Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Prussia from 1862 to 1890, and the first Chancellor of the German Empire between 1871 and 1890. Known for his strong personality and political sagacity, Otto von Bismarck was the architect behind the German states unification under Prussia leadership at the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He is also known for having designed the world’s first social insurance program in 1889, for disabled workers by age and disease. A man with steel will, he was a master of practical politics.
Otto von Bismarck was born in Schönhausen, Prussia, on April 1, 1815. His parents were Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck, a Junker estate owner, and Wilhelmine Luise Mencken. Having attended primary and secondary schools in Berlin, Otto studied law at the University of Göttingen. After converting to Lutheranism, he married Johanna von Puttkamer in 1847. In 1851, Otto von Bismarck was Prussia’s represntative to the German Confederation, and then he was appointed ambassador to Russia and France.
After the death of King Frederick Willian IV, the new King of Prussia, William I, appointed him Prime Minister. Bismarck was a single-minded person with uncomplicated political ideas: whatever strengthened Prussia strengthened Germany, and whatever weakened Prussia weakened Germany. Power, he beliewved, was the decisive factor in all political issues. He solved William I’s crisis over the military budget by simply decreeing that whenever the legislature and the king disagreed about increasing revenue, the government was entitled to levy new taxes and spend the money until agreement was reached.
Since he had been appointed Prime Minister of Prussia, Bismarck envisioned the unification of the German states and Prussia into a one indivisible empire. To achieve that, he engineered a war against Austria to obtain hegemony in central Europe and the leadership over the German states. Thus, having defeated Austria in the Austrian-Prussian War in 1866, Bismarck organized the Northern German Confederation, annexing Hanover, Nassau, Hesse-Kassel, and Frankfurt am Main. However, he still had to win over the support of the southern German states, which he would obtain after defeating Napoleon III, Emperor of France, at the Battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Thus, during the siege of Paris, the Prussian King William I was proclaimed Emperor of the German Empire, a new nation that included Prussian and all the German states.
In 1888, Emperor William I died and was succeeded by his son Frederick III, who was emperor for only three months and was succeeded in turn by his son William II. The new emperor not only wanted to interfere personally in state politics but was also politically reckless and tactless. In 1890, Otto von Bismarck was forced to resign after a disagreement with the new emperor; he retired to his estate near Hamburg and died on July 30, 1898.