BismarckRise #1: 'I, Bismarck' [1815-1851]
Apr 30 2020
Want to skip the queue and access all episodes of BismarckRise right NOW? OF COURSE YOU DO! Click here for more Unsure of what's going on? Read this blog post for more information on BismarckRise. In this episode, the first of eight, we explore the life of a young Otto von Bismarck, and assess the different events, influences and individuals who moved through his life. It’s a personal story, but it’s also a story about the unassuming, you could even say unremarkable, beginnings, of a man who would one day dominate Europe. At this stage in his life, only those three qualities – intelligence, ambition and energy – were palpable, but there was also something raw within the young Otto that suggested a great potential, if only it could be harnessed… We also see Bismarck living through some incredibly significant events. Born in the final moments of the Napoleonic Wars, Bismarck seemed to come of age during the 1848 revolutions, which to his contemporaries appeared like the beginning of the end of Old Prussia, to be replaced by a new radical liberal iteration, beholden to the mob. This did not pan out, but we still see young Otto here present himself to the authorities in Berlin, and try to make himself useful. His suggestions to the royal family on how to deal with the crisis would make him a firm enemy in Augusta, wife of Prince Wilhelm, for life. By this stage though, Bismarck’s introduction to politics had already been complete – he had acquired a seat in the United Diet in 1847, so this experience of revolution was like the cherry on top of a political education without parallel in Prussian history. In spite of his late blooming, only discovering what he really wanted to do at age 32, Bismarck quickly made up for lost time. This confrontational, coarse, but unmistakably vibrant and dynamic individual managed to charm his peers, with the result that he gained a seat in the Landtag at Berlin in 1849. Plying his trade for the next few years, Bismarck established a reputation for himself as a reactionary, a conservative Junker of the old school, when in reality, he was most interested in furthering his own career, and laying his hands on some real power. Power, for Bismarck, as he quickly discovered, was more intoxicating than anything else he had ever known, and he needed to have more. To the surprise of nobody but Bismarck, the King did not grant him a ministerial post, but he did not pass him over either. Amidst troubling diplomatic crises, the relationship between Prussia, Austria and Russia seemed destined to change. Bismarck, noted the King, could be immensely useful under these circumstances, and the King very much intended to use him. In spring 1851, Bismarck learned that his first posting of serious significance would be in Frankfurt, the capital of German cooperation and political intrigue, where representatives from the German princes gathered. It was here that Bismarck would land first. His superiors intended for Frankfurt to be his political education – here was a chance as well to put their enthusiastic, energetic subject to good use. A friendship with Austria, so it appeared, could be best achieved with this mad Junker, who had voiced his support of the Austrian partnership in the past. And so off Bismarck went to Frankfurt, but before long, his personal role began to change. Far from willing to kowtow to Vienna, Bismarck quickly discovered just how restrictive the Austrian domination of Germany had become for Prussia. And then the idea began to germinate within him – an idea which would distinguish him from his peers, launch his political career, and redefine the Prussian Kingdom. So long as Austria reigned supreme, Bismarck believed, Prussia could never achieve its full potential. For years Berlin and Vienna had coexisted, as north and south, two pillars of the German question. No more, said Bismarck – a great contest was inevitable, because Germany might be big, but it wasn’t big enough for the two of...