Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (born von Bismarck-Schönhausen; German: Otto Eduard Leopold Fürst von Bismarck, Herzog zu Lauenburg; 1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), known as Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative German statesman who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871 and served as its first chancellor until 1890, in which capacity he dominated European affairs for two decades. He had previously been Minister President of Prussia (1862–1890) and Chancellor of the North German Confederation (1867–1871). He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France. Following the victory against Austria, he abolished the supranational German Confederation and instead formed the North German Confederation as the first German national state, aligning the smaller North German states behind Prussia. Receiving the support of the independent South German states in the Confederation's defeat of France, he formed the German Empire (which excluded Austria) and united Germany.

 

With Prussian dominance accomplished by 1871, Bismarck skillfully used balance of power diplomacy to maintain Germany's position in a peaceful Europe. To historian Eric Hobsbawm, Bismarck "remained undisputed world champion at the game of multilateral diplomatic chess for almost twenty years after 1871, [and] devoted himself exclusively, and successfully, to maintaining peace between the powers". However, his annexation of Alsace-Lorraine (Elsaß-Lothringen) gave new fuel to French nationalism and Germanophobia. This helped set the stage for the First World War. Bismarck's diplomacy of Realpolitik and powerful rule at home gained him the nickname the "Iron Chancellor". German unification and its rapid economic growth was the foundation to his foreign policy. He disliked colonialism but reluctantly built an overseas empire when it was demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations and alliances, he used his diplomatic skills to maintain Germany's position.

 

A master of complex politics at home, Bismarck created the first welfare state in the modern world, with the goal of gaining working class support that might otherwise go to his Socialist enemies. In the 1870s, he allied himself with the low-tariff, anti-Catholic Liberals and fought the Catholic Church in what was called the Kulturkampf ("culture struggle"). He lost that battle as the Catholics responded by forming the powerful German Centre Party and using universal male suffrage to gain a bloc of seats. Bismarck then reversed himself, ended the Kulturkampf, broke with the Liberals, imposed protective tariffs, and formed a political alliance with the Centre Party to fight the Socialists. A devout Lutheran, he was loyal to his king, Wilhelm I, who argued with Bismarck but in the end supported him against the advice of his wife and his heir. While Germany's parliament was elected by universal male suffrage, it did not have much control of government policy. Bismarck distrusted democracy and ruled through a strong, well-trained bureaucracy with power in the hands of a traditional Junker elite that consisted of the landed nobility in eastern Prussia. He largely controlled domestic and foreign affairs, until he was removed by the young new headstrong Kaiser Wilhelm II. He retired to write his memoirs.

 

A Junker himself, Bismarck was strong-willed, outspoken and overbearing, but he could also be polite, charming and witty. Occasionally he displayed a violent temper, and he kept his power by melodramatically threatening resignation time and again, which cowed Wilhelm I. He possessed not only a long-term national and international vision but also the short-term ability to juggle complex developments. Bismarck became a hero to German nationalists; they built many monuments honoring the founder of the new Reich. Many historians praise him as a visionary who was instrumental in uniting Germany and, once that had been accomplished, kept the peace in Europe through adroit diplomacy.

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During World War I, the German Empire was one of the Central Powers that lost the war. It began participation in the conflict after the declaration of war against Serbia by its ally, Austria-Hungary. German forces fought the Allies on both the eastern and western fronts, although German territory itself remained relatively safe from widespread invasion for most of the war, except for a brief period in 1914 when East Prussia was invaded. A tight blockade imposed by the Royal Navy caused severe food shortages in the cities, especially in the winter of 1916–17, known as the Turnip Winter. At the end of the war, Germany's defeat and widespread popular discontent triggered the German Revolution of 1918–19 which overthrew the monarchy and established the Weimar Republic.

The German population responded to the outbreak of war in 1914 with a complex mix of emotions, in a similar way to the populations in other countries of Europe; notions of overt enthusiasm known as the Spirit of 1914 have been challenged by more recent scholarship. The German government, dominated by the Junkers, thought of the war as a way to end Germany's disputes with rivals France, Russia and Britain. The beginning of war was presented in Germany as the chance for the nation to secure "our place under the sun," as the Foreign Minister Bernhard von Bülow had put it, which was readily supported by prevalent nationalism among the public. The Kaiser and the German establishment hoped the war would unite the public behind the monarchy, and lessen the threat posed by the dramatic growth of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which had been the most vocal critic of the Kaiser in the Reichstag before the war. Despite its membership in the Second International, the Social Democratic Party of Germany ended its differences with the Imperial government and abandoned its principles of internationalism to support the war effort.

It soon became apparent that Germany was not prepared for a war lasting more than a few months. At first, little was done to regulate the economy for a wartime footing, and the German war economy would remain badly organized throughout the war. Germany depended on imports of food and raw materials, which were stopped by the British blockade of Germany. Food prices were first limited, then rationing was introduced. In 1915 five million pigs were massacred in the so-called Schweinemord to both make food and preserve grain. The winter of 1916/17 was called "turnip winter" because the potato harvest was poor and people ate animal feed including vile-tasting turnips. During the war from August 1914 to mid-1919, the excess deaths over peacetime caused by malnutrition and high rates of exhaustion and disease and despair came to about 474,000 civilians.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)

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