The Political Acumen of Otto von Bismarck

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was probably the most accomplished politician that Germany has ever produced.   He was almost single-handedly responsible for the emergence of the nation of Germany during the nineteenth century.   He was appointed Prime Minister of Germany in 1862 by the Prussian King Wilhelm I (1797-1888) in the middle of a constitutional crisis in Prussia in which the Reichstag refused to authorize a state budget.   Bismarck handled this crisis with ease by using the machinery of state to collect taxes without the Reichstag thus making them irrelevant.   He continued to collect taxes and finance the state for four years until finally the Reichstag was forced to retroactively approve all of his actions in order to regain their relevance in the Reich government.

An excellent example of the methods Bismarck used to expand the Prussia kingdom is the way in which the Duchy of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany was gained between 1862 and 1866.   Bismarck went to war jointly with Austria to prevent the Danes from annexing the Duchy and then surreptitiously worked to isolate Austria in order to gain the entire Duchy after they had agreed to jointly occupy the territory.   Once he felt Austria was sufficiently isolated in the European community he provoked a war and used the power of the Prussian army to defeat Austria in only seven weeks in 1866.   In 1870, Bismarck used the diplomatic crisis of the disputed succession to the Spanish throne to provoke France into declaring war.   The Prussian army was once again speedily victorious and the German Empire was proclaimed in 1871 at the palace of Versailles.

Bismarck also placated the mass of the German population by convincing the Prussian king to promulgate a constitution, which provided for universal male suffrage and the election of a parliament.   The key to his success was that even under the new constitution, most authority was still vested in the monarchy and the role of parliament was limited to mostly an advisory capacity.   He also granted universal male suffrage, which gave the working classes a stake in the state for the first time, and Bismarck thus gained popular support for his policies.

Bismarck also made judicious use of the excellent Prussian army.   The wars he became involved in always had clear-cut objectives and once the objective was gained, he was content to settle for a negotiated peace but only on his own terms.   In 1866, he forced Austria to assent to the annexation by Prussia of Schleswig-Holstein and the dissolution of the federal Diet as well as its replacement by a north German confederation.   In 1870, he forced France to cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine while exacting enough tribute from them to reduce the French threat for many years.

Bismarck was the consummate power politician.   He was aware of what he could accomplish and was content to wait until the accomplishment of his desires was a virtual certainty to act.   His competence was such that he took Prussia from being a single kingdom to the lead state in a new empire in only twelve years.