Useful Notes: Otto von Bismarck

"Nicht durch Reden und Majoritätsbeschlüsse werden die großen Fragen der Zeit entschieden — das ist der große Fehler von 1848 und 1849 gewesen — sondern durch Eisen und Blut." translation 

Born to a land-owning Prussian family — his father was a nobleman, his mother came from a family of (commoner) scholars and public servants — in 1815, Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck is most famous for the role he played in creating the German Empire, his Blood and Iron speech, and for having been a Magnificent Bastard.

Bismarck had a long career in politics, starting as a deputy in his local district (Kreis), then as a member of diets of the provinces of Pomerania and Saxony, where he became known as an arch-conservative and discovered his passion for politics. He failed to be elected to the Prussian national assembly in 1848 but was elected to the second chamber of the legislature in 1849. In 1851 he was appointed Prussia's representative to the Bundestag (the legislative body of the German Federation), where he prevented a mobilization of the federal army to intervene in the Crimean War, from 1859 on he served as Prussian Ambassador to Russia and then France. In 1862 he was appointed Minister President of Prussia during the conflict between King Wilhelm I and the legislature over the reform of the army, and in 1871 Chancellor of the German Empire. It should be said, that while the Chancellor was supposed to be subservient to the Emperor, Bismarck tended to just do what he wanted. He really only kept his position for so long because he was ''just that good'' at running Germany, and was the only one skilled enough to maintain the complicated foreign policy he had set up. Unfortunately for Bismarck (and eventually Germany) Wilhelm II quickly got fed up with him having his own agenda, and got rid of him.

Tropes Associated With Otto von Bismarck

  • Badass:
  • Balance of Power: In the eyes of many Bismarck's successes upset the European balance of power by turning Prussia (and the new German Empire) from the weakest of the five major powers into a major player, which is why post-1871 he declared Germany "saturated" and began the "game with five balls" to prevent a coalition against Germany from forming. Not all of the shift in balance was due to his foreign policy, though, Germany rapidly overtaking France in population and becoming one of the world's leading industrial powers would have happened even without the Franco-German War.
    • Bald of Evil / Bald of Awesome: In caricatures, notably in the Berlin satirical weekly Kladderadatsch, the baldness was relieved by three distinct, upstanding hairs.
  • Big Eater: Bismarck was famed for his huge food consumption, especially the great numbers of eggs he ate every day. He also prodigiously consumed alcohol and tobacco.
  • A Boy and His X: Since his student days, Bismarck kept Great Danes, two of which were called Tyras. After 1871 these became informally known to the German public as Reichshunde ("dogs of the Empire"). There are even a few Bismarck monuments that include a statue of one of the dogs standing next to the statue of their owner.
  • Bribing Your Way to Victory: What Bismarck (unsuccessfully) tried to do against the growing socialist movement with his welfare reform. Lampshaded by himself when he wrote:
    "My idea was to win over the working classes, or shall I say: to bribe them to look on the state as a social institution which exists for their sake and wants to see to their well-being.''
    • Vindicated by History: Eventually, though, it worked - other nations quickly copied his reforms, and eventually the socialist movements became less radical and more democratic, the workers became burghers, and Germany never saw a communist revolution.
  • Canis Latinicus: During the discussions about the formal title of the new German emperor in 1871 — the main options were "German Emperor", "Emperor of Germany", and "Emperor of the Germans" — Bismarck said: "Nescio quid mihi magis farcimentum esset", meaning "I don't know about what I would care less." The sentence is grammatically conrrect, but contains a literal translation of the German idiom "das ist mir Wurst" ("that's sausage to me"), which means "it's all the same to me" or "I don't care".
  • Chekhov's Skill: He learned to speak French when he was young, a skill which proved useful during his time as an ambassador in St. Petersburg and Paris.
  • The Chessmaster
  • Crowning Moment of Awesome: Unifying a bunch of small, defenceless states into the badass German Empire.
  • Cult of Personality: After the Reichstag could not decide on sending Bismarck a congratulatory telegram on his 80th birthday, he was made the freeman of 400 German towns and cities. After his death thousands of Bismarck monuments big and small were erected all over Germany, ranging from big towers (Bismarcktürme) and the colossal statue in Hamburg (overall height: 34.3 m) to small markers and plaques. These have often been seen as a discreet way of voicing opposition to Wilhelm II and his policies. Bismarck also gave his name to a mountain in Zimbabwe (1872), an archipelago off and a mountain range in New Guinea (1884), and about eight towns and townships in the United States, including the capital of North Dakota.
  • Cunning Linguist: He spoke and wrote English, French, and Russian (as well as his native German) fluently. We even have a recording now to prove it.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: To the first two Kaisers, anyway, though a very loyal one.
  • The Emperor: Ironically, since he was only the Chancellor, but he is a prototypical Shadow Emperor.
  • The Empire: Duh.
  • Evil Mentor: When Bismarck was appointed Minister President of Prussia, the satirical weekly Kladderadatsch saw him as an apprentice to Napoleon III, especially as he had just served as ambassador in Paris. (Interestingly, some post-1945 German historians described Bismarck's government as "Bonapartist"). Later, especially in Britain, it became popular to see Bismarck as the evil mentor of the future Wilhelm II.
  • Foreshadowing: Famously predicted that "One day the great European War will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans". He was right. He also stated that Germany would collapse twenty years after his death. He died in 1898.
    • At the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck knew that demanding the French pay war reparations would only guarantee the French would do it to the Germans the next time they fought. He only did it because he knew the German people wouldn't be satisfied any other way.
  • Genghis Gambit: Could just as easily be called the Bismarck Gambit.
  • Germanic Efficiency: Was both an example and the Trope Codifier.
  • Glorious Leader
  • Happily Married: To Johanna von Puttkamer (1824-1894), whom he met as one of the bridesmaids at the wedding of his first love, Marie von Thadden-Trieglaff, to his friend Moritz von Blanckenburg. Otto and Johanna von Bismarck wrote over a thousand letters to each other and her Pietism deeply influenced his own religiosity.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Notably in his rather self-serving memoirs, which tended to gloss over his reverses and downplay the parts played by others. After his dismissal he also gradually was turned into an infallible hero by the antidemocratic right and later the Nazis in Germany.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Very widespread especially in France and Britain during and after the two World Wars, but also in Germany after World War II during the debate about what went wrong in German history that enabled the Nazis to come to power. Bismarck is one of those people for whom terms like "evil genius" or "Demon of the Germans" (thus the title of a recent biography by Johannes Willms) are common currency. A complementary effect of this upgrade was the downgrading of Napoleon III to Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain despite bringing down the Second French Republic and waging aggressive wars on three continents.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: During the reign of Wilhelm I, Bismark commonly got what he wanted simply by threatening to resign. He was just that good. However, when he did the same thing under Wilhelm II, the ambitious Emperor was only too happy to oblige. Oops.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down:
    "Nothing should be left to an invaded people except their eyes for weeping."
    • Averted in the case of Austria in 1866.
  • Large and In Charge: Over six feet tall and around two hundred sixty pounds at his heaviest.
  • Made of Iron: Was once shot five times at point-blank range. Bismarck seized the would-be assassin by the throat and held him till the guards came up to help.
  • Magnificent Bastard: Bismarck ruthlessly manipulated everyone around him (up to and including the Emperor himself) to get his way.
  • The Man Behind the Man: He played his own king (and later Emperor) like a flute. As the king put it: "It's hard to be king under such a chancellor."
  • Manipulative Bastard
  • Morality Pet: Germany.
  • Morally Ambiguous Chancellor.
  • Nice Hat: Often seen on photos and paintings wearing a Pickelhaube, but he usually wore a peaked cap. The floppy civilian hat he wore during his retirement also became iconic, at least in Germany.
  • Out-Gambitted: By himself no less! You see, he had taken Wilhelm II under his wing to influence him into going against his father. Though this worked in turning Wilhelm away from his father's policies, Bismark didn't account on Wilhelm's father being Emperor for only 99 days, and thus created a monster (Wilhelm) that he himself couldn't control. Then, Bismark was outgambitted again by Wilhelm - who managed to out gambit himself by out gambitting Bismarck, see What an Idiot below.
  • Pet the Dog: He originated the modern social insurance system. Ironically, as a means of reducing worker support for the socialist parties, which he loathed.
    • Of course, it was a very sneaky pet. He picked 65 (which has become the standard in a lot of Western countries) as the retirement age because the average age was barely over 50, which meant almost nobody would receive benefits.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: He had only few scruples he wasn't willing to override. He just found more expedient and effective ways to get what he wanted than by kicking the dog, such as refraining from picking a fight with Britain.
  • Realpolitik: The Trope Codifier. He even said "Politics is the art of the possible."
  • Red Baron: The Iron Chancellor.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: A frequent explanation for Bismarck doing something right or ahead of countries regarded as more progressive than Germany, such as introducing universal male suffrage in the elections to the legislature of the North-German Federation and later the German Reichstag (in Britain this did not happen before 1918) or his welfare reform.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!
  • Start of Darkness: While it's indisputable he did not and would not have approved of the actions of most of his successors, the centralization and authoritarianism he fostered in the nascent German Empire turned out quite unhealthy for Germany's prospects in the early-mid 20th century.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: When Prussia faced a revolution in 1848, and King Frederick William IV decided to leave Berlin for the safety of Potsdam, Bismarck tried to rally the peasants of his estate and march on Berlin in the name of the king, but was told that he would be more useful providing food for the Army.
    • Of course, considering that he practically advocated rather...extreme measures be carried out during the march, the matter of political expediency and preventing Berlin from falling apart even further also came into play.
  • Take That: The third volume of Bismarck's memoirs, which deals with his dismissal and retirement, is so harshly critical of Wilhelm II that it was only published a few years after Wilhelm's abdication.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Lapwing's eggs. His admirers sent him them by the dozen. A type of marinated herring is also named after him, although the circumstances of the naming are Shrouded in Myth. At any rate he is supposed to have said: "If herring was as expensive as caviar people would appreciate it more."
  • What an Idiot: On the part of Wilhelm II. Yeah, firing the Magnificent Bastard who put your country together and has been running it for the past twenty years, in the middle of a diplomatic semi-crisis that he instigated and was in the process of resolving, was the best possible thing you could have done. Of course, in his eyes, it was. Particularly since he calculated (correctly) that Germany could ride the crisis out, resented Bismarck on a personal level, and was tired of being hemmed in by the Iron Chancellor's power. He just didn't take into account the long term, and the fact that there might have been a very good reason for keeping him out of the loop.
  • What Could Have Been: What would have happened if Bismarck had never influenced Wilhelm II and remained in power? Would the World Wars, Russian Revolution, and the Cold War never have happened? Possibly.
    • At least not in the way they did eventually happen.
    • Alternatively: what if he never succeeded (at least to the way he did) in unifying Germany under as authoritarian a nation as it was?
      • Go even further. What if Prussia had lost the Austro-Prussian War, leaving Austria as the dominant leader of the German Confederation instead of Prussia?
      • Even further, what if Bismark's advice to treat Austria leniently in the Austrian-Prussian war had gone ignored. Maybe Austria would not have mended fences with Germany farther down the line. Or, conversely if Austria had not been forced out of Germany entirely by the conflict and allowed to remain a part of Germany, if junior to Prussia. Großdeutschland anyone?

Works In Which Otto von Bismarck Appears Or Is Cited Include:

  • Sir John Tenniel's famous caricature "Dropping the Pilot" on the occasion of Bismarck's dismissal in 1890.
  • Dubslav von Stechlin, the main character in Theodor Fontane's Der Stechlin, physically resembles Bismarck and often jestingly compares himself to him, as they are both retired and living in provincial backwaters in the vicinity of a big city.
  • Played magnificently by Curd Jürgens in two episodes (The English Princess and The Honest Broker) of the 1974 BBC miniseries Fall Of Eagles.
  • A major character in the second Flashman book, where he masterfully manipulates Flashman into preenacting The Prisoner of Zenda.
  • In Gore Vidal's novel Lincoln, an informal conversation between Secretary of State William H. Seward and the Prussian minister in Washington, Friedrich Baron Gerolt, draws a somewhat disturbing parallel between the Great Emancipator and the Iron Chancellor.
  • Slightly misquoted in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Admiral Nechayev tells Picard "Diplomacy is the art of the possible." Bismarck actually said "Politics is the art of the possible."
  • He is the main leader of Germany since Civilization III.

Alternative Title(s):

Otto Von Bismarck