Bismarck: The Iron Chancellor

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a book that tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb in forty concise chapters. Today, our focus is on Otto von Bismarck, the founder of the German empire.

On this day, 198 years ago, a child was born to an aristocratic family in Schönhausen, northwest of Berlin, marking the beginning of the life of a very influential statesman. Otto von Bismarck grew up to become the first chancellor of a united Germany; much of his success was because of his famously determined and unyielding personality. As E.H. Gombrich describes in A Little History of the World, ‘He was a man of exceptional intelligence with a will of iron. He never lost sight of his goal and wasn’t in the last bit shy of telling even King William I of Prussia exactly what he thought.’ This ‘will of iron’ is how Bismarck earned himself the nickname, ‘Iron Chancellor’. But how exactly did he achieve the difficult task of uniting Germany? Gombrich highlights Bismarck’s strong belief in the importance of military power in statecraft:

‘From the outset Bismarck wanted just one thing: to make Prussia mighty and use its strength to make one great German empire out of the jumbled patchwork of the German Confederation. For this, he was convinced it was vital to have a strong and powerful army. Indeed, it was he who famously said that the great questions of history are decided not by speeches but by blood and iron.’

Even when Bismarck came up against opposition to his ideas, he found ways to press ahead with his plans. At first, Bismarck couldn’t get the huge sum of money that he needed to build a powerful army, because the Prussian representatives were unwilling. Nevertheless, he managed to persuade the king otherwise, even when it meant ruling against the constitution and the will of parliament:

‘The king feared he would suffer the same fate as King Charles I of England when he failed to keep his word, and Louis XVI of France. He was travelling with Bismarck in a railway carriage and turned to him and said: ‘I can see exactly where all this is leading. Down to Opera House Square where they’ll chop off your head beneath my windows, and then it will be my turn.’ Bismarck merely said: ‘And then?’ ‘Well, then we shall be dead,’ replied the king. ‘True,’ said Bismarck, ‘then we’ll be dead, but what better death could we have?’ And so it came about that, against the will of the people, a great army was equipped with a large number of guns and cannons and was soon proving its worth against Denmark.’

As you can tell from the anecdote, Bismarck was a resourceful man who was not easily daunted by obstacles. It was little wonder, then, that his reputation always preceded him. As Gombrich writes, ‘Prince Bismarck, with his bushy eyebrows and his stern and resolute expression, was soon one of the best-known men in Europe. Even his enemies agreed that he was a great statesman’. Towards the end of his life, Bismarck retired to his ancestral estate where he spent several years ‘sending messages to the new leaders of the German government to warn them of the blunders they were making’.

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