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Otto von Bismarck(1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. Bismarck, also known as the "Iron Chancellor", was the founder and first chancellor of the German Empire, and through his diplomatic skills, he managed to maintain the peace in Europe for a generation. 

The rare breed of statesmen like Otto von Bismarck (and before him Talleyrand) are able ruthlessly advanced their nations’ interests while coldly appraising their rivals’ aims and views. (How Obama Is Driving Russia and China Together The National Interest, June 24, 2014 ):

As the German author Emil Ludwig wrote, what most repelled the Iron Chancellor in dealing with Russia was “that country’s bold claim to equality of right—a claim he has never been able to endure, whether in politics, family life, or ministerial councils.” Despite this, Bismarck understood that Russia was a major factor in European politics and one that Prussia’s kings had to live with—and could even find useful to advance their core interests, including in unifying Germany. Today’s Western leaders, however, are more preoccupied with short-term political fortunes than strategic national interests.

In the 1860s he engineered a series of wars that unified the German states (excluding Austria) into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. With that accomplished by 1871 he skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to preserve German hegemony in a Europe which, despite many disputes and war scares, remained at peace. For historian Eric Hobsbawm, Bismarck

"...remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers."

During the revolutions of 1848, Bismarck favored suppression of revolt and opposed any concessions to the liberals, staying loyal to the monarchy. In 1849, he was elected to the Prussian Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber of the Prussian Diet). In 1851, Frederick William IV appointed Bismarck as the Prussian representative to the federal Diet in Frankfurt. In 1859, Bismarck was sent to Russia as Prussian ambassador to St. Petersburg, and in May 1862, he moved to Paris as ambassador to the court of Napoleon III. Soon after he returned to Berlin, and on 22 September 1862, Bismarck became minister president and foreign minister for the Prussian king William I (Wilhelm I).

Upon his 1862 appointment by King Wilhelm I as Minister President of Prussia, Bismarck provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria and France, aligning the smaller German states behind Prussia in defeating his arch-enemy France. In 1871 he formed the German Empire with himself as Chancellor, while retaining control of Prussia.

His 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 unrivaled diplomatic skills to maintain Germany's position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.

He was the master of complex politics at home. He 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 a culture war. He lost that battle as the Catholics responded by forming a powerful Center party and using universal male suffrage to gain a bloc of seats. Bismarck then reversed himself, ended the culture war, broke with the Liberals, imposed tariffs, and formed a political alliance with the Center party to fight the Socialists. A devout Lutheran, he was loyal to his king, who in turn gave Bismarck his full support, against the advice of his wife and his heir. While Germany's parliament was elected by universal male suffrage, it did not have real control of the government. Bismarck distrusted democracy and ruled through a strong, well-trained bureaucracy with power in the hands of a traditional Junker elite that comprised the landed nobility of the east. Bismarck largely controlled domestic and foreign affairs under the elderly Wilhelm I until he was removed by young Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890.

Neighbouring Giants Edge Closer

April 8, 2013

 It goes back to Bismarck and the creation of the Second Reich in 1871. The Iron Chancellor had a policy of avoiding war and remaining on friendly terms with the Russian Empire.

Many of the Prussian officer corps, however, no doubt flushed with Prussian success over France in 1870-71 and fearful of Russian expansion into the vacuum caused by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, urged that a preemptive strike be made against Russia. Bismarck urged caution and stated that a “Preemptive war is like committing suicide for fear of death”.

Bismarck’s cautious policies with Russia came to a close when he was forced to resign in 1890 after constantly being at loggerheads with the new German Kaiser and King of Prussia, Wilhelm II.

After Bismarck’s resignation, Kaiser Bill began a swaggering, bombastic, aggressive foreign policy, getting up everyone’s nose in Europe in his demand that Germany too enjoy a “place in the sun”.

With great prescience, Prince Otto von Bismarck said after his retirement:

"Jena came twenty years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this".

He was out by 4 years: twenty four years after his resignation as Chancellor, World War I began in August 1914.

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Old News ;-)

[Oct 16, 2016] TOP 25 QUOTES BY OTTO VON BISMARCK (of 115) A-Z Quotes

[Dec 31, 2014] How has Bismarck escaped most of the blame for the first world war? by Michael White

That's British point of view. They themselves are of cause claim to be innocent, despite the fact that preventing the alliance of Russia and Germany was the key objective of Brishish diplomacy for centuries and they resort to all kind of dirty tricks to achieve that...
Dec 31, 2014 | The Guardian

Before we leave the centenary year of the outbreak of war in 1914 there's someone we should talk about. Everyone now knows about the famous Christmas truce and football matches. But this was a war that was meant to have been "over by Christmas" 1914, not dragging on for four blood-soaked years. Plenty share blame for that, but one major culprit who seems to have been conspicuous by his absence in 2014 deserves a name check: Otto von Bismarck.

I'm astonished by this. Cynical and brilliant, an empire-builder who proclaimed the supremacy of "iron and blood" – actually it was his friend, Alfred ("Cannon King") Krupp's new guns made of steel that shed the blood – the Prussian chief minister turned first pan-German chancellor became the dominant European statesman of the 19th century, a near contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, a better man with a better legacy (and much better jokes).

Unlike the gentle 16th US president (1861-65) the highly aggressive Bismarck was far from a reluctant war-maker. In power from 1862 to 1890 he engineered three short wars – they're where the word "blitzkrieg" comes from – against Denmark (1863), Austria (1866) and France (1870) to turn Prussia into the Second Reich (1871-1918) – the first had been medieval – and fatally undermined Germany's fragile liberal institutions at a critical stage of their evolution.

What Germans got instead was a militarised monarchical autocracy sustained by rampant nationalism and supported by intellectuals of all kinds – sociologist Max Weber later repented his enthusiasm – who should have known better. Parliament was marginalised, the parties manipulated against each other, and Bismarck threatened to resign whenever he was seriously challenged. It was outrageous and it ended in the ruins of Berlin of 1945.

Yes, Bismarck spent the last 20 years of his career protecting the peace in Europe before the idiot new Kaiser, Wilhelm II, sacked him (Punch's cartoonist famously portrayed it as "Dropping the Pilot"). But the damage was done. Bismarck had built a racing car only he could drive.

This kind of behaviour always matters because there are usually talented politicians around who see military adventurism and democratic corner-cutting as a tempting path to domestic ascendancy and wider prestige. Vladimir Putin seems to be ticking some boxes – witness this week's intimidatory conviction of a promising opponent – but there are others in sight. Close to home Turkey's Recep Erdoğan strikes me as a clever man with a dangerous lack of scruple. And, before anyone mentions Margaret Thatcher, she was usually rather cautious and sensitive to parliament, more so than Tony Blair was, I am sorry to say.

After its humiliations at the hands of Napoleon, 19th century Prussia's was – even more than under Frederick the Great – a conscious process of self-aggrandisement. Plenty resisted the trend and Bismarck's "iron and blood" exposition of his realpolitik ambitions in 1862 nearly got him fired before he started. He was not charismatic, soft-spoken, even hesitant, but utterly dominant over his king and even the powerful military, which privately mocked his weakness for uniforms. Try this interview with his biographer Jonathan Steinberg for a flavour of him. "This man means what he says," Benjamin Disraeli concluded. Scary.

Roman history was again in vogue in Germany when in 1871, Bismarck's patsy, Wilhelm I, king of victorious Prussia against Napoleon III, copied the Russian tsars and got an upgrade to Caesar – the new German Kaiser – proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at occupied Versailles. Less than 50 years later the defeated Germans were back in Versailles to accept an unjust, dictated peace in 1918, itself overthrown with a vengeance by Hitler in 1940.

Thank goodness the good Germans, the Germans of Beethoven and Schiller, have been back in charge since 1945, the kind of high-minded moderate people who were sidelined in the Bismarck era after the failed bourgeois revolution of 1848. They make their share of mistakes – the eurozone's economic policies are largely shaped in Berlin – but they are not to be equated with the dreadful legacy of Kaiser Bill, let alone of Adolf Hitler, despite what unimaginative Eurosceptics say after reading the Daily Express.

Why does Bismarck escape blame as the chief architect of 20th-century Germany – and thus the man who created a militarised political machine that only he could handle? He used to get plenty of blame, but historical memory does funny things and the enormity of Hitler's regime (he was "Vienna's revenge on Berlin" wrote AJP Taylor) seems to have blotted out the significant past. When I ask Germans now they sometimes say: "Well, Bismarck is remembered mostly for the social security system he set up," one designed to neutralise the appeal of socialism, still recognisable and admired today.

Memorable Quotes

  1. "Erwarten Sie nicht, einmal ausgenutzt Schwäche Russlands ist, werden Sie immer Dividenden erhalten. Russland immer wieder für ihr Geld. Und wenn sie kommen – nicht auf der Jesuit unterzeichneten Vereinbarung, die Sie verlassen, sind Sie sollen zu rechtfertigen. Sie sind nicht das Papier wert, es steht geschrieben. Deshalb, mit der Russischen Kosten oder Fairplay oder kein Spiel." (Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck-Schönhausen)

    "Do not expect that once taken advantage of Russia's weakness, you will receive dividends forever. Russians always come for their money. And when they come – they will not rely on the Jesuit agreement you signed, that supposedly justify your actions. They are not worth the paper it is written. Therefore, with the Russians you should use fair play or no play. "

  2. Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.
  3. A statesman... must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.
  4. Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.
  5. There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.
  6. The main thing is to make history, not to write it.
  7. When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.
  8. With a gentleman I am always a gentleman and a half, and with a fraud I try to be a fraud and a half.
  9. A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.
  10. When a man says he approves of something in principle, it means he hasn't the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.
  11. The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood.
  12. A government must not waiver once it has chosen it's course. It must not look to the left or right but go forward.
  13. A journalist is a person who has mistaken their calling.
  14. Be polite; write diplomatically; even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness.
  15. The three signs of great men are -- generosity in the design, humanity in the execution, moderation in success.
  16. Politics is not an exact science. Politics is the art of the possible. remark, Aug. 11, 1867
  17. Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war. ∙
  18. Peace with a club in hand is war.
  19. People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war, or before an election.
  20. Beware of sentimental alliances where the consciousness of good deeds is the only compensation for noble sacrifices, Bismarck and the German Empire by Erich Eyck

Other interesting quotes


There is a special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.

Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.

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