By Harrison Chapman, VI Form
In the spirit of No-Shave November, I feel inclined to honor some of facial hair’s greatest sponsors. Many leaders throughout history grew impressive beards and mustaches: Lincoln, Darwin, Roosevelt, Twain, and, of course, Chuck Norris. But, one man not only rocked a handle bar mustache incredibly well, but he was also able to unite the individual pieces of the broken Holy Roman Empire into what we now know as Germany. This man was Otto von Bismarck.
Bismarck was born into an aristocratic Prussian family. Prussia lay to the northeast corner of present day Germany, which is now a part of Poland. The aristocratic families of Prussia were called Junkers. The Junkers had amazing political influence in both the parliaments of Germany. These people were also known to be very patriotic. Many of them served in the military, and Bismarck was no exception to this. He had aspirations to one day become a diplomat, and at the age of 32, Bismarck was elected to the Prussian Legislature. On this legislature, Bismarck often voiced his nationalist pride, saying that Germany should become unified, but not under the German identity. Bismarck was not a romantic, nor was he a revolutionary. He was more of a sneaky fox. He wanted to unite Germany under Prussia to expand the power and pride of his country. The uniting of Germany was more of a strategic chess move as opposed to a chimerical idea.
Before Bismarck, Germany was called the Holy Roman Empire. The different Kingdoms or states of the Holy Roman Empire did not have anything in common except that they were ruled over by the Holy Roman Emperor and they all spoke a similar language (all variations of German); dialects, however, varied from state to state. During this time, many complex issues led to the causes of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), but this war was fueled by religious difference and German Princes who wished to have sovereignty from the Holy Roman Emperor. While opinions differ about when the Holy Roman Empire fell, I was taught (and believe) that, following the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War, the title of Holy Roman Emperor became a joke, since princes were able to govern their own lands however they pleased. Thus the Holy Roman Empire faded. Skip ahead a couple hundred years to the mid 19th century Germany. During this time period, in the wake of the French Revolution, a lot of talk commenced on the unity and rights of groups of people. At this time, the Hapsburgs of Austria controlled Germany. The German people wished to govern themselves as a new national identity–the German identity.
Bismarck cared more for Prussia than he did about the German identity, but he would use it as leverage. Following his career as a representative, Bismarck would spend the next thirty years honing his skills of diplomacy, serving as envoy for Prussia to Diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt and ambassador to Russia and France. Finally in 1862, Bismarck was made Prime Minister of Prussia. With his new powers, Bismarck put his plan of unification into action. Bismarck’s idea of unification can be summed up in one of his speeches which he said, “The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood.”
He did just that. First Bismarck teamed up with Austria (because at this time German territories belonged to Austria) to take land from the Danish. This plan worked very well, so well that Bismarck declared war on Austria. Bismarck hoped to solidify Prussia as THE German nation by beating Austria. Soon, the Austro-Prussian war ensued (better known as the Seven Weeks War because, as the name suggests, the Austrians got destroyed in a mere seven weeks). Following this war, many German territories fell under the control of Prussia. Seeing this unification as a threat, the French tried to thwart Bismarck’s plans, but they in fact only sealed their fate. Following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the southern German states agreed to unite and the nation of Germany was completed. In 1871 King William of Prussia became the first emperor (or Kaiser) of the German Empire, with Bismarck becoming the Chancellor. Over the next 20 years, Bismarck would rule Germany with an iron fist and lead the country to a golden age. He uprooted the Catholic church to solidify his power, Germanized the nation into a coherent body of united people, and, finally, dedicated a great deal of his time to foster foreign relations to promote peace throughout Europe.
Bismarck’s final years, however, were a bit of a tragic story. When William II ascended the throne to Emperor, he heavily opposed Bismarck’s foreign policy and sought to uproot it. The two constantly fought one another for power. After a final disagreement, Bismarck resigned by the “recommendation” of the Emperor. It should also be noted that Bismarck was 75 and extremely old for this time period. Bismarck retired to his estate to live out his final years. He did, though, offer a caveat to William II: “The crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this.” In case you are not a history buff, this prediction did come true.
Harrison Chapman is a VI Former from Hanover, NH, and he lives in Coe dorm. He enjoys running, rowing, reading, and sitting on his couch during break.