Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After Otto von Bismarck was made minister-president of Prussia, he ruthlessly overrode the objections of the national legislature to protect the power of the monarchy and to pursue his goal of unifying the German states under Prussian leadership.

Summary of Event

Otto von Bismarck was appointed first minister-president of Prussia on September 24, 1862, at a moment when Prussia was in the throes of a constitutional crisis. Difficulties had begun to develop in 1857, when William I became regent for his ailing brother, King Frederick William IV Frederick William IV [p]Frederick William IV[Frederick William 04];death of . After Frederick William died in 1861, William became king in his own right. As the new Hohenzollern Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen[Hohenzollern Sigmaringen] monarch, he offered vigorous leadership to a country confronting the dynamic forces of liberalism and nationalism. Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;minister-presidency of[Minister presidency of] Prussia;government William I (king of Prussia) [kw]Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President (Sept. 24, 1862) [kw]Prussia’s Minister-President, Bismarck Becomes (Sept. 24, 1862) [kw]Prussia’s Minister-President, Bismarck Becomes (Sept. 24, 1862) [kw]Minister-President, Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s (Sept. 24, 1862) Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;minister-presidency of[Minister presidency of] Prussia;government William I (king of Prussia) [g]Germany;Sept. 24, 1862: Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President[3570] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 24, 1862: Bismarck Becomes Prussia’s Minister-President[3570] Moltke, Helmuth von Roon, Albrecht Theodor Emil von

William I was primarily a soldier. With strong ties to the Crown, the state, and to Protestantism, he expected the Prussian legislature to serve rather than lead the state. His brother had reluctantly accepted a new constitution Constitutions;Prussian Germany;constitutions during the revolutionary crisis of 1848-1850, but it favored the authoritarian tradition of the Prussian state. The king was empowered to appoint ministers, could dissolve the legislature at will, and had the right to veto any new legislation.

The legislature was divided into an upper house, representing the titled nobility, and a lower house, whose membership was determined by indirect vote. All male adults voted for electors who were men of property, and they in turn elected representatives to sit in the lower house. Since ministers were not responsible to the legislature but to the king, the royal concession to constitutionalism upheld the conservative nature of the Prussian state. The legislature’s control of government spending, however, did provide it with significant power.

William I was willing to work with his legislature but was firmly convinced that Divine Guidance worked through the Crown. Whereas Frederick William IV had cautiously guarded Austrian-Prussian leadership, William I believed that it was his state’s mission to Prussianize all the German states. Since Prussia’s rise to power had been based upon military strength, his interpretation of Prussia’s destiny called for the reorganization of the army. Army, Prussian;reforms He immediately took on this task by appointing Count Helmuth von Moltke Moltke, Helmuth von as chief of the army general staff and Count Albrecht Theodor Emil von Roon Roon, Albrecht Theodor Emil von as minister of war. These two men were conservatives who shared William’s ideas.

Von Roon’s reforms included strict enforcement of universal conscription Conscription;Prussian and an increase in annual recruits from 40,000 to 63,000 men, reduction of the period of liability from nineteen to sixteen years, and incorporation of the militia into the regular army to create a fighting force of 371,000 men. Moreover, the reformed army was to be armed with a new weapon, the breech-loading needle-gun.

In early 1860, von Roon’s reforms led to a constitutional crisis when the Chamber of Deputies, which was constitutionally authorized to pass, amend, or reject the budget, challenged the proposed changes. After bitter debate, the crisis was temporarily eased by provisional approval of the budget. Although Prussian political parties were then in their infancy, the progressives had obtained a majority since 1858. William’s ministry reflected the advance of the liberals, and Prussia was considered to be entering a new era. Nevertheless, the military reforms, particularly the dissolution of an independent militia and the three-year terms of conscripts, embittered the progressives.

Otto von Bismarck at the age of fifty-one, four years after he became minister-president.

(The S. S. McClure Company)

William’s reaction, which explicitly challenged his parliament’s right to refuse the funds necessary to maintain the state, intensified the struggle. By 1862, the battle lines were clearly drawn when the Chamber of Deputies again refused to approve the budget. William was ready to proceed according to his own interpretation of the constitution Constitutions;Prussian Germany;constitutions by continuing to collect taxes as if the proposed budget were law. At that time, von Roon Roon, Albrecht Theodor Emil von , a conservative anxious to rid the administration of liberals, caught the ear of the king and persuaded him to call upon his close friend Otto von Bismarck.

The forty-six-year-old Bismarck was a member of the Junker nobility of Brandenburg. According to the traditions of his class, he was destined to serve the Prussian state either through military or civil service. First elected to the Provincial Diet of Pomerania Pomerania in 1845, he became a member of the second chamber of the Prussian Diet in 1849 and of the Erfurt Parliament in 1850. Intensely devoted to the principle of monarchy, he harbored a deep hatred of liberalism in all its forms.

Appointed Prussian ambassador to the Germanic Diet at Frankfurt in 1851, Bismarck Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;ambassadorship maintained his position within the restored Diet of the German Confederation. As a conservative diplomat loyal to his king, he was also deeply affected by his three years as ambassador to Russia and his three-month term as ambassador to France. While at the Germanic Diet, he recognized the almost inevitable clash between Austria and Prussia Austria;and Prussia[Prussia] Prussia;and Austria[Austria] . Consequently, he cultivated friendships among sovereigns of the smaller German states and tried to tie them to Prussia economically. By the time he was called home to handle Prussia’s constitutional crisis, Bismarck Realpolitik Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Realpolitik[Realpolitik] had developed his theory of statesmanship: realpolitik, or “practical politics.”

Bismarck’s entire career was bound up in service to the state of Prussia Prussia;monarchy in the person of the king. His experience demonstrated how power alone determined the destiny of the state. Thus, he concluded that service to the state strongly implied devotion to increasing the state’s power. He was an absolutist by temperament and conviction, and his loyalties demanded absolute service. His theory of realpolitik evolved out of the combination of Prussia’s mission to gain the hegemony in Germany and his own interpretation of the power structure within the state system. The rules of the system were derived not from any moral premise but from a single determinant: power. Therefore, realpolitik placed “might” before “right,” and service to “might” justified any and all means.

Bismarck’s approach to Prussian internal politics was the same as his approach to international politics. He was not about to allow the Prussian state to suffer at the hands of a rebellious parliament. William I William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Otto von Bismarck[Bismarck] Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and William I[William 01] , who considered himself to be on the brink of abdication, allowed Bismarck full rein. The new minister-president appeared before the budget commission on September 30, 1862, six days after his appointment, and clearly stated his stand when he declared that

the position of Prussia in Germany will be determined not by its liberalism but by its power. . . . Not through speeches and majority decisions are the great questions of the day decided—that was the mistake of 1848 and 1849—but through blood and iron.

Bismarck then went ahead with reforms, purged the army Army, Prussian and civil service of liberal sympathizers, and spent money that had not yet been legally appropriated. Embittered by Bismarck’s trampling of the new constitution, Constitutions;Prussian Germany;constitutions the Chamber of Deputies vigorously opposed him. When Bismarck appeared before the deputies on January 27, 1863, he answered his opponents by appealing to the “gap” in the Prussian constitution. Since the constitution did not provide a solution when one of the three branches of government—the Crown, the upper house, or the deputies—refused to agree, Bismarck contended that a “gap” existed. Consequently, the Prussian state must not weaken itself by bickering. “For me the necessity that the State exists is enough. . . . Necessity alone is the determining factor.”

Bismarck’s duel with the Chamber of Deputies continued as the country returned a progressive majority in all elections throughout this period. Nevertheless, he did not measure his power by votes. Responsible only to king and state, Bismarck managed to outlast the domestic issue as foreign crises came to dominate the Prussian political scene. Polish insurrections and the Schleswig-Holstein Schleswig Holstein question shifted Prussia’s attention from the constitutional battlefield to the diplomatic and military fronts.

Bismarck seized the opportunity afforded by the Schleswig-Holstein crisis to begin the series of wars that would result in German unification. He maneuvered Austria, the only contender with Prussia for ruling power of the German federation of states, into an alliance to “liberate” the two tiny duchies from Denmark Denmark;and Prussia[Prussia] Prussia;and Denmark[Denmark] . On April 18, 1864, Europe saw its first blitzkrieg as von Roon’s Roon, Albrecht Theodor Emil von Army, Prussian New Model Army reduced the Danish forts to rubble in minutes. In acquiring Schleswig-Holstein Holstein Schleswig , Bismarck gained for Prussia and Germany naval bases on the Baltic Baltic Sea;naval bases and North Seas, North Sea;naval bases and protection against attack from the seas. Not yet ready for war with Austria, Bismarck set up a dual administration of the duchies that was calculated to be a source of constant friction.

Between the Danish War of 1864 and the summer of 1866, Bismarck pursued secret diplomatic negotiations to ensure that no foreign powers would intervene in the coming Austro-Prussian war. His trap was sprung in the Diet on June 10, 1866, when Austria proposed federal execution of the Schleswig-Holstein duchies. Passage of the proposal was tantamount to an act of war against Prussia, and Bismarck declared war on Austria. The Diet itself was the first casualty; it was no longer useful. Prussia’s victory in the ensuing Seven Weeks’ War Seven Weeks’ War (1866)[Seven Weeks War (1866)] Prussia;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] Austria;Seven Weeks’ War[Seven Weeks War] expanded Prussian population by three and a half million people. Most significantly, German hegemony passed irrevocably into Prussia’s hands.

Significance

Bismarck’s next step was to make Prussian Germany a world power. For this, he needed the support of the House of Deputies. In September of 1866, after Prussia defeated Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War, Bismarck’s Bill of Indemnity was passed by the lower house. This law legalized all Bismarck’s actions that had been constitutionally contested. Bismarck emerged victorious in both areas of conflict, primarily because for him they both involved the growth of Prussian power. In each conflict, necessity determined Bismarck’s behavior. Reasons of state, “because the State exists,” justified whatever course of action might serve the state. In 1862, it meant army Army, Prussian reforms and a new budget, regardless of the constitution. In 1864, it meant a war fought with Austria against Denmark. In 1866, it meant fighting with Italy against Austria. Again in 1866, it meant asking the Prussian Parliament to indemnify his disregard of the constitution. In 1870, it meant Austrian neutrality and a war against France. Bismarck turned his “blood and iron” speech into a prophecy as necessity decreed the rise of Prussian-German nationalism and the demise of a once-promising liberalism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eyck, Erich. Bismarck and the German Empire. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. First published in Great Britain in 1958, this book presents a liberal view of the background and appointment of Bismarck as minister-president.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuchtwanger, Edgar. Bismarck. London: Routledge, 2002. Concise biography of Bismarck that offers a modern reassessment of his historical significance by a specialist in nineteenth century German history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Imperial Germany, 1850-1918. London: Routledge, 2001. Study of the political development of Prussia/Germany, from the aftermath of the revolution of 1848 through World War I, that pays special attention to the aggressive Prussian foreign policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kent, George O. Bismarck and His Times. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. Brief and lucid account of Bismarck and his age, suitable for American college students and general readers. Kent’s excellent notes provide a springboard for further reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lerman, Katharine Anne. Bismarck. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Thoughtful study of Bismarck’s exercise of political power as a key to understanding both the man and the nature of statecraft.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Showalter, Dennis E. The Wars of German Unification. London: Arnold, 2004. Study of Prussian military strategy in context of the transitions enacted by Bismarck and others in Prussian political and military policies between 1848 and 1871.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waller, Bruce. Bismarck. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1997. Well-written and insightful analysis of Bismarck’s life in which the author claims that Bismarck’s welfare legislation was his greatest achievement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, D. G. Bismarck and Germany, 1862-1890. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1998. Concise and readable account of Bismarck’s domestic and foreign policies. Useful glossary, maps, and a collection of pertinent documents.

Prussian Revolution of 1848

Danish-Prussian War

North German Confederation Is Formed

Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War

Franco-Prussian War

Kulturkampf Against the Catholic Church in Germany

German States Unite Within German Empire

Three Emperors’ League Is Formed

Germany Passes Anti-Socialist Law

Triple Alliance Is Formed

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