The election of 1890 was a disaster for Bismarck. The Centre, the Social Democrats, and the Progressives, the parties that he had termed enemies of the empire, gained more than half of the seats in the new Reichstag. The new young emperor William II (b. 1859; emperor and king of Prussia from 1888 to 1918) did not want to begin his reign with a bloodbath or a coup d'état by the state. Seventy-five years old in 1890, Bismarck resigned with a sense of having failed. The antisocialist law was not revived, and the new government set out to win the workers to the regime. Bismarck retired to his estate an embittered man. That he was now a prince and extremely wealthy did not ease his retirement. For the next eight years (he died in 1898) he issued sharp critiques of his successors. Elected to the Reichstag, he chose not to take his seat. He wrote his memoirs, which became best-sellers. To some extent he orchestrated the Bismarck legend that was to dominate German historical writing for the next half century.
Bismarck was a towering figure who put his stamp on his age, as Luther and Metternich had done earlier. When Bismarck became prime minister of Prussia in 1862, the kingdom was universally considered the weakest of the five European powers. Less than nine years later Prussia had been victorious in three wars, and a unified German Empire had emerged in the heart of Europe, arousing envy and fear among its rivals. When Bismarck left office in 1890, after 28 years as prime minister of Prussia and 19 as chancellor of the German Empire, the map of Europe had been changed beyond measure. The European centre, characterized by a weak conglomeration of small and medium-sized states for centuries, was now home to the foremost military and industrial power on the Continent.
Bismarck's legacy to the next generation, however, was a mixed one. In foreign affairs his skill had led to 20 years of peace in Europe, which had gained him a deserved reputation for moderation and a sense of limits. Bismarck's greatest achievement, the German Empire, only survived him by 20 years. Although he had united Germany in one sense, he had failed to create an internally unified people. In domestic affairs--as in foreign policy--he sought to freeze the status quo after 1871. His empire was designed to be conservative. Thus he opposed the Catholic Centre in the 1870s and the socialists in the 1880s because both constituted unforeseen threats to his authoritarian creation. He also introduced a vicious rhetoric into German politics that forestalled a sense of common destiny. While German industry developed rapidly during his decades in power, he would allow no evolution in the political system toward greater participation. In this sense, Bismarck was a last representative of the world of the ancien regime and cabinet diplomacy.
"Bismarck, Otto von" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.