Every fortnight former civil servants should thank this imposing figure from the nineteenth century. In old age he was impressive, with his walrus moustache and bushy eyebrows. He is as quotable as Churchill and his utterances make more sense.
Here are some which still resound through the European mind.
“Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a soldier dying on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.”
“I have seen three emperors in their nakedness, and the sight was not inspiring.”
“There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America. The Americans cry out ‘God save America’, but Bismark had a different take on the matter.”
He more or less lived through the nineteenth century. The effects he had on Europe are still to be observed.
He welded Germany into a state, placed a Kaiser at its head and later he was dismissed by the same, ungrateful Kaiser Wilhelm II. William II obtained Bismarck's resignation on March 18, 1890. The world was stunned at the sudden departure of the man credited with keeping the peace in Europe for two decades.
There is little good or sensitive one can say of William II’s life. Here is a short historical summary of this political fool.
William II or Wilhelm II (1859 to 1941), German Emperor (‘Kaiser’) and King of Prussia. Taking power in 1888, he dismissed the chancellor, Prince Otto on Bismarck, in 1890 and launched Germany on a bellicose ‘New Course’ in foreign affairs, culminating in his support for Austria in the crisis of summer 1914 that caused World War I.
Bombastic and impetuous, he overruled his civilian chancellors, blundered time and again, made major diplomatic decisions on his own and made critical military decisions without consulting the civilian government.
An ineffective war leader, he lost the support of the army, abdicated in November 1918 and fled to exile in the Netherlands to escape trial for causing the war.
On arrival he requested a cup of British tea. Drinking this tea I am not sure what he thought about. Perhaps the name Bismarck might have crossed his mind. Did he recall the bills, which Bismark passed through the parliament are now a protective part of our lives? Here they are and worth our consideration.
The first bill that had success was the Health Insurance Bill, which was passed in 1883. The programme was considered the least important from Bismarck’s point of view and the least politically troublesome.
The programme was established to provide health care for the largest segment of the German workers. The health service was established on a local basis, with the cost divided between employers and the employed. The employers contributed 1/3, while the workers contributed 2/3s. The minimum payments for medical treatment and sick pay for up to 13 weeks were legally fixed.
The individual local health bureaus were administered by a committee elected by the members of each bureau, and this move had the unintended effect of establishing a majority representation for the workers on account of their large financial contribution. This worked to the advantage of the Social Democrats who – through heavy worker membership – achieved their first small foothold in public administration.
Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
Bismarck’s government had to submit three draft bills before they could get one passed by the Reichstag in 1884. Bismarck had originally proposed that the Federal government pay a portion of the Accident Insurance contribution. Bismarck’s motive was a demonstration of the willingness of the German government to lessen the hardship experienced by the German workers as a means of weaning them away from the various left-wing parties, most importantly the Social Democrats.
Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889
The Old Age Pension program, an insurance equally financed by employers and workers, was designed to provide a pension annuity for workers who reached the age of 70 years. Unlike the accident insurance and health insurance programmes, this programme covered industrial, agrarian, artisans and servants from the start.
Also, unlike the other two programs, the principle that the Federal government should contribute a portion of the underwriting cost, with the other two portions prorated accordingly, was accepted without question. The disability insurance program was intended to be used by those permanently disabled. This time, the state or province supervised the programs directly.
Bismarck spent his final years composing his memoirs Thoughts and Memories in which he increased the drama around every event and always presented himself favourably.
He died in October 1898 (at the age of 83) at Friedrichsruh, where he is entombed in the Bismarck-Mausoleum. He continued his feud with Wilhelm II by attacking him in his memoirs. He managed one final attack on Wilhelm by having his tombstone inscribed with the epitaph: ‘Here lies a true servant of the Emperor Wilhelm I’.
In December 1897, Wilhelm II visited Bismarck for the last time. Bismarck warned the Kaiser about the dangers of many things. Amongst these he said.
"One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans".
Bismarck had warned in February 1888 of a Balkan crisis turning into a world war although when that war did come in 1914, the Balkan country was Serbia, not Bulgaria.
So spare a thought for Otto Von Bismark when you draw your pension, or enjoy medical insurance.