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Bismarck was born at Schönhausen, in the Kingdom of Prussia. His father, Ferdinand von Bismarck-Schönhausen, was a Junker squire descended from a Swabian family that had ultimately settled as estate owners in Pomerania. Ferdinand was a typical member of the Prussian landowning elite. The family’s economic circumstances were modest—Ferdinand’s farming skills being perhaps less than average—and Bismarck was not to know real wealth until the rewards flowed in after the achievement of German unification. His mother, Wilhelmine Mencken, came from an educated bourgeois family that had produced a number of higher civil servants and academics. She had been married to Ferdinand von Bismarck at age 16 and found provincial life confining. When her son Otto was seven, she enrolled him in the progressive Plamann Institute in Berlin and moved to the capital to be near him. The young Bismarck resented exchanging an easy life in the country for a more circumscribed life in a large city, where in school he was pitted against the sons of Berlin’s best-educated families. He spent five years at the school and went on to the Frederick William gymnasium for three years. He took his university entrance examination (Abitur) in 1832.

With his mother’s encouragement, he took up the study of law at the University of Göttingen in the kingdom of Hanover. Evidently Bismarck was a mediocre student who spent much of his time drinking with his comrades in an aristocratic fraternity. After a brief stint at the university in Berlin, he entered the Prussian civil service, where he was plagued by boredom and an inability to adhere to the hierarchical principles of the bureaucracy. His mother’s death in 1839 gave him the opportunity of resigning in order to come to the assistance of his father, who was experiencing financial difficulties in the management of his estate. From 1839 to 1847 Bismarck lived the ordinary life of a Prussian country squire. Subsequently he romanticized these years on the land and wondered why he had abandoned an idyllic existence for the insecurities of a life in politics. This frequently expressed nostalgia may have been more guise than reality.

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