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What are the successes and failures of Bismarck's domestic policies?

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Otto von Bismarck was a Prince, ambassador, and eventually Chancellor of the newly unified German Empire in the late 1800s. He led a long political career and is noted for his skill with political relations and diplomacy. Therefore, there are many successes of note in his reign.

The biggest success, and clearly the most lasting one, is his unification of the German Empire. Throughout the Franco-Prussian war and other conflicts, Bismarck was a leader and inspiring force. When it all came to a conclusion, he was able to successfully unify and repair Germany and its neighboring nations—becoming the first Chancellor of Germany.

Kulturkampf was a failure of his legacy, but that has already been explored. His difficulties with France are another well-known issue that he had. France grew frustrated with Germany's growing prowess, and the two nations were frequently at odds—and Bismarck could never get them to agree. He eventually dropped all attempts at negotiation and preferred to work on other matters that he could resolve.

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Otto Von Bismarck was a nineteenth century conservative and supporter of the Prussian monarchy, and much of his domestic policy was centered around maintaining and strengthening those traditional aristocratic and monarchical power structures. We see this perspective reflected in Bismarck's direction of the German Empire.

First of all, note that Germany was first and foremost a Prussian polity, with the Prussian King exchanging his crown for the title of Emperor— German politics were ultimately dominated by Prussian politics. At the same time, the traditional Prussian nobility retained economic, military, and political dominance. Bismarck's German Constitution was not a liberal or democratic regime. This was purposefully designed.

As powerful as Bismarck was, however, you should be aware that his authority remained in its own way very fragile, given that it ultimately depended on, and was derived from, the continued support of the Emperor. Consider the rise of a new German emperor, Wilhelm II, who was far less enthusiastic about Bismarck's programs. Their acrimonious relationship ended with Bismarck's resignation. Wilhelm II would proceed to lead Germany further down the path to World War I, which resulted in the dismantling of the entire political system whose creation Bismarck had overseen.

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One major success was Bismarck's constitution itself. Pressured by German liberals to create a constitutional government after the unification of the country in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck created a government that would guarantee him practical control of Germany for years to come. He created a bicameral legislature in which the people's representatives, housed in the Reichstag, were balanced by the German nobles in the Bundesrat. But most important was that Bismarck himself would be Chancellor, which, according to the constitution, meant he could only be removed from power by the emperor himself. This, along with the considerable powers of the office, gave him enormous influence over the direction of the new German state. 

A failure of Bismarck's tenure was the so-called Kulturkampf, his political attack on Catholics within the German state. Justified in the minds of Bismarck and other Germans by the proclamation of papal infallibility by Pope Pius IX in 1870, this was an attempt to marginalize the role of the Catholic Church. Bismarck's effort failed in most parts of German, except those regions where the Catholic Church was already marginal. He was forced, as a consequence, to enter into a political alliance with Catholics, an eventuality that did not cause Bismarck, ever the opportunist, much consternation.

Source: McKay, Hill, and Buckler, A History of Western Society, 7th edition. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003) 839.

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