. He negotiated the unprecedented Austria-Hungary alliance (1879) which was "the first formal alliance between two Great Powers concluded in peace-time since the outbreak of the French revolution and the end of the ancien régime set a rigid pattern which shaped international relations until the First World War." [Taylor, p. 192.] He then negotiated the Three Emperor's Alliance (Austria, Germany, and Russia) (1881). This was complicated by the smoldering Russian-Austrian antagonisms in the Balkans, leading to the Bulgarian crisis of 1886-87 and the removal of Prince Alexander. Bismarck sought to limit further Russian gains in the Balkans through treaties with Serbia (1881) and Romania (1883). The next step was the Triple Alliance (Austria, Germany, and Italy) (1882) which insured Austria that Italy would not attack in case of war with Russia. When the Three Emperor's Alliance broke down, Bismarck masterfully negotiated the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia (1887). Despite the steps taken against the Russians in the Balkans, the Reinsurance Treaty was a masterful achievement. Bismarck considered it essential to keep the Russians from reaching an alliance with the French which would threaten Germany on two sides.

Social Occassions

Bismarck ruled a Prussia and Germany's prime minister or chancellor for nearly 30 years, longer than anyone else. There were many state occasions and given the length of his service, images from those occasions provide a fascinating window into fashions, especially formal dress fashions, including how children were dressed. We have little information at this time, but hope to acquire more in the future. By the same token, informal scenes of Bismarck and his family at home also provides interesting fashion insights.


For Bismarck's 70th birthday in 1885, collections are taken up all over German. Workers are encouraged by their employees to donate their pennies. The purpose is to provide Bismarck a sum which he can devote to "a national purpose". More than 2.5 million marks are collected. Bismarck uses most of the money to buy up land around his estate. The public is astonished, thinking he would use the money for some uplifting national project. Some money is used for scholarships. [Ludwig, p. 486.]


Bismarck was a formidable diplomat and politician. German unification was largely his handiwork. It was the failure of his diplomacy, however, that created France into an implacable enemy. And it was Wilhelm II, in part Bismarck's creation, that would undo much of his work. Yet Bismarck's greatest weakness must surely be his lack of sociological values and failure to understand and the significance of moral power. [Ludwig, pp. 412-414.] He single mindely pursued his goals first of Prussian power and influence and the then of German unification for the purpose of acquiring power. There was little concern with using the state to better the lives of the German people. His greatest social achievement, social security pensions, was primarily a gambit to defuse the influence of the socialists.

Wihelm and Bismarck

Central to the unification of Germany and the success of the new German Empire was the relationship between the Old Kaiser (Wilhelm I), and his Chancellor, Count Otto von Bismarck. While building the new German Empire, another less dramatic struggle unfolded was the struggle over the loyalty of the Crown Prince. His parents (Victoria abd Crown Prince Frederich) were liberals who wished to take Germany down a liberal,femocratic path similar to Britain with less emphasis on the military. The Old Kaiser and Bismarck wanted a more conservative path with a major emphasis on the military. At the time it was expected that Wilhelm's son Frederich would follow his father and have a long reign. If this had occurred the history of the 20th century would have been very different. One might have thought that Prince Wilhelm's parents could have successfully conveyed their liberal values. Prince Wilhelm was, however, from an early age a difficult child. And his parents were very critical. This appears to have alienated Wilhelm. His grandfather and Bismarck were much less critical and essentially courted the young prince, convincing him that he was an individual of remarkable ability. Thus as a teenager Wilhelm was drawn to the conservative policies of his grandfather and Bismarck. And when Frederich died within a few moths of becoming Kaiser, it was Prince Silhelm that rose to the throne. The problem for Bismarck and Germany was that the Old Kaiser and Bismarck had not conveyed to the young Wilhelm his limitations. As a result, Wilhelm took the throne believing that Bismarck was an old man whose caution was holding Germany back. He seems to have had no appreciation of Bismarcks accomplishments and the value of his insights. Wilhelm's first major action as Kaiser was dismissing in 1890 of the aged chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck, who with Wilhelm's grandfather had been largely responsible for the creation of a united German Empire. Thereafter William II participated significantly, often decisively, in the formulation of foreign and domestic policies. His administration of internal affairs was marked by the rapid transformation of Germany from an agricultural to a major industrial state and by the accompanying development of serious problems in capital-labor relations. Wilhelm was only partially successful in his attempts to curb the growth of Germany's Social Democratic Party, which ultimately became the most important political party in the Empire.

Wilhelm II

The Old Kaiser died in 1888 and his father, Frederich III, died in the same year. Wilhelm thus became kaiser in 1888. The new kaiser considered Bismarck too cautious and desired to exert Germany's power more forcefully on the world stage. In one of the many ironies of history, Wilhelm fired him in 1890, a few years after becoming kaiser. Wilhelm then proceeded to undo many of Bismarck's accomplishments. Kaiser Wilhelm II's steps in foreign policy were particularly disastrous. To Bismarck's horror, he allowed the Reinsurance Treaty with the Russians lapse and the French quickly signed an alliance with Russia (1894). Wilhelm's bellicose foreign policy alienated other countries, especially the British. His decision to build a highseas fleet in particular drove the British closer to the French. The actual reason for Britain eventually entering World War I against Germany was the German invasion of neutral Belgium. Bismarck had warned against the invasion of neutral Belgium as dictated by the Imperial Army's Schlieffen Plan. Bismarck's strategy to isolate France was undone quickly after his removal from office.


Bismarck's brief time as Chancellor with Wilhelm II were anything, but harmonious. Almost at once Wilhelm violated diplomatic and government protocol by inviting himself to Russia to hunt with the Tzar. He is then is offended when Bismarck explains his error and complains that he is not being complemented. He objects to being lectured by Bismarck. For his part Bismarck sees a young man that is more intelligent than his father, but has none of his father's tact or manners and who surrounds himself with sycophants. Once Bismarck made it clear that he would govern and make important decisions and that Wilhelm would only ratify them, the new Kaiser began planning for the Chancellor's departure. Wilhelm wanted the Chancellor to amicably depart sighting health problems. Bismarck tendered his resignation in 1890, but phrased it so it was clear that he was willing to serve, but that Wilhelm had demanded his resignation. Wilhelm did not publish the text and gave out his version to the press.

Russian Treaty

The very day that Wilhelm demanded Bismarck's resignation, Count Paul Shuvaloff, an emissary from the Tzar arrives with an effort to renew the Russian treaty which expires in June 1890. The Russians suggest to renew it for 6 instead of 3 years. Apparently aware of the fact that Bismarck was about to be replaced, Tzar Alexander III had decided to secure his relations with Germany after Bismarck. Bismarck had been attempting to obtain this for several years. Bismarck is forced to tell Shuvaloff that he is resigning and that the treaty will have to be discussed with his successor. [Ludwig, p. 588.] Incredibly the new German Chancellor Caprivi and Wilhelm are bothered by the complications of the Treaty and decide not to renew it. French diplomats immediately begin to work on the Tzar and in 1894 an alliance was negotiated in 1894. Bismarck's central strategy of keeping France isolated was undone.

Final Encounter with Wilhelm

German newspapers, as a result of the news about the Russo-Franco Alliance and the Tzars' visit to Paris, begin to run articles blaming Bismarck for the failure to renew the treaty with Russia. Bismarck writes a newspaper editorial detailing precisely where the fault lies. Kaiser Wilhelm is furious. Even so he send Admiral Tirpitz to Bismarck in an effort to get him to say something positive about the rising German Navy. He refuses seeing the danger of challenging Britain. Then Wilhelm visits him uninvited. Bismarck is confined to a wheelchair, but his mind is still sharp. Over dinner he wonders how he can warn Wilhelm of the dangers to his crown and Germany that his policies are creating. He attempts to discuss world policy with him for the first tie in several years. Wilhelm turns his comments into a jest. Bismarck ties again and is rebuffed by another silly witticism. Even Wilhelm's staff is shocked at Wilhelm's rudeness. Finally he tells Wilhelm in a strong voice that all can here, "Your Majesty! So long as you have the present officer's corps, you can, indeed, do as you please. But when this is no longer the case, matters will be very different." Wilhelm prattles on and ignores his warning. After Wilhelm leaves, he continues to issue warnings of amazing accuracy. "If the country is well ruled, the coming war may be averted; if it is badly ruled, that war may become a Seven Years War! The wars of the future will be decided by artillery. Troops can be replaced in case of need; big guns must be made in time of peace. .... In Russia, the coming of a republic is perhaps nearer than most people suppose. .... In the fight between labour and capital, labour has won most of the victories, and that will happen everywhere as soon as the workers possess the vote. When the final victory comes it will be that of labour." [Ludwig, p. 632.]

Final Years

Excluded from government by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Bismarck's final years were devoted to writing his memoirs. He has come to despise Kaiser Wilhelm II. His entire life has been devoted to the service of the Kaiser's family and building an omnipotent monarchy for first Prussia and then Germany. He sought to limit the power of the German people and German democracy. Now at the end of his life he sees that he has been terribly mistaken. Germany and all of Europe will pay the consequences. At the end of his life he is all too aware that he should have put his trust with the German people. He died in 1898.


Gall, Lothar. Bismarck: The White Revolutionary. 2 vol. (1986).

Hoffman, J.H. Otto von Bismarck, 1998.

Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little, Brown, and Company, 1927).

Pflanze, Otto. Bismarck and the Development of Germany. 3 vol. (1990).

Standing, Hilda R. Bismark, the man and statesman (1924). Elizabeth D. Boepple tells us in a February 2, 2005 e-Mail, "On your website you have Bismark: The Man and the Statesman credited to Alan J. Taylor. Alan John Percivale Taylor’s book wasn’t published until 1955. This was verifiably the title of a dissertation by Hilda R. Standing back in 1924. Interesting who takes credit for what, hmm?"

Taylor, Alan J. Bismarck. The Man and the Statesman (New York, Knopf, 1955 1st American ed.], 286p.


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Created: July 2, 2002
Spell checked: March 10, 2004
Last updated: 8:12 PM 5/16/2015