Bismarck was responsible for transforming a collection of small German states into the German empire, and was its first chancellor.
Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck was born into an aristocratic family at Schönhausen, northwest of Berlin, on 1 April 1815. He attended a prestigious school in Berlin followed by the University of Göttingen. He then entered the Prussian civil service but was bored by his job and in 1838 resigned. For nearly a decade, he helped his father manage the family estates.
In 1847, Bismarck married Johanna von Puttkamer, who provided him with stability. It was a year of significant change in his life, when he also embraced the Christian tradition of Lutheranism, and began his political career in the Prussian legislature, where he gained a reputation as an ultra-conservative royalist. In 1851, King Frederick Wilhelm IV appointed Bismarck as Prussian representative to the German Confederation. He then served as ambassador to Russia and France. In 1862, he returned to Prussia and was appointed prime minister by the new king, Wilhelm I.
Bismarck was now determined to unite the German states into a single empire, with Prussia at its core. With Austrian support, he used the expanded Prussian army to capture the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein from Denmark. He then escalated a quarrel with Austria and its German allies over the administration of these provinces into a war, in which Prussia was the victor. Prussia then annexed further territory in Germany.
Unable to persuade the southern German states to join with his North German Confederation, he provoked hostilities with France as a way of uniting the German states together. The German victory in the Franco-Prussian War won over the southern German states, and in 1871 they agreed to join a German empire. Wilhelm I of Prussia became emperor.
As 'chancellor' of the new Germany, Bismarck concentrated on building a powerful state with a unified national identity. One of his targets was the Catholic Church, which he believed had too much influence, particularly in southern Germany. He also worked to prevent the spread of socialism, partly by introducing health insurance and pensions.
Abroad, Bismarck aimed to make the German empire the most powerful in Europe. In 1879, he negotiated an alliance with Austria-Hungary to counteract France and Russia. Italy later joined the alliance. To avoid alienating Britain, Bismarck arranged the two Mediterranean Agreements of 1887, designed to preserve the status quo against a Russian threat.
In 1890, Bismarck resigned after disagreeing with the new emperor, Wilhelm II. He retired to his estate near Hamburg and died there on 30 July 1898.
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