Otto von Bismarck was the leading German statesman of the nineteenth century; he was also the guiding spirit behind the foundation in 1871 of the German Empire, a complex political unit which he then proceeded to lead for nineteen years as its first, most successful, and longest-serving chancellor. Bismarck was born into a protestant Prussian land-owning noble family and, as such, was a member of the Junker class. The stereotypical Junker, then as now, was of a deeply conservative, even reactionary, disposition. Wedded to the ideal of “Throne and Altar,” he wanted to preserve Prussia's traditional hierarchical society, in which his class, as hereditary titled landowners, were the dominant group in the localities, at court, and in the government and army. In reality, the Junkers, like any social group, were a diverse body of people that had many different attributes. Recent research has shown them to be more modern and more complicated than the caricature would suggest. Nevertheless, to many of his contemporaries, Bismarck seemed to fit the stereotype of a Junker perfectlyand, in the earlypart of his career, when serving as Prussia's representative to the German Confederation in Frankfurt and then as ambassador to Russia, he gained a reputation as a staunch conservative and as an unbending opponent of the progressive forces in Europe. In reality, this reputation as an unthinking reactionary hid considerable political talents. Bismarck did, indeed, possess conservative views and wanted to see the preservation of the old order in Prussia; however, he was also a realist and was well aware that such goals could not be achieved by blindly standing in the way of inevitable developments. Consequently, he believed that the aim of a true conservative should not be to oppose modernity, a futile stance destined ultimately to fail, but rather to manage the forces of change and thereby channel them down more acceptable paths. This far-sighted and most uncommonly perceptive attitude has led at least one historian to label Bismarck a “white revolutionary” (Gall 1990), someone who was willing to use new and seemingly progressive methods for traditional ends. To his intense frustration, however, for the first four decades of his life there seemed little prospect that he would ever be in a position to put these advanced ideas into practice. Hated by progressives and distrusted by the leading figures at the Prussian court, who did not share his unorthodox views, he did not seem destined for high office. However, when a lack of suitable alternative candidates led a reluctant King Wilhelm I to appoint Bismarck as minister-president of Prussia in 1862, he finally got the opportunity to demonstrate his acumen for leadership.
Bismarck became head of the Prussian government during the Prussian Constitutional Conflict, a time of acute political crisis. The cause of the crisis was a struggle between the Prussian Landtag, the nation's parliament, and the government over reform of the Prussian army. The Landtag, while willing to see improvements in the organization of the country's military forces, had nevertheless refused to authorize the reform program presented to it by Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon, on the grounds that his proposals were too conservative and allowed the Landtag too little control over military matters. They wanted more liberal reforms. Unfortunately, neither Roon nor his master, Wilhelm I, was prepared to accept this. The result was stalemate and political paralysis. It was this crisis that Bismarck was called in to resolve. His solution, to declare that the deadlock between crown and parliament demonstrated a gap in the Constitution that had to be met by pushing these reforms through without parliamentary sanction, was politically inflammatory and extremely risky. It confirmed every popular suspicion that Bismarck was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary and provoked considerable hostility among influential sections of the population. Moreover, in the long term, it was doubtful ifthe Prussian state could function with permanent opposition between parliament and government, a situation that made Bismarck's position untenable unless a solution could be found. Whether or not Bismarck would have ever found a long-term domestic political route out of this situation is impossible to know. Fortunately for him, as we shall see, foreign policy, as oiled by the new military forces at his disposal, provided him with an avenue of escape.
Bismarck's conception of foreign policy was in some respects surprisingly uncomplicated. As a practitioner of realpolitik—the politics of realism—he was not influenced by old or sentimental attachments between countries or dynasties. National advantage both in the present and in the future was his key concern. Thus, the reverence felt by many for the Habsburgs, simply because they had dominated Germany for centuries, was not shared by Bismarck. Similarly, as a Prussian patriot, he had long felt that the traditional role of Austria as the leader of Germany needed to give way to a situation that offered more power and influence to Prussia. Accordingly, throughout his diplomatic career, Bismarck had stood in the way of any development that would have increased the prestige of Austria in German affairs and sought instead to raise the profile of his native kingdom. Prior to 1862 he had not held a position with sufficient authority to push this policy forward in a meaningful fashion. Instead, he had bristled impotently at what he saw as the subservient policies of his then superiors, who refused, for example, to take advantage of Austria's isolation during the Crimean War (1853–1856) to enhance Prussia's standing. However, as minister-president, Bismarck found himself finally able to direct Prussian foreign policy in the manner he had always wanted. Accordingly, he set out to advance his goal of making Prussia the leader of Germany.
Given that, within six years of taking office, Bismarck had successfully overseen the military defeat of Austria and the end of Habsburg influence over German affairs and, within a further two years, he had presided over the military defeat of France and the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership, it is tempting to portray Bismarck as a master of events, who systematically implemented long-term plans in a programmatic manner as soon as he came to power. Such an analysis would, however, be misplaced. Bismarck undoubtedly had definite goals, but he was also an opportunist. His means of achieving his aims were not determined years in advance, but were often decided at a moment's notice as circumstances dictated. Thus, it is not the case that Bismarck always intended to use military force to displace Austria's traditional leadership of Germany. Had the Austrian government been willing to accommodate Prussian aspirations—and for a time it looked as if they were—then Bismarck would willingly have attained his goals by peaceful negotiation and, in such an eventuality, there is evidence to suggest that he might have been willing to settle for an enhancement of the Prussian position in Protestant north Germany only, leaving the largely Catholic south under Habsburg influence. Had that occurred, then modern Germany would have taken on a very different form. Nevertheless, if Bismarck was not wedded to the idea of a military solution to Austro-Prussian relations, it is clear that he always regarded war as a possible method of attaining Prussian dominance over Germany. Indeed, in a truly Clausewitzian sense he saw war as a legitimate and viable instrument of policy. “The object of a war,” he explained in a phrase similar to a famous pronouncement of Clausewitz, “is to achieve peace under conditions that are in accord with the country's policies.”
The three wars that Bismarck's Prussia fought—against Denmark in 1864, against Austria in 1866, and against France in 1870–1871—need to be seen in this light. In all these cases, Bismarck accepted the risk of war or, in the case of the Franco-Prussian War, arguably engineered the outbreak of war, with a view to enhancing the Prussian position in Germany and supplanting Austria as its leader. In this, he was successful. Victory on the battlefield at Sadowa ended the thousand year involvement of Habsburg Austria in German affairs and left Prussia the undisputed master of northern Germany. The subsequent defeat of France, first at Sedan and then at the gates of the French capital, allowed Bismarck to bring the southern German states into the Prussian orbit. A unified Germany was thereby created on Prussian terms; the engine of this development was Bismarck's use of war for political gain.
The attainment of these objectives had the additional beneficial side effect of silencing Bismarck's parliamentary critics in the Prussian Landtag and bringing the Prussian constitutional conflict to a close. Although the Landtag had opposed Bismarck's unilateral decision to carry out the reforms of the army without parliamentary sanction, they approved of his successful use of the army to promote the cause of German unity and were willing retrospectively to legitimize Bismarck's unconstitutional actions. It would stretch the analysis too far to suggest that Bismarck's wars were fought specifically in order to achieve a solution to Bismarck's domestic political difficulties, but he was certainly not shy of opportunistically using his new found status as a hero of the German nationalist cause for beneficial political ends at home.
In any event, the prosecution of the three wars that are collectively known as the Wars of German Unification achieved everything Bismarck could have wanted. Domestic opposition had evaporated, ensuring that his position at home was secure, while the status of Prussia as the dominant power in Germany was also beyond question. Finally, in the broader diplomatic arena, the sequential defeat of two other great powers, Austria and France, ensured healthy respect for the military attainments of the new German Empire, putting the newly founded state at the pinnacle of the great power system. Nevertheless, as would quickly become evident, there were definite limits both to the diplomatic freedom of maneuver of the new Germany and to the extent that Bismarck could use military power in the future to further the goals of the Prusso-German state. In April 1875, in the “Is War in Sight?” Crisis, Bismarck sought to increase German security by preventing the revival of French military power. Russia and Britain, however, made it clear that they would not tolerate a second defeat of France, an outcome that would have ensured German hegemony of Europe. On this occasion, Bismarck chose to avoid military conflict. He would never resort to it again. War, he now realized, was too risky an enterprise for the new Germany, which had everything to lose and nothing to gain from a trial of strength with its many powerful neighbors.
Bismarck's recognition that German security could best be attained by declaring the nation a “satiated power” meant that, for the rest of his period of office, he used his diplomatic skills to promote peace in Europe. To this end, he embarked upon a period of alliance politics, the object of which was to isolate France—as the one country which could not be reconciled to the status quo—and bind all the other continental powers to the new Reich. To this end he forged an alliance with Austria in October 1879, an agreement that was later expanded into the Triple Alliance by the incorporation of Italy in May 1882. At the same time, Bismarck also looked for ways to maintain the traditional Russo-German relationship, lest an isolated Russia fall into the arms of France. The Three Emperors' Agreement of June 1881 (itself a revival of a similar agreement of 1873) and the Reinsurance Treaty of June 1887 both served this purpose: theykept the tsarist regime orientated towards Berlin and, thus, prevented Bismarck's nightmare of an anti-German grouping—the so-called cauchemar des coalitions—coming into being.
As a result of Bismarck's exertions, the period from 1875 to 1890 was a relatively peaceful one. Despite a number of crises in the Balkans and elsewhere that threatened to erupt into international conflict, there were no military confrontations between the great powers. Unfortunately, Bismarck's awareness that the avoidance of war was in Germany's best interest was a lesson lost sight of by his successors. Ignoring Bismarck's later efforts to maintain the existing balance of power, they looked instead to the way in which he used war in the 1860s to enhance the standing of the Prussian state. Terrible consequences would later accrue from the view that war could be the panacea to political or diplomatic frustration.
This was not the only poisoned chalice that Bismarck left behind. A true Clause-witzian, Bismarck regarded warfare as an instrument for attaining political goals. Thus, while he had no desire to direct armies on the battlefield, he was eager to ensure that military decisions were taken in full cognizance of the intended outcome. This outlook led, at times, to conflict between Bismarck, the political director of the war effort, and Moltke, who as the chief of the general staff oversaw operational matters. Such disputes were arbitrated by King Wilhelm I, who was often persuaded to back Bismarck. Thus, in the wars of unification, grand strategy ultimately prevailed. However, Bismarck did nothing to embed this awareness of the importance of grand strategy into the culture of the Prusso-German state. On the contrary, the independence of the armed forces from civilian control was a key feature of the Constitution Bismarck created for the new Germany. As a result, when the state went to war in 1914, without a politician as strong as Bismarck at the helm, the military leadership soon found itself the directing force. The elevation of military necessity over grand strategy proved disastrous and undid many of Bismarck's achievements.
SEE ALSO: Crimean War (1853–1856); German Unification, Wars of (1864–1871); Moltke, Field Marshal Helmuth von, the Elder (1800–1891).
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