Born of an old Brandenburg Junker family, he studied at Göttingen and Berlin, and after holding minor judicial and administrative offices he was elected (1847) to the Prussian Landtag [parliament]. There he opposed the liberal movement, advocated unification of Germany under the aegis of Prussia, and defended the privileges of his elite social class, the Junkers. As Prussian minister to the German diet at Frankfurt (1851-59) and as ambassador to St. Petersburg (1859-62) and to Paris (1862), he gained the insight and the experience was to partially determine his subsequent policy.
Bismarck was appointed premier in 1862 by William I in order to secure adoption of the Prussian king's army program, which was then being strenuously opposed in parliament. Bismarck, in direct violation of the constitution, dissolved parliament and collected taxes for the army without parliamentary approval.
To expel Austria from the German Confederation now became Bismarck's chief aim. The disposition of Schleswig-Holstein, former Danish territory annexed by Austria and Prussia after their defeat of the Danes in 1864, provided the necessary pretext. By the Gastein Convention of 1865 the two countries agreed to rule jointly—Austria was to administer Holstein and Prussia was to administer Schleswig; but friction soon developed. Bismarck accused Austria of violating the Gastein treaty and thus precipitated the Austro-Prussian War (1866), which ended after seven weeks with the defeat of Austria. By the treaty signed at the end of the war, Germany was reorganized under Prussian leadership in the North German Confederation, from which Austria was excluded.
Fear of France, skillfully propagated by Bismarck, was to bring the remaining German states into the Prussian orbit when the candidature of a Hohenzollern prince to the throne of Spain caused friction with the French Emperor Napoleon III. To make sure that this friction would provoke war, Bismarck published the famous Ems dispatch. In the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) that ensued the states of S Germany rallied to the Prussian cause as Bismarck had anticipated, and in Jan., 1871, William I of Prussia was proclaimed German emperor.
Bismarck, the creator of the German empire, became its first chancellor. When added to his Prussian positions (premier, foreign minister, and minister of commerce) the imperial chancellorship gave him almost complete control of foreign and domestic affairs. To maintain the peace necessary for the consolidation of the empire, he proposed to advance a strong military program, to gain the friendship of Austria, to preserve British friendship by avoiding naval or colonial rivalry, and to isolate France in diplomacy so that revanche would be impossible. Therefore, in 1872, he formed the Three Emperors' League (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia) and also maintained friendly relations with Italy.
The Balkan rivalries of Austria and Russia and the subsequent triumph of Austria at the Congress of Berlin (see Berlin, Congress of), over which Bismarck presided, caused a rift in Russo-German relations. A defensive alliance with Austria was now concluded (1879), and this Dual Alliance became a Triple Alliance when Italy adhered in 1882 (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente). Friendship with Russia was revived in the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887. Bismarck, with his system of alignments and alliances, became the virtual arbiter of Europe and was acknowledged as its leading statesman.
Bismarck's influence upon German domestic affairs was no less apparent than his international stature. The empire, soon after its establishment, was disturbed by the Kulturkampf, a fierce struggle between the state on the one hand and the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic Center party on the other. The conflict initiated a period of cooperation between Bismarck and the liberals, who were violently anticlerical. However, the struggle lost intensity after Bismarck failed to break the power of the Center party, which made large gains in the Reichstag in 1878. The detente with the liberals foundered in the late 1870s after Bismarck's refusal to appoint three liberals to his ministry and his adoption of protective tariffs in place of the liberals' free trade position.
Relations between Bismarck and the Center party continued to improve, and the chancellor turned his attention toward the socialists, who had increased their strength in the Reichstag, particularly after the fusion of the Lassalle and Marxian socialists (1875). Bismarck at first met the socialist opposition with extremely repressive measures. The antisocialist law passed in 1878 prohibited the circulation of socialist literature, empowered the police to break up socialist meetings, and put the trial and punishment of socialists under the jurisdiction of police courts.
Although the socialists were initially weakened, they again began to increase their number in parliament. Now, partly to weaken the socialists and partly as a result of his policy of economic nationalism, Bismarck instituted a program of sweeping social reform. Between 1883 and 1887, despite violent opposition, laws were passed providing for sickness, accident, and old age insurance; limiting woman and child labor; and establishing maximum working hours. Bismarck's new economic policy also resulted in the rapid expansion of German commerce and industry and the acquisition of overseas colonies and spheres of influence (see Germany).
The Bismarckian era closed with the death of Emperor Frederick III. A struggle for supremacy between Bismarck and William II developed immediately upon that emperor's accession in 1888 and ended with Bismarck's dismissal in 1890. Bismarck, created prince (Fürst) after the Franco-Prussian War, was now made duke (Herzog) of Lauenburg. He retired and spent the remainder of his life in oral and written criticism of the emperor and his ministers and in defense of his own policies.
See Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman (his reminiscences, tr. by A. J. Butler, 1898, repr. 1966); E. Eyck, Bismarck and the German Empire (3d ed. 1968); A. J. P. Taylor, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman (1955, repr. 1987); O. Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany (2d ed. 1971); J. E. Rose, Bismarck (1987).