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Otto Von Bismarck: A Brief History

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Famous portrait of Otto von Bismarck.

Famous portrait of Otto von Bismarck.

Otto von Bismarck: Biographical Details

  • Birth Name: Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck - Schonhausen
  • Date of Birth: 1 April 1815
  • Place of Birth: Saxony-Anhalt, Germany
  • Date of Death: 30 July 1898 (Eighty-Three Years of Age)
  • Place of Death: Friedrichsruh, Schleswig-Holstein, German Empire
  • Cause of Death: Gangrene Infection
  • Place of Burial: Bismarck Mausoleum, Friedrichsruh, German Empire
  • Spouse(s): Johanna von Puttkamer (Married in 1847)
  • Children: Marie; Herbert; Wilhelm
  • Father: Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Bismarck
  • Mother: Wilhelmine Luise Mencken
  • Siblings: Bernhard Bismarck (brother); Malwine Bismarck (sister)
  • Alma Mater/Education: University of Gottingen; University of Berlin; University of Greifswald
  • Occupation(s): Lawyer; Politician; Minister of Foreign Affairs; Chancellor of the North German Confederation; Minister-President of Prussia; Chancellor of the German Empire
  • Political Affiliation: Independent
Early portrait of Otto von Bismarck.

Early portrait of Otto von Bismarck.

Quick Facts About Bismarck

  • Otto von Bismarck was born in Shonhausen, Prussia, on 1 April 1815 to Karl and Wilhelmine Bismarck. Bismarck was one of three children that included Bernhard and Malwine. From the beginning, Bismarck was brought up with a good education, as his family was quite wealthy and influential throughout Prussia. Aside from German, young Bismarck was a polyglot of sorts and was fluent in Russian, Polish, Italian, French, and English. After finishing school, Bismarck set out to study law at the University of Gottingen, and later the University of Berlin. He later studied agriculture at the University of Greifswald while simultaneously serving as an army reservist (becoming an officer after only a year). However, after his mother’s death, young Bismarck returned to his family home, where he ran the family estate for some time.
  • Around thirty years of age, Bismarck married a young woman named Johanna von Puttkamer (28 July 1847). His wife was a devout Lutheran, a trait that Bismarck soon acquired himself for the remainder of his life. Together, the couple produced three children: Marie (Born in 1847), Herbert (Born in 1849), and Wilhelm (Born in 1852).
  • In his early political career, Bismarck served as a representative to the Prussian legislature known as the “Vereinigter Landtag.” Bismarck was well known among his fellow politicians for his royalist leanings, as well as his strong gift for rhetoric. In 1849, he was elected to the Lantag and was later appointed (1851) as Prussia’s envoy to the “Diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt.” After nearly a decade in politics, Bismarck began to understand the need for German unification due to the influence of foreign countries (such as Austria) that tended to override the interests of Prussia itself.
  • In 1862, Bismarck was appointed “Minister-President of Prussia” by King Wilhelm I after it was clear to Wilhelm that Bismarck was the only politician capable of handling the liberal Prussian Diet (Landtag). Using his new powers, Bismarck restricted freedom of the press and sought ways to silence political opponents and critics. Bismarck maintained his position, despite fierce calls for his resignation from the parliament. This was partly due to his staunch support of German Unification, which had been a major component of the 1848 Revolution only a decade prior. Bismarck garnered additional support on 30 September 1862 with his famous “iron and blood” speech, where he argued that speeches and majority decisions would not solve the great problems of Prussia. Only through iron and blood could Prussia achieve his goals, he believed.
Bismarck in his early Thirties.

Bismarck in his early Thirties.

Quick Facts Continued

  • Through Bismarck’s leadership, Prussia sought out to achieve total German unification. Through the engineering of three separate wars that included the Schleswig-Holstein War, Austro-Prussian War, and Franco Prussian War, Bismarck was able to consolidate all of the German-speaking localities that surrounded Prussia into a unified German state under the banner of the German Empire (in less than ten years). Using deception, diplomatic maneuvering, and lightning-fast military strikes against his opponents (blitzkrieg), Bismarck’s endeavor was highly successful for the German people, and garnered him tremendous support from both the people and former political opponents. By 18 January 1871, unification was completed as Wilhelm I was declared German Emperor.
  • After unifying his nation, Bismarck’s remaining years as Chancellor were focused on bringing peace to Europe. Using his diplomatic skills, Bismarck devised an elaborate alliance system to prevent the outbreak of war between European nations. Through a balance of power, Bismarck believed that European peace could be achieved. Bismarck’s plans were short lived, however, as Wilhelm II ascended to the throne in 1888 and attempted to counter Bismarck’s plans for peace in every conceivable way. Rather than using diplomacy, Wilhelm II preferred direct confrontation with Germany’s enemies. After growing tired of Bismarck’s careful and methodical use of diplomacy, Wilhelm II forced Bismarck into retirement in 1890, and pursued a policy of rapid territorial expansion as well as a policy of aggressive military buildup. Europe responded, as Bismarck predicted, by expanding their own militaries and territories, leaving Europe in a precarious situation (both militarily and diplomatically).
  • Although Bismarck returned to politics for only a short period in 1894, the remained of his life was dedicated to running his estates at Varzin and Friedrichsruh. In 1897, Wilhelm II made one last visit to Bismarck. Bismarck famously warned the German Emperor that his actions would cause irreparable damage across Europe, and predicted that a European war would one day ensue (a prediction that came true in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I). Wilhelm ignored Bismarck’s prediction, however, and continued in his aggressive military and territorial expansion of the German Empire. A year later, Bismarck died in 1898 after suffering from a gangrene infection.
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Bismarck in later life.

Bismarck in later life.

More Fun Facts

  • After being proclaimed Emperor of the German Empire, Kaiser Wilhelm I thanked Bismarck for his services by giving him an entire forest and manor.
  • Although Bismarck often donned a general’s uniform in his public life, he had only served in Prussia’s military reserve for a year.
  • Bismarck was responsible for the development of a social security plan in Prussia and the German Empire. His intentions for the plan, however, did not derive from generosity or goodwill. The implementation of social security was set in motion in order to garner additional votes during election time.
  • Otto von Bismarck holds the record for longest time served in office for the position of German Chancellor (22 years of service); a feat that will likely never be broken.
  • In his prediction concerning a future European War, Bismarck told Wilhelm II that war would likely result from “some sill business in the Balkans.” Bismarck’s prediction could not have been more accurate, as a major component to the First World War’s origins were the result of issues in the Balkans.
  • In more recent years, Prinz Carl Eduard von Bismarck, who was Bismarck’s Great Great Grandson, was asked by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to resign his post in the German Parliament, as she felt that he was “the laziest MP in Germany.”
  • A German battleship was named after Bismarck. However, it was sunk off the coast of France.
  • Bismarck greatly admired American President, Abraham Lincoln. At one point in his career, he also entertained the thought of forming a strategic alliance between Germany and the United States.

Bismarck Quote

“The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood.”

— Otto von Bismarck

Quotes by Bismarck

  • “Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.”
  • “When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.”
  • “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
  • “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood.”
  • “When a man says he approves of something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.”
  • “All treaties between great states cease to be binding when they come in conflict with the struggle for existence.”
  • “A government must not waiver once it has chosen it’s course. It must not look to the left or right but go forward.”
  • “A statesman must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.”
  • “With a gentleman, I am always a gentleman and a half, and with a fraud I try to be a fraud and a half.”
  • “Be polite; write diplomatically; even in a declaration of war one observes the rules of politeness.”


In closing, Otto von Bismarck remains one of the most important political figures to have arose from the Nineteenth Century. His incorporation of “realpolitik” as well as his skills in diplomacy and political maneuvering helped shape European politics for decades to come. More importantly, his unification of the German people not only reshaped the European continent, but it also set the stage for bloody conflict in the Twentieth Century, as the German Empire (and later Nazi Germany) became central figures in the two bloodiest wars of human history. As more and more is learned about Bismarck, it will be interesting to see what new historical interpretations about the famed “Iron Chancellor” will arise in the near future.

Works Cited


Wikipedia contributors, "Otto von Bismarck," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 27, 2019).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Larry Slawson

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