Otto von Bismarck: a brief guide to the ‘founder of modern Germany’

As a Prussian politician, Otto von Bismarck transformed a collection of small German states into the German empire, his style of rule later gaining him the nickname the ‘Iron Chancellor’. Katja Hoyer shares a brief guide to one of 19th-century Europe’s most influential statesman…

Otto von Bismarck, pictured on horseback, was instrumental in the creation of a unified German state and was among the most influential politicians of late 19th-century Europe.(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Who was Otto von Bismarck? What is he known for? And how did he unify Germany? Here’s everything you need to know about the Prussian politician dubbed the founder of ‘modern Germany’…

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Otto von Bismarck: a biography

Full name: Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg

Born: 1 April 1815, Schönhausen, Saxony, Prussia

Parents: Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck and Wilhelmine Luise Mencken

Married to: Johanna von Puttkamer (m. 1847–1894)

Children: Marie (1848–1926), Herbert (1849–1904), Wilhelm (1852–1901)

Offices held: MP, Ambassador, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister-President, Chancellor of the North German Confederation, Imperial Chancellor

Monarchs served: Friedrich Wilhelm IV, Wilhelm 

Who was Otto von Bismarck?

Otto von Bismarck was a Prussian politician who became Germany’s first-ever chancellor, a position in which he served from 1871 to 1890. Through a series of wars, he unified 39 individual states into one German nation in 1871. His policies as chancellor were aimed at holding the newly-formed state together in the face of religious, political and social divisions – all while trying to maintain the fragile peace in Europe.

Otto von Bismarck was instrumental in the creation of a unified German state and was among the most influential politicians of late 19th-century Europe. (Photo by Getty Images)
Portrait of Otto von Bismarck, one of the most influential politicians of late 19th-century Europe. (Photo by Getty Images)

What is Otto von Bismarck’s background?

When Bismarck was born in April 1815, Napoleon was about to be defeated for good by a coalition that included a collective German force with many enthusiastic volunteers. The warm afterglow of this joint effort coloured Bismarck’s childhood with bloodthirsty war stories about heroism and sacrifice. His father Karl was a junker (Prussian aristocrat) with staunchly conservative views. By contrast, his mother Wilhelmine was the daughter of a cabinet secretary and was keenly intelligent and witty. Their son Otto would be a combination of the two: an arch-conservative junker with the Machiavellian mind of a politician.

How did Otto von Bismarck rise to power?

As a young man, Bismarck led a drifter’s life, trying to find purpose and meaning as the second son of a minor noble family. But in 1847 his life changed forever. By chance, he was asked to step in for a member of the Prussian parliament who had fallen ill. There, he found his calling in the intrigues and machinations of the political world. He quickly made a name for himself as a sharp-tongued supporter of Prussia and its king, which gained him the position of Prussian envoy to Frankfurt (1851), St Petersburg (1859) and Paris (1862) before becoming Minister-President in 1862. In this position, he gained near-total control of the political course the kingdom would take.

How did Bismarck unify Germany?

When Otto von Bismarck was born in 1815, Germany did not exist as a single country. Instead, there were 39 individual states. As minister-president, he sought to bring more and more of the German-speaking lands under Prussian control. Having grown up in the aftermath of the successful fight against Napoleon’s troops, he knew that the states would rally together when faced with foreign enemies, so Bismarck provoked wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870). All three victories gained Prussia increasing respect for its military strength and allowed the German people to feel a sense of common identity. After the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck seized the opportunity to invite even the most sceptical German states in the south, such as Bavaria, to join his Prussian-led North German Confederation – having refused Bismarck’s previous overtures, this time they agreed.

What was Otto von Bismarck like?

Bismarck is now mostly known for his political acumen; he was a good judge of character and unusually knew whether threat, bribery, argument or flattery was required. At 6ft 2in, he was also physically imposing with steely-blue eyes and broad shoulders. Sharp-tongued, witty and extremely eloquent, he knew how to reach the desired effect with almost any audience. Bismarck also had a strongly impulsive side, examples of which are his tragic love for Marie von Thadden-Trieglaff, the occasional pistol duel with political rivals, and the frequent tears shed in frustration, anger or genuine sadness.

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What were Otto von Bismarck’s most notable policies?

Having unified Germany through war, Bismarck tried to hold the country together as chancellor by suppressing minorities such as Catholics with his so-called Kulturkampf policies, and by ‘Germanising’ the Poles, Danes and Frenchmen that ended up within the new boundaries. He also spun an intricate web of foreign policy connections in Europe that allowed the new German state to become a respected entity on the continent.

What is Otto von Bismarck’s legacy?

When he died in 1898, Bismarck was an embittered man. His successors had allowed the new German kaiser, Wilhelm II, to direct policy from 1890. Thus, tensions in Europe began to mount and threaten to engulf the newly formed Germany. However, Bismarck also inspired a cult following that would continue long after his death. Hundreds of monuments, such as the famous Bismarck Towers, were erected in his honour across the German empire. Many people still regard him as a brilliant statesman today.

A statue of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck stands in Tiergarten park in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A statue of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck stands in Tiergarten park in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and bestselling author. She specialises in the history of modern Germany with a focus on the Second Reich. Her book Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918 is out now, published by The History Press. You can find her on Twitter @hoyer_kat