How Did Bismarck Do It?

The creation of the modern unified German state in January 1871 constitutes the greatest diplomatic and political achievement of any leader of the last two centuries; but it was effected at a huge personal and political price, argues Jonathan Steinberg.

A portrait of Bismarck by Franz von Lenback, 1888.
A portrait of Bismarck by Franz von Lenback, 1888.

In June 1862 Otto von Bismarck, then 47 years old and not yet minister-president of Prussia, decided to visit London. He had been the Prussian ambassador to St Petersburg since 1859 and for nearly a decade before that served as Prussia’s ambassador to the German Confederation.

His reputation in diplomatic circles was that of a person capable of eccentric and outrageous statements. He lived up to it at a reception at the Russian ambassador’s residence. Bismarck explained his plans to Benjamin Disraeli, the future British prime minister; Baron Brunnow, the Russian ambassador; and the Austrian envoy, Friedrich, Count Vitzthum von Eckstädt. He told the astounded guests exactly what he had in mind.

Disraeli recorded his words:

I shall soon be compelled to undertake the conduct of the Prussian government. My first care will be to re-organise the army, with or without, the help of the Landtag ... As soon as the army shall have been brought into such a condition as to inspire respect, I shall seize the first best pretext to declare war against Austria, dissolve the German Diet, subdue the minor states and give national unity to Germany under Prussian leadership. I have come here to say this to the Queen’s ministers.

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