Bismarck: Master Planner or Opportunist?

Category: Europe, Military, Wars
Last Updated: 17 Aug 2022
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Other Historians have recently claimed that rather than plan unification, Bismarck was a skilful diplomat who used events as opportunities to promote Prussian interests. Regardless of whether Bismarck planned unification or used events as opportunities he definitely had a favourable ‘hand of cards’ which he inherited when he became Minister-President in 1862 which allowed him to unify Germany by 1871. 1. To obtain Russian Neutrality. Evidence for Plan: He obtained Russian neutrality for the later War with Austria through the Alvensleben Convention of 1863. This meant Russian Poles who escaped over the border into Prussian Poland would be returned to the Tsar. Evidence against Plan: It is unlikely that Bismarck knew the Poles would revolt in advance and it seems more likely STAGE MASTER PLAN that he helped the Tsar to prevent the Prussian Poles rebelling too. The International condemnation at Alvensleben led Bismarck to play down the event’s significance which outraged the Tsar. It almost led to him being sacked by William I. Analysis: Despite gaining Russian neutrality in the following War against Austria Bismarck achieved it through luck rather than planning.

The Tsar was angrier at Austria not supporting Russia in the Crimean War than at Bismarck’s public back down over Alvensleben. He did achieve neutrality but it seems unlikely that he would have planned such a dangerous route. To trick Austria into declaring War. Evidence for the Plan: He created a situation where Austria and Prussia were becoming more hostile to one another. This was created through War with Denmark 1864 when Bismarck persuaded Austria to join them in War.

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Once victorious The Gastein Convention gave Prussia administrative control of Schleswig and Austria control of Holstein. Prussia’s and Austria’s relationship now deteriorates rapidly and when Prussia proposes plans to change the Constitution in Schleswig Austria appeals to the Diet which is forbidden in the Convention and Austria mobilises troops in case of War. Prussia now accuses Austria of being the aggressor and starting War invades Holstein.

Evidence Against Plan: It is unlikely Bismarck could have foreseen the inheritance crisis in Schleswig and STAGE 2 MASTER PLAN Holstein. Also there is strong evidence to suggest that Bismarck was only attempting to annex Schleswig and Holstein and not force a War with Austria. There are letters to his wife that explain he is open to a ‘diplomatic solution’ to the crisis and was willing to prevent War with Austria through diplomacy. Analysis: Whilst not as clear as Stage 1, it still seems likely Bismarck was acting as a Prussian expansionist rather than planning war with Austria as he was still trying to resolve tension through diplomacy until Austria mobilised her troops in 1866. To gain France’s neutrality. Evidence for Plan: Bismarck meets Napoleon III in Biarritz in October 1865 to appeal for neutrality in War with Austria. Napoleon verbally agrees and would persuade Italy to join the War with Prussia. Once Austria was defeated Napoleon would gain Venetia which would be passed to Italy. STAGE 3 MASTER PLAN Evidence against Plan: Bismarck could never be totally sure of Napoleon’s neutrality.

Despite gaining a verbal agreement details are very sketchy as to definite areas of agreement. Also Napoleon later double-crossed Bismarck and made a secret agreement with the Austrians that for French neutrality, if Austria won, Napoleon would be given some Prussian land as a reward. Analysis: Yes the Biarritz meeting was planned and yes the French remained neutral, but it seems through more luck than detailed planning as Napoleon made agreements with both sides and Bismarck could not guarantee French neutrality. Treat Austria Leniently after Defeat. Evidence for Plan: The Treaty of Prague 1866 was lenient on Austria and this was down to Bismarck. Both William I and Von Moltke wanted to advance on to Vienna and press home defeat to humiliate Austria. It took all of Bismarck’s persuasive abilities to prevent this from happening. Austria had to agree to return to her Empire and leave German interests alone, disband the Old Confederation and allow the formation of The North German Confederation under Prussian STAGE 4 MASTER PLAN control. Secret military agreements were then made with the southern states.

Evidence against Plan: Instead of deliberately planning to treat Austria leniently, it is more likely that Bismarck wanted to consolidate gains and to prevent France or other European Powers from joining the War in support of Austria which could have jeopardised gains made. Analysis: Although Bismarck’s diplomatic skill in persuading William and von Moltke to go no further after the Battle of Koningratz (Sadowa,) it seems more likely that he did it to prevent French hostilities and to keep the gains made by Prussia during the War. To trick France into declaring War. Evidence for Plan: Bismarck goes against the French claim of Luxembourg by proposing a German prince instead, which certainly angered Napoleon. In 1868 when the revolutions in Spain forces out the Queen they offer the throne to Leopold of Hohenzollern (related to Prussian Royal family) in 1870.

Bismarck could accept to gain Spain as an ally but it would worry France (who would be encircled). Finally 12th July 1870 it was decided to withdraw Leopold as a candidate. On the 13th July French foreign Ambassador Benedetti meets William I at German town of Ems and William accepted withdrawal of Leopold but refused to promise what the French were demanding; the withdrawal of all future accession rights. William sent the telegram to Bismarck recalling the events. STAGE 5 MASTER PLAN Bismarck’s genius comes into his own and releases his own version of the telegram to the press which is so inflammatory that French declares War on Prussia on the 19th July 1870.

Evidence Against the Plan: Bismarck initially supported the French claim to Luxembourg but later changes his mind. He also allows the withdrawal of Leopold as a candidate which doesn’t suggest he was trying to provoke the French. Although the Ems telegram was deliberately doctored by him to cause the French to declare War on Prussia it is more likely that he made the decision after he received the telegram rather than planning the events in advance. How could he have anticipated such aggressive French foreign policy in the demands Benedetti made on William. Analysis: Although there is more evidence here to suggest Bismarck planned to get the French to declare war; it is unlikely that he planned it prior to 1862 as he suggests.

There is more evidence to suggest he decided to provoke France after receiving the Telegram, so therefore taking events as opportunities when they arose. Bismarck was a skilful politician who was most probably a Prussian Supremacist who wanted Prussian expansion at the expense of the Austrians.

It is most unlikely that he planned unification from the start in 1862 and more likely that he used opportunities when they presented themselves to benefit Prussia, initially and later, for Germany. It is more likely that he first wanted to expand Prussian territory into Schleswig and Holstein, but thwarted by the Austrians was forced into war with them in 1866. Similarly in order to consolidate the North German Confederation under Prussian control, the Treaty of Prague was lenient so not to provoke the French.


Finally once the military agreements were in place with the southern states, Bismarck used the opportunities presented as a result of the Luxembourg Situation and the Hohenzollern Candidature Crisis to re-write the Ems Telegram. This again was where he saw the opportunity of expansion to include all German states under Prussian leadership. The only people who believe the Master plan were Bismarck himself and early German historians who were still in awe of the great statesman that had unified Germany. Most other historians realise that he was more likely an incredibly skilful opportunist and able politician.

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Bismarck: Master Planner or Opportunist?. (2017, Apr 07). Retrieved from

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