The nineteenth century was for Germany more than for any other country a period of change. At its beginning -- at the Congress of Vienna -- a German state did not even exist; instead, there was a conglomeration of medium and small states, monarchies, dukedoms, ecclesiastical states, and free cities, most of them impoverished and rural, with few large towns, connected by a few major rivers and some ill-kept roads. By the end of the century, on the eve of the First World War, Germany was the foremost industrial country on the continent, unified, strong, largely urban, bursting at its seams with energy and expanding its trade and commerce to the four corners of the globe.
These social, economic, and political changes, from a rural to an urban society, from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and from particularism to unification in a period of less than fifty years may explain the problems as well as the challenges which Bismarck faced during his term of office. Combining in his ancestry the two dominant strands of German society -- the bureaucratic bourgeoisie and the military nobility -- Bismarck's fighting nature and strong will led him to the premiership of Prussia in a time of grave constitutional crisis. By sheer force of personality, cold calculation, and favorable circumstances, he was able to unify Germany under Prussian leadership with considerable popular support. Propelled from the provincial German to the cosmopolitan European stage, and performing simultaneously on both, Bismarck managed for two decades to guide his country through increasingly difficult situations.
At home, he maintained the power of the old order -- monarchy, aristocracy, army -- in the face of major economic and social changes. His two major struggles against the Catholic church and the Social Democratic party ended in failure and left the country deeply divided. In foreign affairs he preserved Germany's preeminent position and the peace of Europe until his dismissal. To do so he created a system so