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|Otto von Bismarck
the first Chancellor of a unified Germany
Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born on the family estate at Schönhausen in Brandenburg, on April 1, 1815, the third son of Ferdinand von Bismarck-Schönhausen and Wilhelmina Mencken. He attended prestigious schools in Berlin, and then read law at the University of Göttingen and the University of Berlin. After receiving his degree in 1837, he entered the Prussian civil service as a judicial administrator (first at Aachen and then Potsdam), but resigned due to boredom in 1838. A brief period of military service followed, after which he assumed management of the family estates in Pomerania. The family property was divided upon his father's death in 1845, and Otto received Schönhausen and Kniephof in Pomerania. He married Johanna von Puttkamer in July of 1847, and the couple ultimately had two sons and one daughter.
Bismarck's political career began soon after his marriage, when he became a member of the Prussian Diet. His speeches there brought him to the attention of King Frederick Wilhelm IV, who, in 1851, appointed him as the Prussian representative at the Federal Diet of Frankfurt, where he served until 1859. He then served as the Prussian ambassador to Russia (1859-1862) and France (1862).
In 1862, the Prussian Chamber of Deputies convinced King Wilhelm I to make Bismarck Prime Minister. Almost immediately upon assuming office Bismarck made it clear that he was determined to unite the various German states into a single empire, with Prussia at its core. He began his quest in 1864, when, with Austrian support, he used the expanded Prussian army to capture the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein from Denmark. In 1866 he escalated a quarrel with Austria and its German allies over the administration of these provinces into a war, in which Prussia was the victor. This victory instigated the kingdoms of Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse to join the North German Alliance, an alliance of Prussia and 17 northern German states. The Franco-German War of 1870-71 similarly ended with Prussian success, and the addition of the southern German states to the empire. The Kingdom of Germany was formally acknowledged by the other European powers at Versailles on January 18, 1871, with Wilhelm as its first king and Bismarck its first Chancellor.
Having succeeded in creating a unified Germany, Bismarck spent much of his time as Chancellor securing Germany's position in Europe. He negotiated the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy to counteract France, and made a treaty with Russia that guaranteed Germany's neutrality in case of an attack on Russia. In 1885 he hosted a conference in Berlin that ended the scramble for European colonies in Africa while also establishing German colonies in n Cameroon, Togoland, and East and Southwest Africa. While strengthening Germany's position in Europe, Bismarck made sure to also strengthen the German people from within. To that end he introduced state-sponsored health insurance and pensions, created a common German currency, instituted universal male suffrage, developed a central bank, and created a single code of commercial and civil law.
Wilhelm I was succeeded by Wilhelm II in 1888, and Bismarck's influence waned almost immediately. Dismissed by Wilhelm on March 18, 1890, Bismarck retired to his estate near Hamburg, where he died on July 30, 1898.
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This page was last updated on 10/01/2018.