March 20, 1890 – Retirement of Otto von Bismarck

On this date in history, Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany and Prime Minister of Prussia, resigned at the insistence of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Otto von Bismarck in 1881

Otto von Bismarck in 1881

Bismarck’s diplomacy of Realpolitik and powerful rule gained him the nickname the “Iron Chancellor.” He employed a very complex system of treaties and agreements and understandings to keep Europe peaceful. Moreover, on the home front, Bismarck cleverly undercut the appeal of the Socialists by introducing such programs as pensions, accident insurance, medical care and unemployment insurance. Thus he kept domestic unrest in check.

But in 1888, the German Emperor, Wilhelm I, died. He left the throne to his son, Friedrich III, who died himself some three months later. The new monarch, Wilhelm II, opposed many of Bismarck’s careful conciliatory policies, preferring that Germany should have her “place in the sun.”

Wilhelm II in 1902

Wilhelm II in 1902

According to George F. Kennan, in The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, And the Coming of the First World War (1984), Bismarck’s retirement sent shock waves and aroused a sense of uncertainty throughout the entire continent:

…many people… were instinctively aware that the road was now open for far-reaching changes in the entire structure of relationships among the great powers.”

One of those changes was that, without Bismarck’s influence, Germany no longer would bind itself by treaty to Russia, leaving Russia isolated and thus compelled to search elsewhere for an alliance partner. Moreover, Germany would thus become more dependent on Austria and Italy. This unstable situation contributed to the poisonous atmosphere that led to World War I.


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