Otto von Bismarck – Architect of Modern Germany

In the modern world, Germany has found its place as Europe’s largest economy, despite the damning impacts of two World Wars and 40 years of Cold War division.  However, in contrast to other leading powers such as the United States (US) or the United Kingdom (UK), Germany’s success is a far more recent development in comparison – the modern German state only began in 1871, when numerous formerly independent kingdoms and states unified to form the German Empire after their win in the Franco-Prussian War.  In the midst of all of these changes and movements towards unification, there is one man who can be considered the father of modern Germany: Otto von Bismarck.

Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, Bismarck was a staunch conservative royalist throughout his career, devoted to a sense of Prussian nationalism that would consistently direct his approach to the German Question – how would Germany be unified? Indeed the idea of unifying the German states existed for decades before Bismarck influenced events, ever since the defeat and subsequent dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, yet it was Bismarck who advanced the movement further than anyone had before. His answer to said question was thoroughly in keeping with his unwavering commitment to the Prussian crown – in the 1860s and 1870s, Bismarck in his capacity as Minister President of Prussia engineered a series of diplomatic incidents and wars which were certain to put Prussia at the centre of his future German nation-state. Primary among these was the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, which led to the creation of the German Confederation, and excluded Austria (at that time Prussia’s main rival in the Germanic world), and thus cemented Prussian hegemony over the expanded confederation.

However, this victory over Austria failed to attract the southern German states of Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg into Bismarck’s new Prussian dominated state. To do this, Bismarck masterfully exploited the newly created imbalance of power in Europe by provoking French animosity towards the expanded German state, to culminate in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. With this final blow, Bismarck was able to utilise the larger, more effective and technologically superior army to decisively defeat the French, and thus prove German unity and strength to the few final independent southern states. Bismarck’s pragmatic and perceptive approach to the circumstances before him no doubt gave him the initiative, and allowed him to promote Prussian dominance in Central Europe. Whether it was an underlying master plan to unify Germany under Prussian rule according to Bismarck’s nationalism and loyalty to the crown, or simply him choosing the most beneficial course of action for his country remains a debated issue, although one cannot deny the motivation and vigour in which Bismarck advanced the Prussian cause – this much is evident in his speech to the Prussian parliament in 1862, in which he claimed, “not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided… But by blood and iron”.

“Blood and Iron” came to symbolise Bismarck’s approach to foreign policy and the growth of the new German nation – his pragmatic, yet forceful approach in harnessing the wave of nationalism after the Revolutions of 1848 gave him the opportunity to extend Prussian power to the heights once reached by the Holy Roman Empire. His moniker of “The Iron Chancellor” truly represented his unwavering resolve and commitment to Prussian sovereignty and power, and the extreme lengths he would go to in order to secure it.

by Nicholas Pirabaharan

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