The Policy of Otto von Bismarck: Preserving Peace in Europe?

Otto von Bismarck, "The Iron Chancellor,” led Germany to unification following a series of battles known as the Wars of German Unification, preserving peace in Europe for almost two decades.

Jan 22, 2022By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
Otto von Bismarck photo painting
Portrait of Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck by Franz von Lenbach, 1890, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


From the 1860s to 1890s, Otto von Bismarck influenced European politics as a Prussian statesman and diplomat. He skillfully achieved the reunification of Germany in 1871 following his policy of alliances and warfare. Bismarck relied on realpolitik, a combination of diplomatic and political tools based on the given circumstances. Rather than sharing moral and ethical norms, it adopts philosophical approaches of realism and pragmatism with the main aim to pursue vital state interests. Bismarck managed to maintain Germany’s leading position in Europe and preserve peace until his resignation in 1890.


Otto von Bismarck: The Realist Prime Minister

Prince Otto von Bismarck by Franz Seraph von Lenbach, 1896 via Art Institute Chicago


In September of 1862, Otto Von Bismarck became prime and foreign minister of Prussia. Bismarck’s approach included facilitating Prussia’s supremacy in an international arena at every opportunity. Prussia was considered the weakest among European Powers at that time; his ultimate goal was the reunification of Germany. Bismarck held many of the substantive beliefs connected to the theoretical realism paradigm. Following the realist theory, he believed that power was the most significant element in international affairs. In his inaugural speech as Prussia’s minister-president, Bismarck famously proclaimed that the reunification of Germany “will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by blood and iron.” As part of Bismarck’s realpolitik in the 1860s, he defeated his principal enemies, resulting in the three armed conflicts of Prussia against Denmark, Austria, and France.


Prussian-Danish War (1864-1865)

Photograph of Otto von Bismarck, via Stiftung Friedrichsruh


For centuries, the Germans were the predominant settlers of Schleswig and Holstein, which was ruled by the Danish king. Crises have been evident since 1848 between the Danes and the German population residing in Schleswig and Holstein. Both of them were in a union with Denmark. However, while Schleswig had a large German population, Holstein was a member of the German Confederation. Constitutional efforts that were suggested to address the Schleswig-Holstein issue did not settle the dispute.


Finally, when Otto von Bismarck was appointed as Prussia’s Prime Minister, he used the crises to advance Prussia’s foreign policy aims: achieving supremacy over Austria by signing an alliance in 1864, which was an unusual move. Nevertheless, he ensured the German interests were protected by Prussia and Austria instead of the German Confederation. An ultimatum was presented to Denmark in 1864 by both sides requesting the withdrawal of the constitution or else military action. Denmark refused the ultimatum. The Austro-Prussian army attacked Schleswig on February 1, 1864, disregarding the federal forces in Holstein. After two sieges, the Prussian army celebrated a decisive victory on April 18, 1864, when it seized the Danish fortress of Dybbol.

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Battle of Dybbøl by Wilhelm Camphausen, 1864, via Museum Digital


The conflict continued until the end of June, facilitating Bismarck’s plan to keep the Schleswig-Holstein matter out of the international debate. From the start of the war, Austrian and Prussian policies toward the duchies were inherently contradictory, and conflict seemed unavoidable. Denmark was eventually vanquished, and the Gastein Convention on August 14, 1865, resolved this apparent disagreement by allocating the internal affairs of Holstein to Austria and those of Schleswig to Prussia.


The Prussian-Danish War facilitated Prussia’s disintegration from federal policy. In addition to taking control of Schleswig, Otto von Bismarck gained support in the nationalist forces of parliament on a national level. However, the Peace of Gastein Conference appeared to be short-lived, as Austria and Prussia engaged in a seven-week territorial war not long after Denmark’s defeat.


Austro-Prussian War (1866) 


The next political aspiration of Otto von Bismarck on the way to the reunification of Germany was to move Austria away from German Confederation and to acquire complete domination in the northern part.


The Battle of Koniggratz by Georg Bleitbreu, 1869, via Deutsche Historisches Museum, Berlin


Otto von Bismarck’s goal immediately before the war was to keep Britain, France, and Russia neutral in the event of an armed conflict between Prussia and Austria. At that time, Britain was more concerned with the strength of Austria and would not engage in war. France chose to exhaust the two geopolitical rivals. Russia even saw an ally in Prussia against the Poles. So, Bismarck’s intention to establish Prussian hegemony in North Germany started to manifest.


In 1866, the power struggle between Prussia and Austria reached its maximum level, resulting in a Seven-Weeks’ War referred to as the Austro-Prussian War. The main pretext was a dispute between Prussia and Austria over the form of control of Schleswig and Holstein, which they gained back in 1864 from Denmark. Hostilities erupted when Otto von Bismarck proposed to abolish the German Confederation after gaining France’s neutrality and concluding a military alliance with Italy. Italy’s interest was to regain Venita from Austria, while Austria managed to form separate alliances with the southern German states that feared Prussian hegemony.


Group photo of Prussian soldiers, 1866, via Deutsche Historisches Museum, Berlin


In June 1866, the war broke out. Prussia had an advantage in terms of a modernized army and Italy’s backing resulting in its victory over Austria. The war between the two powers formally ended on August 23 in the signing of the Treaty of Prague, which assigned Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia and also gave them control over the German territories that had been separating the eastern and the western parts of the Prussian state.


Following the war, Bismarck negotiated peace with Austria to sustain it as Prussia’s ally. Prussia’s victory allowed Bismarck to exclude Austria from the federation’s affairs by creating the North German Confederation in 1867, resulting in the formation of a new, powerful European power.


Franco-Prussian War and the Proclamation of the German Empire (1870-1871)

Surrender of Napoleon III, 1870, published by Henry Schile, 1871, via Library of Congress, Washington, DC


Bismarck’s next objective was to unite southern German states into the North German Confederation under his leadership. The influence of France in the southern parts of Germany was prevalent. Confrontation with France seemed inevitable, as France, on the other hand, feared Prussia’s growing dominance in Europe.


The international setting dictated Bismarck, that in the event of a Franco-Prussian war, other great powers of Europe would remain neutral: Britain still not considering Prussia as a serious rival, Russian-French relations were strained by confrontation in the East, and Austria-Hungary could be neutralized thanks to Russia as Tsar Alexander II promised Wilhelm I of Prussia that he would deploy troops along the Austrian border in the event of Franco-Prussian war.


A suitable scenario for the Franco-Prussian War was formed in 1870. Following the Spanish Revolution in 1868, Queen Isabella II was overthrown. The Spanish Parliament was in search of a new candidate for the throne. In June 1870, the Prussian chancellor and Spain’s de facto leader, Juan Prim, convinced Leopold, who was related to the Prussian royal house, to accept the Spanish crown. This move greatly alarmed Napoleon III of France, who felt threatened by the possibility of being bordered by a country run by the representative of the Prussian Dynasty.


Unification of Germany and Crowning of Wilhelm I of Germany by Bain News Service publisher, published between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920, via Library of Congress, Washington, DC


As a result, on July 19, 1870, France declared war on Prussia. The military actions broke out on France’s territory and appeared unsuccessful for Napoleon III, who had thought that France was more militarily advanced than Prussia. The French army was decisively defeated on September 1st and 2nd, 1870. Emperor Napoleon III capitulated, and on September 19, the Prussian army began the blockade of Paris.


The Treaty of Frankfurt, signed on January 28, 1871, concluded the Franco-Prussian war. Alsace and the eastern part of Lorraine, populated with Germanophones, was handed over to Prussia. Thus, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 had two consequences: it ended France’s dominance in Europe, and the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine was the final step towards the reunification of Germany. The German Empire was formed on January 18, 1871, when King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany at Versailles. This move radically changed the Congress of Europe and caused a fundamental shift in the balance of powers in 19th-century Europe.


Bismarck’s Foreign Policy After the Reunification of Germany


Once the German Empire was established, Bismarck skillfully pursued a policy of maintaining dominance and preventing large-scale armed conflicts within Europe. For this aim, Otto von Bismarck navigated with the principles of keeping France at bay – to avoid French revanchism. The second objective was to maintain cordial relations and form an alliance with Austria and Russia – the two other major powers.


Europe, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, 1871, via New York Public Library, New York


Achieving friendly Austro-Russian relations was a difficult task, as the weakening of the Ottoman Empire was seen as an opportunity to expand their influence in the Balkans. In 1878, Russia gained control over Bulgaria through the Treaty of San Stefano but lost again after the Berlin Congress. The same Berlin Congress granted Austria sovereignty over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Because of the substantial disparity between the treaties of San Stefano and Berlin, Bismarck was obliged to make another maneuver to keep Russia on its side.


Thus, on October 7, 1879, the Dual Alliance was formed between Austria-Hungary and Germany, claiming that both states are neutral in each other’s wars unless Russia is the aggressor. Russia felt isolated, and a new pact, the Dreikaiserbund, was formed in 1881 between Russia, Germany, and Austria. Bismarck hoped that the Dreikaiserbund would keep Russia and Austria cordial: the Western Balkans would be Austrian-ruled, while Russians would dominate the Eastern half.


From 1885 to 1887, the Bulgarian crisis strained relations between Austria and Russia once again. The Dreikaiserbund came to an end in 1887, when Russia declared that no further treaties would be signed with Austria. Bismarck negotiated his final diplomatic masterpiece with Russia, a Reinsurance Treaty that declared neutrality in the event of a conflict with a third power, making Russia’s partnership with France untenable.


Otto von Bismarck: The “Prince” Among Men & His Resignation

Otto von Bismarck with his dogs by Strumper & Co, 1891, via Stiftung Friedrichsruh


During Bismarck’s years in power as Chancellor of Germany, there were no major wars in Europe. However, as 1864-1870 showed, he widely used war to advance Prussia’s political interests. Rather, the two-decade peace resulted from Bismarck’s realpolitik. The newly-established and unified Germany needed peace to progress economically, and further expansionism would mean confrontation with other great powers. Bismarck’s diplomatic attempts to appease Austria and Russia, as well as his ability to draw these two countries into a defensive alliance with Germany, guaranteed that France would remain isolated.


Otto von Bismarck resigned as Chancellor on March 18, 1890, due to a disagreement with the young monarch Wilhelm II. After Bismarck’s resignation, the Eastern bloc collapsed, France continued to strengthen while Russia took independent actions in the Balkans, and eventually, World War I erupted.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.