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Bismarck, Otto von

Bismarck, Otto von remains one of the most significant political figures of modern Germany. This stature derives from his contribution to the creation and shaping of the modern German state as Prussian minister president and imperial chancellor from 1862 to 1890. His activities and attitudes as parliamentary deputy during the revolution of 1848 generally are viewed as mere preludes to an eminent career. Yet there is little doubt that the experiences of the period helped to shape the thirty-three year old's political ideas and ambitions. The most significant of them may be summarized under three headings: (1) his general ideological orientat io n and political commitments; (2) his position on constitutional issues and representative government; and (3) his views on the place of Prussia in Germany and in Europe.

Bismarck had entered politics in 1847 as an ultraconservative champion of Junker interests. When revolutions swept across Europe and reached Berlin the following year, his first impulse was to arm the peasants of his estate in defense of King and country. But two weeks later, in his first speech to the United Diet, he note d: " the past is human power can bring it back to life." Here was a clear expression of the "political realism" with which his name later became synonymous and which set him apart from his political friends of the reactionary Gerlach group: while they were principled and tradition-bound, Bismarck was pragmatic. What mattered to him were concrete interests and the power to defend or to satisfy them.

To be sure, all the conservatives had a common political foe in the liberal and dem ocrati c forces of the revolution. And in March 1848, when Frederick William IV concluded an alliance of necessity with the former, they even contemplated an aristocratic counter-revolution to remove a king who had compromised the traditional order of their kingdom. More clearly than his allies, however, Bismarck saw liberalism as an expression of the political, economic, and social interests of the propertied urban class associated with industrialization. He countered it by raising the material interes ts of th e Junkers to the level of patriotic duty, justifying aristocratic privileges as a necessary basis for their continued service to the state which he considered the only real guarantee of the state's " lasting prosperity and power."

On constitutional issues, Bismarck's position was similarly free of theoretical principles. Since politics as he saw it concerned interest representation, power and its distribution must of necessity serve the purpose. In the Spring of 1848, Bismarck was di smayed by the Crown's collaboration with the liberal opposition in creating a constitutional and representative political order. His response was not to fight change, but to oppose its liberal character. Thus Bismarck supported the establishment of a parliament, but advocated one based on estates or professional associations, with the power to influence but not rival the authority of the monarch. He was therefore adamantly opposed to the work of the Frankfurt Assembly as well as to constitutional chang es in Prussi a which threatened the kingdom's established political and social order. In the pursuit of his goals, Bismarck also became a modern politician who, like his opponents, began to mobilize popular support for his cause. In press campaigns, association meetings, and parliamentary speeches he appealed to the aspirations of peasants, craftsmen, and shopkeepers as if they were identical to the interests of his Junker constituents.

In his responses to the so-called German question raised during the re volution, Bismarck developed ideas and arguments which also foreshadowed his later policies and actions. He never left anyone in doubt that he was a Prussian patriot, not a German nationalist. He rejected the Frankfurt Assembly's plan for unification because it would absorb Prussia into Germany; and he opposed the Radowitz plan because it would destroy the independence of the Prussian king. "Prussian we are and Prussian we wish to remain" he said in June 1848, explaining later that only P russia's interna l strength had overcome its revolutionaries and helped to protect Germany from its foreign enemies.

Bismarck's view of Germany was based on territory rather than on language and culture. By 1849, it configured the national issue for him into one of the relative positions of Prussia and Austria in the old Reich. In the context of the falling Radowitz plan, the question became polarized around the alternatives of confrontation of cooperation. Although he had earlier urged a P russian policy of aggrandizement and primacy in Germany, Bismarck argued against a war and for cooperation with Austria on the basis of parity. Only self-interest, he explained, makes war a worthy cause for a major state. And neither the Radowitz scheme nor the quarrel over intervention in Hesse-Kassel involved such vital interests for the Hohenzollern state. His skillful defense of the Prussian Government's failed German policy in 1850 earned Bismarck his King's gratitude and an appointment to what wa s then Prussia's mos t important diplomatic post: envoy to the revived Confederation.

J. H. Hoffman


Otto von Bismarck. Die Gesammelten Werke. Friedrichsruh Edition (1924-1935).

Lothar Gall. Bismarck. The White Revolutionary. 2 vol. (1986).

Otto Pflanze. Bismarck and the Development of Germany. 3 vol. (1990).

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Krista Durchik revised this file ( on May 30, 1998.

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© 1998 James Chastain.