Historians have reached a broad consensus on the content, function and importance of the image of Bismarck within Germany’s political culture over the past 125 years.
Bismarck's most important legacy is the unification of Germany. Germany had existed as a collection of hundreds of separate principalities and Free Cities since the formation of the Holy Roman Empire. Over the next hundred years various kings and rulers had tried to unify the German states without success until Bismarck. Largely as a result of Bismarck's efforts, the various German kingdoms were united into a single country. Following unification, Germany became one of the most powerful nations in Europe. Bismarck's astute, cautious, and pragmatic foreign policies allowed Germany to retain peacefully the powerful position into which he had brought it; maintaining amiable diplomacy with almost all European nations. France, the main exception, was devastated by Bismarck's wars and his harsh subsequent policies towards it; France became one of Germany's most bitter enemies in Europe. Austria, too, was weakened by the creation of a German Empire, though to a much lesser extent than France. Bismarck believed that as long as Britain, Russia and Italy were assured of the peaceful nature of the German Empire, French belligerency could be contained; his diplomatic feats were undone, however, by Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose policies unified other European powers against Germany in time for World War I. Historians stress that Bismarck’s peace-oriented, ‘saturated continental diplomacy’ was increasingly unpopular, because it consciously reined in any expansionist drives. In dramatic contrast stands the ambition of Wilhelm II’s Weltpolitik to secure the Reich’s future through expansion, leading to World War I. Likewise Bismarck’s policy to deny the military a dominant voice in foreign political decisionmaking was overturned by 1914 as Germany became an armed state.
In British writing (e.g. the biographies by Taylor, Palmer or Crankshaw) Bismarck is often seen as an ambivalent figure, undoubtedly a man of great skill but who left no lasting system in place to guide successors less skilled than himself. Being a committed monarchist himself, Bismarck could not envision any effective constitutional check to the power of the Emperor, thus placing a time bomb in a foundation of the State he created.
During most of his nearly 30 year-long tenure, Bismarck held undisputed control over the government's policies. He was well supported by his friend Albrecht von Roon, the war minister, as well as the leader of the Prussian army Helmuth von Moltke. Bismarck's diplomatic moves relied on a victorious Prussian military, and these two people gave Bismarck the victories he needed to convince the smaller German states to join Prussia.
Bismarck took steps to silence or restrain political opposition, as evidenced by laws restricting the freedom of the press, the Kulturkampf, and the anti-socialist laws. His king (later Emperor) Wilhelm I rarely challenged the Chancellor's decisions; on several occasions, Bismarck obtained his monarch's approval by threatening to resign. However, Wilhelm II intended to govern the country himself, making the ousting of Bismarck one of his first tasks as Kaiser. Bismarck's successors as Chancellor were much less influential, as power was concentrated in the Emperor's hands.
Numerous statues and memorials dot the cities, towns, and countryside of Germany, and the famous Bismarck Memorial in Berlin, not to mention numerous Bismarck towers on four continents. The only memorial showing him as a student at Göttingen University (together with his dog Tiran) and as a member of his Corps Hannovera was re-erected in 2006 at the Rudelsburg. The gleaming white The Bismarck-Denkmal (German for Bismarck monument) is a monument in the city of Hamburg. It stands in the centre of the St. Pauli district. Built in 1906, it is the largest and probably most well-known memorial to Bismarck worldwide. The statues depicted him as massive, monolithic, rigid and unambiguous. Two ships of the German Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine), and the Bismarck from the World War II–era, were named after him.
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