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Bismarck was known as the 'Iron chancellor' who presided over the growth of the Prussian empire. He gathered the diverse principalities of Germany under a single banner and the second Reich was set up in 1871 at Versailles. He was the first chancellor of a Germany united and became the leader of what became the main power in Europe. He was born in 1815 and died in 1898. He was a Prussian statesman, the creator of a united Germany and in time the elder statesman of Europe. Bismarck is credited with the development of the idea of realpolitik. He would have included in this notion an element of enlightened 'welfare' approach which he used to keep the citizens contented while he got on with the real important matters of state. Bismarck set up a health care system in 1883, insurance against accidents in 1884, and old age pension and sickness insurance in 1889; the most forward thinking welfare benefits of its time and still exist in some form in Germany today. On a personal level he has been described as a strong, workaholic, aggressive man with a powerful individual presence.
His reputation as a highly skilled diplomat survives today, although since the 1970s a re-evaluation of his role in history took a more critical turn, and how, if at all, he may have contributed to the eventual development of a Nazi Germany went under considerable scrutiny. To assess this role it is necessary to examine in some detail his use of power in the setting up of a united Germany, his attitude to a parliamentary democracy, his use of military power to sustain and promote his diplomatic skills.
Bismarck first became prime minister at the age of 47. He had little experience in government and during his time in parliament he was something of a loner, both inside and outside the political circles. He thought of himself as a landowner but held a poor opinion of other landowners and he would drop their interests when it suited his purpose. He saw his role as 'to accomplish God's purpose'. When he was appointed Chancellor by the King he became extremely powerful and the only check on his power being the will of the King and Bismarck set out to ensure that the king's will was in line with the policies he was pursuing. Taylor 1955.
He was alone figure in politics, very powerful in his own right and personality, detached from party or class. The people who surrounded him were subordinates not colleagues and the council did not debate policy. It was usually only formed to pass unanimously any resolution Bismarck put before them.
Bismarck skillfully used military power and wars to promote his diplomatic endeavour and to establish a strong unified German state.
When he became Chancellor he was even more powerful and having used military power and autocratic might to establish the role of Germany in Europe and the world, he evolved into the sage statesman using his skills to maintain peace in Europe.
This was considered to be a long sustained time of conservative rule and autocratic authoritarian government. A powerful bureaucratic state machine was established including a strong military and police. Government and control were centralized in the government bringing about a uniform administrative system and a uniform code of law.
It is suggested today that Bismarck's role and tactics in establishing this central powerful government had created a political culture which developed a base, climate which enabled Nazism to gain support. Under Bismarck used quite repressive tactics to control and suppress Catholic and socialist opposition. This climate of total acceptance of loyalty to leaders, reliance on military might, and no real depth to any parliamentary democratic process, as fertile ground for the extremes of the Third Reich and the Nazis.
In the 1870's a new form of anti Semitism became prominent and Jews were blamed for the depression of 1873. That year a journalist called Wilhelm Marr was the first to use the term 'anti-Semitism' and in 1879 he along with Adolf Stricker set up the League for Anti-Semitism. Stricker had formed the Christian Socialist Party and used anti-Semitism as part of their political platform. This coincided with the suppression of the Social Democratic Party in 1878 and any democratic movements were stopped by the increasing power of the industrialists and distracted by the expansion of the German empire. The anti-Semitic literature and attitudes of those times were to provide the Nazis with sufficient ammunition for their own racial hatred publications which were great sellers and promoted the Nazi claim of Arian supremacy. The argument against Bismarck is based on the fact that he presided over, indeed created, the kind of united Germany which tolerated and fed off such propaganda, that lacked a depth of parliamentary democracy that might have dissented and raised a voice of protest.
Various anti-Semitic movements in Britain and France ,for example, flourished momentarily but were eventually disclaimed by the majority of the population in both countries; the Blackshirts in Britain and the rise of Penn's party in France which when it threatened to oust President Chirac was defeated by the voters. However a strong streak of anti-Semitism still lurks somewhere in the 'DNA' of most European countries.
In Bismarck's defence it has been argued that he personally would have been appalled by the atheist and racist propaganda and policies of the Third Reich. He belonged to and married into a very strong Lutheran family. It is claimed that the unification of Germany was his life's work and by brilliant tactics, a process of logical thinking that was not based on any fundamentalist philosophy, and an opportunistic talent to seize the opportunity as it arose. It could be said with some cogency that Bismarck in his approach to war, (swift, short and successful), allied to his diplomatic skills, (less fundamentalism and more realpolitik), was a politician of his time who would not have supported policies that lead to two world wars. He never sought to conquer his neighbours merely to be at the head of the table in a peaceful strong Europe.