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History Essays - Bismarck German Empire

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Published: 9th Mar 2016 in History

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Bismarck German Empire

In what ways did Bismarck devote himself to the eradication of the ‘enemies within’ and how successful was he?

Otto von Bismarck’s key role in the unification of Germany and subsequent creation of the constitution of the newly formed country ensured that his position as first Chancellor of the German Reich was completely secured. The German masses saw him as their national hero who had made possible the formation of a German Reich, established by an inspired victory in the 1870-71 war against France.

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His almost complete power is epitomised through the structure of the Reichstag, which enabled him to have the upper hand in all crucial decision making through his careful manipulation of Wilhelm I. At the time, the constitution was received by the German masses extremely well and most were happy to let Bismarck dominate over both foreign and domestic rulings for the next 19 years. Erich Eyck considers Bismarck’s position at the time “comparable only to that of Napoleon I during the Congress of Erfurt in 1808, when the Czar of Russia and all the German princes gathered round to do him homage”.

However, despite the immense surge in nationalism that rippled through Germany and temporary economic boost from the French war reparations in 1871, Bismarck still faced many fundamental domestic problems. The years from 1871-1890 saw a series of vicious attacks on the newly formed Catholic Zentrum party and the Social Democratic Party (SPD); both essentially became Bismarck’s primary concern throughout his domestic policy.

These seemingly incapacitating attacks on the political parties were designed to repress their influence in the Reichstag, however both actually gained support as a direct result of their persecution. This surely suggests that Bismarck’s devotion to the eradication of his political enemies within Germany ultimately failed. Yet, visible successes can be seen when looking at the Chancellors wider aims in the fact that he managed to further unite Germany from within, while arguably maintaining his immensely powerful position for the next 19 years.

Historically it has been sighted that Bismarck’s primary domestic aim after the unification of Germany was to consolidate the Empire from within while maintaining the status-quo, and to uphold the Prussian dominated authoritarian system of ruling that had been instated in 1871. Ronald J. Ross makes the extremely valid point that “in 1871 the Bismarckian Empire was united only in its external form and that its internal consolidation, or "refounding" of the Reich as it is sometimes called, was not completed until 1878-79 or even as late as 1890”.

Unification only solved the formal problem, by officially grouping together an extremely varied set of states, and not the practical issue of uniting the masses as one nation. Many still identified themselves as belonging to their particular state, rather than being German. To achieve this consolidation of power over his Empire, Bismarck sought to remove all opposition from within Germany that he saw as a threat to national unity or his position of ultimate power.

However, war was never on the mind of Bismarck after 1871. He did not want to jeopardize what he had won for Prussia and Germany in three previous wars by foolishly waging a new conflict that could easily be avoided through careful political manipulation. By looking closely at Bismarck’s aims in these early years it is possible to judge how successful his devotion to the eradication of ‘enemies within’ was. Ultimately, his major concerns were with continuing to work towards a unified state, eradicating any form of disunity (chiefly the Catholics and Socialist) and doing both while maintaining the status quo.

The constitution of the German Reich provided Bismarck with the means to essentially run Germany how he saw fit to do so and carry out his domestic policy completely unchallenged. It was presented to the German masses as a political structure where power was shared equally between the entire hierarchy; however, Bismarck had the upper hand in all crucial decision making as he was adept at convincing Wilhelm of the correctness of his policy. Prussian dominance held the key to authoritarian system, with Wilhelm, Bismarck and 17 out of the 58 deputies of the Reichstag all being Prussian, the system was always going to be run according to Prussian interest.

Being responsible only to the Kaiser himself, Bismarck's policies were not threatened by the Reichstag which had relatively little influence. The only issue where the Reichstag could inflict severely on Bismarck was the alteration of the military budget, for this decision was, according to the constitution, in the hands of the Imperial Assembly. However, fear of a recurrence of the constitutional conflict of 1862, forced the Reichstag to approve the military budget envisioned by Bismarck himself from the years 1874 to 1881.

This factor meant that Bismarck had completely unrivalled dominance over the ruling of Germany and indicates how it was almost impossible for any internal opposition to block his way in any way at all. Wilhelm was the only force that could really exert any influence over Bismarck’s reign; yet he never really held the desire to ever stop a man who united a country under the dominance of a Prussian authoritarian system.

Perhaps most vital to Bismarck was the necessity to have an overwhelming dominance of support in the Reichstag. He achieved this through an alliance with the National Liberals up until 1879; a tactical move which further ensured his powerful position. The Liberals gained “about 120 out of 400 deputies” in the election of March 1871 so held the largest influence in the Reichstag. They were broadly sympathetic to the chancellor because he had brought about national unity, the party's major policy aim.

They also shared interest in Bismarck’s anti-Clerical desires and the instatement of free trade. Bismarck was happy to work with the Liberals who were a very capable political party. According to Erich Eyck, their party consisted of “most of the leading parliamentarians, men of popular authority, of wide knowledge and political wisdom”.

However, the collaboration was by no means a complete symbiosis. The foundation of the relationship rested solely on the fact that the Liberals could be relied upon to give their support entirely to Bismarck, especially in the implementation of the Kulturkampf.

His willingness to switch alliances in 1879 to a Conservative Reichstag in order to focus an attack on the growing Social Democratic Party further highlights this point. He had no allegiance to the Liberals or in fact any political party and his association with both the National Liberals and Free Conservatives was simply only a way of strengthening his position and giving him a strong dominance in the Reichstag.

His political flexibility throughout this time was a stroke of genius which paved the way for his future dealings with internal opposition within the country. It can also be seen as a move which prevented any further outbreak of opposition within the Reichstag itself.

The proclamation of ‘Papal infallibility’ in 1870 was seen by Bismarck as a direct threat to German unity and formed the basis for his successive persecution of Catholics beginning in 1871. Forming one third of the German population, the Catholics were an inevitable problem for Bismarck due to the fact that they owed allegiance to the Pope. Bismarck saw this as undermining the political structure and a direct promotion of disunity.

Along with this, and perhaps more influential, the Zentrum party, formed in 1870, were growing in popularity and in 1871 had 70 deputies in the Reichstag. Eric Eyck comments that “it was, from the outset, the second strongest party”, and held completely opposing views to that of the National Liberals, and ultimately Bismarck. They promoted church education, opposed civil marriage, promoted decentralisation and supported social reform, all of which were targeting throughout the Kulturkampf.

They were fast growing under Ludwig Windthorst and were seen by many as Bismarck’s main threat in the early years after unification. After completely securing the National Liberals support, Bismarck began his attack on the Catholics with the abolition of the Catholic division of the Prussian Ministry of Culture in 1871. This was followed by the May laws in 1873, which restricted the Catholic Church in a number of ways, including the introduction of civil marriage and prevention of Catholic education. Looking back at Bismarck’s early aims, it is clear to see that he intended to purge foreign influence from German affairs.

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On the whole, he did not manage to achieve this with the Catholics and the Kulturkampf was generally a failure from the outset. Many German Catholics detested the pope’s assumption of infallibility but resented what Bismarck and the National Liberals did even more. Instead of going to Bismarck’s side, they rallied behind the Church. The Zentrum increased rapidly in support and the harsh persecution and imprisonment only strengthened their numbers to 94 seats by 1874.

Jonathan Rose believes that Bismarck utterly misunderstood and underrated the power of the Church and caused a lot more damage to himself in terms of political opposition than to the Zentrum. This opinion is echoed by Ronald Ross who states that “persecution, if it did anything, became a spur to Catholic unity and determination”. However, although it is impossible to deny the failure of the Kulturkampf, it is important to remember that Bismarck still remained in political control through out the period.

As soon as he could do so, he switched allegiances with the National Liberals and by 1880 the Kulturkampf was effectively over. Bismarck was adept enough in his abilities to realise that he had made a huge political mistake and reversed this to focus on his next targets, the Socialists.

As noted by Carr “Socialism, like Catholicism, had allegiances beyond the Nation state which Bismarck could neither understand nor tolerate”. With new found economic prosperity in 1880, the Social Democratic Party grew rapidly in numbers and presented Bismarck with a real challenge to authority. A stark rise in the amount of working class meant that people were slowly becoming interested in social policy and state welfare.

Bismarck regarded the SPD’s with severe ideological and personal contempt mainly as their policies collided with those of his conservative tendencies and that of his future allies, the Free Conservatives. His opportunity to attack the growing party came in 1878, when two attempts upon the life of the Kaiser enabled him to direct the nation's patriotism against his political foes. He dissolved the Reichstag and put the blame solely upon that of the Socialists, which effectively resulted in the party being banned from all aspects of German politics up until 1890.

In an attempt to further limit the party’s power, a series of anti-Socialist laws were introduced in October 19th 1878. Even though these measures did not ban the SPD completely, they prohibited the party from meeting and disseminating its doctrine. It also gave the government the power to expel persons from their residence who could be described as agitators. Although SPD deputies were allowed to sit in the Reichstag in effect socialism was banned in Germany. All Trade Unions associated with the SPD were also crushed. In 1880 the SPD, now in effect an underground organisation, met in Switzerland to resist Bismarck's measures.

A new socialist newspaper was published in Zurich and smuggled into Germany. However, despite these incapacitating attacks on the SPD, once more the result only benefited the political party. Erich Eyck comments that “votes given to the Social Democratic candidates rose to 550,000 in 1884, to 763,000 in 1887, and to 1,427,000 in 1890”. Once again Bismarck had failed to achieve what he had set out to do in terms of limiting support for opposing political parties.

Despite his contempt for socialism, Bismarck was aware that the demand for socialist reform was a threat that held severe potential for the creation of increased internal opposition. Due to the rise of industrialism and growth of the working class, living conditions began to falter. This presented the workers with an increased desire to support the SPD and perhaps more worrying for Bismarck, view his malicious attacks on the party with severe contempt.

Bismarck realised that socialism could not be conquered by oppression alone and embarked on a program of "state socialism" which was to improve the conditions of the German workers. In 1883, medical insurance and sick pay were introduced, and 1889 saw the introduction of old-age pensions. Reforms brought about by state socialism were by no means as advantageous for the workers as similar reforms by the SPD might have been, but they sufficed to pacify the proletariat and those critics of the chancellor who had blamed him for disregarding public needs.

This again epitomises Bismarck’s skill and flexibility throughout his years as German Chancellor. Despite his vicious attack on the Socialists, he had the political prowess to realise that without the introduction of state socialism, workers would rise up against him and rally behind that of the SPD. This is often seen as Bismarck’s greatest success in working towards his aim of limiting the support of his rival political parties.

Bismarck’s methods of dealing with ‘enemies within’ during his reign as chancellor of the German Reich from 1871 to 1890 is best seen as a complete failure with several key successes. When comparing his initial aims to the actual results of both the Kulturkampf and anti-Socialist laws, there is no other way to describe Bismarck’s methods than a complete failure. Both party’s enjoyed greater success in the following elections and grew rapidly as a direct result of the persecution.

However, although he devoted himself completely to the various attacks on both the Catholic Zentrum party and Social Democratic party, he still maintained wide ranging success in his many foreign policies. The constitution went along way to eliminate any threat to Bismarck’s total power and essentially paved the way for his many attacks on various forms of internal opposition. With the Reichstag unable to effectively oppose Bismarck, only the Kaiser had the power to dispose of the chancellor; a threat that, during the lifetime of Wilhelm I, did not exist.

Bismarck’s opportunism was such that it allowed him to rely upon his political prowess to judge each situation on its own merit. Despite obvious failures in both the Kulturkampf and anti-Socialist laws, he still managed to maintain political control and effectively reverse attacks through careful political manipulation.

The abrupt change from liberalism to conservatism, the swift change of heart towards the May Laws and the granting of socialist reforms support the view that Bismarck did not have a master plan; not even a firm ideological inclination, but did all he could, in order to remain the effective leader of the German Reich. His way of dealing with internal opposition was flexible and relied quite heavily upon careful opportunism.

While it has to be admitted that he was unethical in his methods, he was succumbing to the broad demands of the public only to be able to carry out the foreign politics necessary to secure the German Reich for the future. By combining stubbornness with flexibility, Bismarck effectively kept the ‘enemies within’ under control between 1871 and 1890.


  • Erich Eyck, Bismarck and the German Empire, George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd., Fourth Impression 1980
  • Geoffrey Wawro, The Austro-Prussian War: Austria's War with Prussia and Italy in 1866, Cambridge University Press, 2nd Edition 1997
  • Gordon R. Mork, Bismarck and the "Capitulation" of German Liberalism, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 1971)
  • Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire, 1871-1918, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire: Berg Publishers, 1985
  • Jonathan E. Rose, Otto von Bismarck, Chelsea House Publishers, (New York, 1987)
  • Marjie Bloy, European History, A Web of English History, http://www.historyhome.co.uk/europe/bisdom.htm (date consulted 11/03/08)
  • Ronald J. Ross, ‘Enforcing the Kulturkampf: The Bismarckian State and the Limits of Coercion in Imperial Germany’, Journal of Modern History, vol. 56, no. 3, 1984
  • William Carr, A History of Germany 1815-1990, 1996


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