Homeschoolers and libraries go together like Junior Mints and popcorn. That’s why a little library unit study makes the perfect homeschool project.
Celebrate the 103rd anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal this month by digging into the celebrated passageway’s fascinating history.
People had been talking about building a canal through Panama since the 1500s, but it wasn’t until maverick President Theodore Roosevelt channeled his energy into the project during the early 20th century that the 50-foot waterway across the isthmus of Panama became a reality. Today, the Panama Canal is celebrated as one of the most innovative engineering projects of all time and one of the most costly, in terms of both dollars and lives.
WHAT TO WATCH
PBS tackles the canal’s history and significance in American Experience: The Panama Canal. This very watchable documentary is an excellent way to put the canal in its historic and modern contexts.
WHAT TO READ
What Is the Panama Canal? (part of the What Was? series) is a young reader-friendly introduction to the history and function of the Panama Canal.
Julie Green takes a different approach in The Canal Builders, focusing on the lives of the builders, most of whom came from the Caribbean to take the dirty, dangerous jobs that white workers didn’t want.
David McCullough’s sweeping history The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 is considered the definitive read for Panama Canal history.
CHECK THIS OUT
Harvard’s web-accessible collection Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics offers a compelling look at the African-American experience in the building of the Panama Canal. Other attempts at canal digging had failed in part because of the sheer prevalence of tropical diseases, but the U.S. effort enlisted the assistance of a chief sanitary officer to minimize diseases among its workers.
Learn more about the yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases that plagued work crews via the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections. Explore the Smithsonian Institution’s interactive Let Dirt Fly! exhibit online for a quick history of the canal. It’s pretty amazing to look at the capacities of some of the giant steam shovels brought in to work on the canal and to think that even with all that machinery at full force, it still took more than nine years of non-stop work to actually complete the canal, especially considering how tiny that strip of land looks on the world map.
The Panama Canal Museum has digitized many primary documents relating to the canal and has a useful timeline. You can also explore its online exhibition on the history and significance of the Panama Canal.
This list was originally published in our summer 2014 issue of HSL.
Are you ready for Women's History Month? Here's a roundup of some of our favorite HSL reading lists for Women's History Month from the archives:
He led the United States through one of its bloodiest conflicts, ended slavery, and gave some of history’s most memorable speeches. Celebrate Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 with these resources
“The Presidency, even to the most experienced politicians, is no bed of roses,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in his 1850 eulogy for President Zachary Taylor. Lincoln was a decade away from his own presidency, and he must have felt the truth of his own words many times in the years that followed, as he sat in the White House, leader of a nation at war with itself. Schools tend to gloss up Lincoln’s story, focusing on his plain-speaking, rail- splitting, self-determined path to the nation’s highest office, but there’s much more to the sixteenth President than a simple story can tell. Don’t be afraid to dig deep — Honest Abe is worth the effort.
Abraham Lincoln has featured in twenty-something movies since his first appearance in Birth of a Nation (1915), but Spielberg’s Lincoln (2013) is arguably one of the best. Much of the script is pulled verbatim from letters and memoirs, and though there are some historical details to nitpick, Spielberg’s efforts to be scrupulous pay off. This is the Lincoln movie to see.
Runner-Up: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Best Scholarly Book
President Barack Obama (himself a former Illinois lawyer) has said that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is the book he’d want to have with him on a desert island. Historian Goodwin is at her best exploring the conflicting personalities and factions that defined the Lincoln White House.
Runner-Up: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
Best Kid’s Book
True story: When Abraham Lincoln was running for his first term as President, a little girl from New York wrote him a letter, suggesting that he consider growing a beard to make his thin face more attractive. Grace’s Letter to Lincoln, by Peter and Connie Roop, tells the lightly fictionalized story of eleven-year-old Grace Bedell’s famous letter. One of the more interesting things about this book is that it portrays a young girl’s obvious political interest during a time when women weren’t allowed to vote.
Runner-Up: The Boys’ Life of Abraham Lincoln by Helen Nicolay
Best Virtual Field Trip
You can — and should — spend hours browsing the Abraham Lincoln collection online at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American history. Including Lincoln’s iconic top hat, the wool shawl he wore in the office, a copy of the original Emancipation Proclamation, and more artifacts and analysis, this virtual field trip may be the ultimate Lincoln experience.
Best Lincoln Biography
How does a man go from being “a piece of floating driftwood” to leading a country through a crisis? That’s the question historian Douglas L. Wilson attempts to answer in his biography Honor’s Voice, painting the many stumbling blocks and difficulties the young attorney ran into on his way to the White House.
Runner-Up: The Young Eagle by Kenneth J. Winkle
Best Collected Lincoln
Perhaps the best way to get to know anyone is through his own writing. The Portable Abraham Lincoln, edited by Andrew Delbanco, includes the speeches and letters that made Lincoln famous, as well as more personal, lesser-known writings. Compelling stuff.
Best Extra Credit
Bet you didn’t know about the 1875 plot to rob Lincoln’s grave and hold his body for ransom — and that’s a shame because it’s a rip-roaring good story. Happily, Steve Sheinkin tells it brilliantly in his can’t-put-down book Lincoln’s Grave Robbers.
Ellis Island may have been closed for sixty years, but you can explore its lasting impact with books, videos, and hands-on activities.
When Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892, it marked the beginning of a new phase of U.S. immigration policy. More than twelve million immigrants came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, many fleeing deteriorating economic conditions and increasing political instability in Europe. A healthy immigrant with her papers in order could make it through Ellis Is- land’s immigration processing and legally enter the United States in three to five hours. Though only two percent of immigrants were denied entry (usually because of contagious illnesses or low likelihood of finding employment), stories of families separated by the newly bureaucratic process are heart-wrenching. Ellis Island officially closed on November 12, 1954.
Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story makes a nice picture book introduction to the history of Ellis Island, relating the story of 15-year-old Annie Moore, the first person processed through the immigration center.
Letters from Rifka is the fictional account of a Russian girl who finally makes it to the United States, only to be held in the Ellis Island hospital.
In The Orphan of Ellis Island, a modern-day foster kid finds himself transported to the past on a school field trip.
Island of Hope, Island of Tears: The Story of Those Who Entered the New World Through Ellis Island in Their Own Words is a good primary source read for older students.
The History Channel documentary Ellis Island, narrated by Mandy Patinkin, relates the history of Ellis Island through the experiences of some of the immigrants who passed through its halls.
PBS’s Forgotten Ellis Island (2008) focuses on the center’s immigrant hospital, where contagious arrivals were detained for treatment.
For older students, The Immigrant (2013) shows the darker side of the immigration process.
Search for your own ancestors in the Ellis Island online passenger database.
If you can’t get to New York City for an in-person field trip, take a virtual one instead with Scholastic’s interactive Ellis Island experience.
This was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of home | school | life.
A Venus flytrap is the quintessential kid’s plant. What child (or adult) isn’t fascinated by touching that little trap and watching it snap shut? Sometimes these plants provide a child with his first attempt at taking care of a plant, and they make a great way of bringing a little bit of nature indoors.
In the wild, those little traps are essential for helping the Venus flytrap catch
prey, usually flies or other small insects, because the prey makes up for a lack of nutrients not found in the soil where these plants live. All carnivorous plants have adapted to living in areas with poor soil by having a mechanism to trap prey. They usually grow in boggy areas or wetlands with very acidic soil that is low in nitrogen and other nutrients.
Did you know that there are over 670 species of carnivorous plants in the world, and in the United States, they are found in every state? (Venus flytraps are native to the Carolinas.) They also live on every continent except for Antarctica.
Believe it or not, Venus fly- traps are not the only carnivorous plant you can grow at home, and grouping them together make a beautiful and fascinating collection. You can probably find a Venus flytrap in the garden section of your local big chain hardware store, but you’ll have to visit specialty shops, order online, or inquire at your local botanical garden for most other species. If you want to make sure your Venus flytrap has been well-taken care of, you might want to buy it from one of these alternative sources as well.
Next time you are in the market for some interesting plants, try out one of these:
Pitcher plants are tall with leaves that look like tubes, though some of the species are hanging plants and look a little more like pouches. The beautiful colors on the top of the leaves lure insects by looking like flowers, and they also produce a sweet- smelling nectar on the rim of the “pitcher,” which slightly intoxicates the insect. As the insect travels down the tube, it’s impossible for them to climb back up because of the tiny downward pointing hairs. At the bottom of the pitcher plant is a pool of digestive enzymes and the end of the road for the unsuspecting insect.
Sundews trap insects like flypaper. There are over 500 species of sundew in the world. Their leaves look like fingers with tiny red spikes on them. At the end of each spike is a sticky mucus, and if an insect lands on it, it gets stuck. Then the leaf will wrap itself around the insect and devour it.
Butterworts are common in North American bogs. The common butter- wort has purple flowers with leaves that form at the base in the shape of a rosette. Like the sundew, its leaves have a sticky secretion that insects will stick to. After getting stuck, the leaves will curl up around the insect, and digestive juices will suck the flesh. As in all carnivorous plants, you can find the exoskeletons of its prey after the leaves open back up.
Bladderworts make a great addition to garden ponds because they produce pretty, yellow flowers. There are over 200 kinds of bladderworts, and most live in the water. Their trap looks like a tiny balloon. When a small creature, such as a mosquito larvae, brushes up against the sensitive hairs on the open- ing of this balloon-like sack, it opens up, and whoosh, like a vacuum cleaner, it sucks up its prey.
You can grow most carnivorous plants in sphagnum moss or peat moss that has no added fertilizer. Remember to never fertilize these plants. They are adapted to living in poor soil.
Shelli’s tips for growing carnivorous plants
- Water your plants with either distilled water or rainwater. Carnivorous plants are sensitive, and chemicals in tap water could kill them.
- If growing indoors, place them in a window with bright, indirect light. Read your instructions to see how moist you should keep the moss. you can keep them partially covered to retain the moisture, but they do need some fresh air to survive.
- Depending on your climate, you might be able to grow them outside. They make great container plants, and they also do well in garden ponds.
- Venus flytraps kept indoors only need to be fed once a month. Don’t try to feed them any other food besides insects, preferably live ones. even though it’s fun to touch the trap and make it close with your finger, be careful not to do that too much. each trap can only be open and closed about four times before it dies.
- For more information about carnivorous plants and how to grow them, you may enjoy looking at the International Carnivorous Plant society website.
- A trustworthy online resource for buying carnivorous plants is flytraps.com. Run by a husband and wife team since 1992, the owners can answer your questions and have detailed growing instructions on their website.
This essay was originally published in the spring 2015 issue of home/school/life.
Happy Hobbit Day! Epic adventure, inspired mythology, and compelling characters make The Hobbit a fun addition to your homeschool any time. But Hobbit Day is a great excuse to make time for a little Tolkien in your homeschool. Here’a a little round-up of ideas for celebrating everybody’s favorite Middle Earth-people.
- Tolkien's World from A to Z: The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth: Just as its name suggests, Robert Foster’s comprehensive, dictionary- style book explains the legends, history, geography, and inhabitants of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between the Maiar and the Istari, this is the book for you.
- Teacher’s Guide: Teaching The Hobbit: If you want to take a traditional, literature class-style approach to The Hobbit (complete with discussion questions and vocabulary notes), Random House’s free teacher’s guide is a handy resource.
- Introducing J.R.R. Tolkien: There are plenty of biographies of The Hobbit’s creator, but this one from the C.S. Lewis review has some nice details about Tolkien’s relationship with the author of the Narnia books and their shared interest in fantasy literature.
- The Tolkien Professor: Tolkien-obsessed literature professor Corey Olsen’s lectures are delightfully detailed.
- The J.R.R. Tolkien Audio Collection: It’s worth listening to these recordings of Tolkien reading his work just to hear Tolkien make the odd, distinctive gulping sound he imagined for Gollum.
- The Hobbit: The 1977 animated version of The Hobbit is quirky, charming, and surprisingly faithful.
- The Hobbit Trilogy: I personally wasn’t a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation of The Hobbit (which took out stuff I really liked, added in stuff that never happened, and stretched out a perfectly paced story over three films—but I digress), but even if you’re picking the flicks apart as you watch, a movie marathon is totally fun way to get in the Middle Earth spirit.
- Modern Writers: J.R.R. Tolkien: The BBC’s 1968 interview with Tolkien captures the very beginning of the Middle Earth craze and features the author strolling through his beloved Oxford, chatting about everything from the enchantment of the natural world to his fondness for beer.
- Learn Rune Writing. The Tolkien Society introduces the runic alphabet. Use it to translate, invent, or just write notes in secret code. I think it’s run to write the characters on river rocks or clay shapes to make a tactile runic alphabet.
- Keep a Character Diary. Use Thorin’s diary as inspiration for creating your own character diary as you read.
- Explore the Hero’s Journey. Bilbo’s grand adventure falls into a long tradition of epic stories, and ReadWriteThink’s interactive exploration of the hero’s journey is a great introduction to this literary staple.
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Dawn Smith has been a friend of home/school/life since its inception, and we’ve been a big fan of her and Annie Riechmann’s nature blog, Mud Puddles to Meteors for a long time. So we feel very good telling you about Dawn and Annie’s new book, Whatever the Weather, which would be a perfect addition to any homeschooler’s bookshelf.
Whatever the Weather is all about sparking wonder and excitement about the weather through art and science. It is filled with simple science experiments and art projects, and a section called “Science Behind the Scenes” accompanies each activity. This section provides families with the science related to the weather phenomena they are playing with in the activity. Dawn told me they did this because they wanted families to have easily accessible scientific facts about the weather phenomena so they would grow in their understanding of how the weather works.
I have my own copy of Whatever the Weather, and I have been having a great time reading through it and planning activities to do with my two boys. But I had to wonder: How does Dawn do it all? She’s a homeschooling mom, she writes books, leads nature walks, facilitates a nature lab, and is now working hard to promote her new book. I wanted to interview her about her book, writing life, homeschooling and more, and I thought readers of home/school/life would enjoy getting to know about this cool nature-homeschool mama too. So please enjoy the interview below, and then leave a comment so that you can get a chance to win a free copy of Whatever the Weather, compliments of Roost Books.
In addition, be sure to look for an article Dawn is writing for us about weather studies in our upcoming Fall 2016 issue.
What made you and Annie decide to write a book about the weather?
Well, Annie and I are fascinated with the weather. We both grew up on the West coast and moved to the east where there are different weather patterns and much more extreme winters (with the wild mix of weather that goes along with winter weather). This new weather made us realize what a big role weather plays in our lives, especially with kids. The weather had become a topic of study with our own children and it all just grew from there.
How did the journey of writing the book begin?
Annie and I had met while contributing to a nature blog that some friends had started, and we clicked. Once that blog started to wind down, we stayed connected and talked often.
One morning I got an email from Annie that said, “We should write a book!” I laugh just thinking about it. It seemed like such a natural next step.
I had quite a few half-started book projects already, and Annie had been creating Alphabet Glue for some time, so we tossed around some of those projects and came up with the idea to write a family guide to nature. We basically wanted to write the book we wished we had had for our own families when we first started exploring nature with our kids.
In a long and rather fun process a chapter of that book, about the weather, became an e-book on our blog, Mud Puddles to Meteors.
In the process of pitching our original book idea, editor Jennifer Urban-Brown at Roost Books, saw the e-book posted on our blog and wanted to see it. She had been thinking of a book about weather, and after seeing the e-book, asked us to write it.
I know you lead nature walks and also facilitate an online nature lab. Please tell us about those and how you got started in teaching nature studies.
I really got started with sharing nature studies by simply sharing our own discoveries with others online. When we first moved to Nova Scotia from California we did not have a car, or a friend network, so I relied on fostering online friendships with other homeschool families, and many of those families happened to also be involved with nature study. We shared and learned a lot from each other.
I started a “nature” version of my personal blog and things have grown from there.
The nature walks started because my local friend and I decided to do what I can best describe as a mini co-op. I took her older kids for a nature walk and taught them nature study once a week (while she did story time and activities with her younger children) and I dropped my kids at her house on another day for art lessons (while I went to the library for writing time). It worked out so well she encouraged me to start doing nature walks for our homeschool group. Now I do a Forest Friday program for our local group and it is wonderful.
The nature lab is an extension of that desire to share nature and nature study with other families. It grew out of a Fall Outside program I had done in the fall to encourage families to get outside for 30 days in November. So many people loved having a daily nature prompt show up in their inbox they asked me to continue. Now I offer the Mud Puddles Nature Lab and it is growing into a wonderful community of families (many of them homeschoolers).
You are a homeschooling mom, you write books, lead nature walks, facilitate a nature lab, and also co-author the blog, Mud Puddles to Meteors and help promote it! Whew! (Did I miss anything?!) How do you find the time to do all this? What is your routine like?
Whew! I am tired just reading all of that! Ha!
To be quite honest, I don’t find time for it all. There is an ebb and flow, just like with anything. Sometimes the blog sits for quite some time without a post, I am not always writing a book (although there are more books on the horizon), and the great thing about the nature walks is that we would be doing that anyway – we just get to take a group of families along with us, which is great!
Having so many things on the go could not be possible if it was not a family effort.
My husband works really hard for our family and cleans the bathroom (because it is my least favorite thing to clean). My kids pitch in around the house with their chores and are becoming more and more self-directed daily. I certainly could not do it all without the support of my family.
My son went to school this year for the first time (grade 4) so I only have my daughter at home now. That has certainly lightened the homeschool preparations and time. She is almost 13 years old and is very independent in her studies and projects. We spend time together each morning on lessons and project work and she works on her own for the rest of the school day until her brother gets home.
Most mornings I get up around 4 a.m. to write when the house is quiet. I don’t allow myself to go on social media during that time because I have to be really efficient with those quiet hours and I get the bulk of my writing done during that time. It is easier to catch up with the groups I have online, edit photos, and other tasks when the household is awake but for writing, I need to have quiet.
What does your style of homeschooling look like? What made you realize homeschooling was a good fit for your daughter?
We are fairly eclectic in our homeschool but mainly rely on project-based homeschooling. It is a really good fit for my daughter because when she has an interest in a topic she becomes consumed with it. She is an amazing researcher (I am sure because we have laid the foundation for her to be an independent life-long learner from the beginning) and loves to delve into even the most obscure aspects of a topic. Our librarians always know when she is on to something new because she puts every book the library owns on that topic on hold (thank goodness Halifax has an amazing library system).
What inspires you?
Other mamas inspire me the most.
While there are some really inspiring people out there who are making a big difference in the world on a larger scale, for everyday inspiration I look toward my little tribe of mama friends, people online who I have fostered relationships with over the years, and those mamas sharing the everyday life stuff on Instagram or Facebook. They are the ones I call when I am in tears because sometimes life is just too much, they are the ones cheering me on when I think things are too hard, and they are the ones who are right in the thick if it alongside me. It is such an inspiration to see everyday life play out in beautiful ways each day, even in the midst of piles of laundry, dinners being made, and crying kiddos.
I am also inspired by little details. Take one look at my Instagram feed and it would not take someone long to see I really like to tune into the tiny things that make the world go round.
It is inspiring when I see something small and think about how all of those little details make up the world. It makes me think of what is possible and realize that when things seem big and overwhelming tuning into small details can make life more manageable, in the same way that each letter makes a word, each word a sentence, and before you know it you have written a book.
Are you working on a new project now that the book is published?
There always seems to be at least one project, or more, in the works.
Right now my focus is on the Mud Puddles Nature Lab and reaching out to families who want extra support in getting out the door or to simply join a tribe of families moving in the same direction. It is in its infancy and is really becoming a lovely community.
I am also working on thematic, nature inspired activity guides that will include natural history, language arts, math, science, art and more. I am really excited about those too!
And, there are more books in the works. That is a very long process but hopefully there will be another book to share with you sooner rather than later.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would just like to add that I really appreciate the homeschool community as a whole. It is amazing how even when we take different approaches to teaching our children and have different points of view on other matters, we can connect over our desire to homeschool our children, find the middle ground, and support each other. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this wonderful community.
Now here’s your chance to win a free copy of Whatever the Weather. Leave a comment here on the blog and tell us why you’d like a copy of the book, and we’ll randomly select a winner from the entries. We’ll choose a winner on TUESDAY, AUGUST 2, so please check back then to see if you won. Good luck!
Mysterious deaths! Tragic beauties! Political drama! Honestly, it’s no wonder the life of Mary Stuart, queen of France and Scotland, has inspired a televised teen drama. Mary’s life and eventual execution have intrigued creative types for centuries. Was Mary really a manipulative black widow determined to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I and reign over England and Scotland? Or was she an innocent victim of a time when women’s political power was controlled by men? Four hundred and seventy years after she was crowned Queen of Scotland, Mary and her motives remain a mystery. Once you’ve read (and watched) a few versions of her story, you’ll no doubt have your own opinion.
The mysterious death of Lord Darnley was the beginning of the end for Mary. Weir thinks Mary is innocent of her second husband’s murder — Weir puts the blame on the very nobles who accused their Queen — but her Mary is definitely guilty of poor judgment.
Mary was only nine months old when was crowned Queen of Scotland and seventeen years old when she became the Queen of France. Lasky focuses her attention on what may have been the only truly happy time in Mary’s life — her childhood growing up at the French court with her fiancé Francis, the heir to the French throne.
Mary wasn’t a very good queen, concedes Fraser in her groundbreaking biography. But she certainly wasn’t guilty of the murders and conspiracies that led to her execution in England.
Unlike her cousin Elizabeth who never traveled outside of England, Mary lived in England, Scotland, and France during her life. Cheetham brings the geography of Mary’s life to the forefront, telling her story through the places she lived.
What was life like for women in the 1500s who didn’t happen to be born into the Scottish royal family? Bingham answers that question, illuminating the vast differences between Mary’s tumultuous life and the life a common woman of the time would have led.
George takes a sympathetic approach, painting the queen as an emotionally and politically naïve young woman whose bad decisions ultimately led to her downfall.
Why were so many people loyal to the Scottish queen? In her book, Yolen examines the charming, affectionate, and generous Mary through the eyes of her fool, Nicola, and the members of her adoring court.
When bookish Penelope travels back in time from the 1930s to the 1500s, she becomes caught up in her ancestors’ efforts to restore the captive-in-England Mary to the throne. Uttley explores some of the legal, religious, and personal reasons Elizabeth I’s subjects may have supported Mary.
Adieux de Marie Stuart (c. 1876)
By Pierre-Jean de Béranger
De Béranger’s nineteenth-century poem paints the young Queen Mary as a tragic, romantic heroine whose fate is sealed when she departs the shores of her beloved France.
On the screen
Katharine Hepburn plays Mary as a martyr in this romantic tragedy. Interestingly, the Earl of Bothwell, generally regarded as a manipulative scoundrel, gets the heartthrob treatment in this film version.
Mary and Elizabeth meet face-to-face in this drama, an event that never occurred in historical fact. Mary, played by Vanessa Redgrave, is an emotionally impulsive young woman who is easily manipulated into making bad decisions by her more rational cousin in this film.
Mary, played by Samantha Morton, is not much more than a pawn in a bigger Catholic conspiracy in this film.
The “Horrible Conspiracies” episode of this BBC miniseries focuses on Mary’s years of captivity in England and ultimate execution, as seen through the eyes of Elizabeth I and her councilors.
An animated short about Mary’s life attributes the origins of the Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary nursery rhyme to the Scottish queen.
Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg—or, as some refer to him, Otto Von Bismarck—boasts a name that echoes in the annals of history. A man who was by all means larger than life and who single-handedly influenced and shaped the way Europe would develop even after his death, Otto was born in Schönhausen, Prussia, on April 1st 1815. Otto wouldn’t truly truly enter the spotlight until he was in his 30s, but what he accomplished between that time and his death in 1898 would forever change the European landscape.
During his life, Bismarck took on many titles and jobs. From simple foot soldier in the Prussian army, to Major-General of the same army, to lawyer, to diplomat, to elected representative, to Minister of Foreign affairs, to Chancellor of the North German Confederation. The skills he picked up in each position he worked would carry on to the next. He was a practical man and a charismatic one, too. He knew how to play the political game and would waste no time or expense in the effort to accomplish what he wanted. And what he ultimately wanted was a united Germany.
Bismarck had a vision. At the time, Germany was split into dozens of minor states, all loosely connected by confederations and treaties. The Holy Roman Empire, which had made up most of Central Europe, had been dismantled in 1806. And the landscape of Europe was one filled with complicated boundaries, confusing borders, and a population of people who considered themselves German but had no true nation to call their own. In the west sat France, home of the French. And in the east sat Russia, land of the Russians. Bismarck saw this as a sad disparity, and in the end, made it his life goal to oversee the formation of a German homeland.
How he would go about accomplishing this was the work of a genius. Otto von Bismarck was a sly negotiator, a charismatic man who had a knack for building alliances and relationships with his contemporaries. And at the same time, he was a cold-hearted general, a man who, when placed in charge of an army, would almost always see victory, no matter the odds. With a silver tongue, he convinced the varied German duchies and kingdoms to concede to Prussian rule. And when they wouldn't peacefully bend the knee, the might of the Prussian military, a force to be reckoned with, would descend upon the holdout, easily knocking aside whatever military the minor nation states could field.
Bismarck would oversee the Second Schleswig war in 1864, in which Prussians and Austrians marched together against Denmark in an effort to keep the duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg in German-speaking hands. Two years later, the two former allies would be at each other's throats as the Austro-Prussian War broke out over disputes over who should properly administrate the land that has just been jointly conquered. What followed was a conflict that affected almost all of central Europe, with Italy and the Principality of Romania even throwing their hats into the ring on Prussia's side. While Austria had for a long time exerted its influence over Central Europe, Prussia was ready to usurp the Austrian throne as the central European power. The armies were essentially matched in size, but as the Italians entered the war, things tipped amazingly in Prussia's favor. The Austrian Empire faced a brutal defeat at the hands of their northern neighbors, and Otto von Bismarck used this moment to reinforce the bond that many of the northern German states had developed over the course of the measly two-month war. As part of the peace accords, the loose federation of states that had joined Prussia in the conflict were dismantled, and in their place arose the North German Confederation.
For the first time in history, the German people at large had a place to call home. The Austrian Empire in the south had a distinct cultural identity, and was by and large a multicultural nation that didn't adhere to any one culture, religion, or language. But now with the formation of the North German Confederation, the idea of a true German nation seemed to be a reality. But before anyone could rejoice, the new country would have its trial by fire.
For years, France had made no secret of its distrust of the Germans—and the sudden rise of a unified power in central Europe rightfully turned quite a few heads. Suddenly, the French empire found itself living next-door not just a collection of minor states but to a powerful, unified kingdom. Tensions quickly escalated between the new Confederation and the French empire, but this was the perfect time for Bismarck to put his diplomatic abilities to work. Bismarck realized that adversity was something that could bring people together, and if he truly wanted the Germany nation to last, he'd have to show the Germans, who were still adjusting to unified rule, that they could not only work together to beat an intimidating foe but that they could come out of the fight stronger than when they entered it.
In 1870, the German prince Leopold of house Hohenzollern was offered the Spanish throne. (The nation had become kingless in 1868 during a revolution.) France, not wanting the Germans of the upstart state to gain any more influence, attempted to pressure Leopold into not accepting the offer. While Leopold agreed not to assume the Spanish throne, that concession wasnot enough for the French. So on the early morning of July 13, 1870, when the Prussian King William the First was walking through the Kurpark in the town of Ems, hr was stopped by the French ambassador to Prussia, Vincent Benedetti. The two had a rather casual, polite meeting in which Benedetti presented a French demand that the King prohibit any Hohenzollern prince from attempting to ascend to the Spanish throne. The king declined in a kind manner, and the two men carried on their separate ways.
After the meeting, Heinrich Abeken, King William's secretary, wrote an account of the meeting which was then passed on to Otto von Bismarck in Berlin. Bismarck asked the king if he would be allowed to publish an account of the events and was given permission. What followed next was Bismarck's slyest maneuver yet.
Bismarck carefully edited the Ems account, changing the language used by both men and generally bending the events oh-so-carefully to ignite further conflict between the two nations. The new, edited account was published as the Ems Dispatch and succeeded in outraging both French and Germans as they read about the diplomatic faux pas that had occurred.
"After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand on His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their candidature.
His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again and had the latter informed by the Adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the Ambassador."
-The Ems Dispatch as published by Otto von Bismarck
The French interpreted the dispatch as the Prussian King outright disrespecting the ambassador, being short and generally unprofessional with him. As for the Germans, they were enraged that the French should make any sort of demand at all. Who exactly did they think they were, coming up to the Prussian king in such a way and making such brazen demands?
The utter confusion and distrust led to a mobilization of the French army. Such supposed disrespect could only be apologized for with blood, and the Franco-Prussian war broke out—and the remaining minor German states rushed to the aid of the Northern Confederation, just as Bismarck had planned.
In the end, France was defeated by the unified German states, and the French Empire fell, to be replaced by the Third French Republic. The victorious Northern Confederation gladly snatched up the land of Alsace-Lorraine, strengthening its borders against France. The war had only lasted nine months, but it had the desired effect: A sort of camaraderie had been born in the German lands, and Bismarck acted quickly as the war came to a close, hoping to ensure German unification. All that remained was to integration the southern German states which had so gladly answered the call to war against the French, and it didn't take much to bring them into the fold in the post-victory afterglow. Wilhelm the First of Prussia was crowned Kaiser (German for emperor) of Germany on January 18, 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors in the Chateau of Vesailles. In just over eight years, Bismarck had seemingly transformed the scattered German landscape into a single state, a powerhouse in Central Europe that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the numerous great powers that surrounded it.
Alas, things would not remain that way for long. Bismarck spent the rest of his career cultivating a careful political balance in Europe, forging bonds with Austria, Italy, Russia, and Britain, and even mending wounds with France. With Germany unified, he wanted to see a time of peace for his people, but in 1888, Wilhelm of Germany died, ceding the throne to his son Friedrich III. Friedrich was suffering from incurable throat cancer and died after only holding the throne for 99 days. Wilhelm II then ascended to the throne, and this would mark the beginning of the end for the still-budding German Kaiserreich. Bismarck was 16 years older than Friedrich, and the aging statesman never thought he'd live to see Wilhelm the II take the throne. As such, he hadn't developed much of a plan when it came to dealing with the young Emperor, and as it turns out, the Emperor wasn't very interested in dealing with Otto either. He saw Bismarck's careful balance of power to be pointless and cared little for maintaining good relations with his European neighbors. The two men butted heads on more than one occasion, and in 1890, at nearly 75 years of age, Bismarck resigned from his position of chancellor at the request of Wilhelm II.
Thus ended Bismarck's grand career as the great unifier of Germany. He would die just eight years later, in 1898, 16years before the outbreak of World War I. Already though, he could see the deterioration of his work as Kaiser Wilhelm II dismantled the carefully woven diplomatic ties he had formed in the later years of his life. In December of 1897, Bismarck met with Wilhelm II for the last time. One of the last things he told the Kaiser was this; "One day, the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”
If only Bismarck knew just how right he was.
Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg
A larger-than-life biography of a larger-than-life man, this history of Iron Chancellor is deeply researched, hard-core history and incredibly readable—not an easy combination to pull off.
Great Leaders, Great Tyrants?: Contemporary Views of World Rulers Who Made History by Arnold Blumberg
One of the first chapters in this thoughtful history resource takes a thorough look at Bismarck’s political achievements. (This is a nice title for your history bookshelf: Among the other 51 leaders profiled are Napoleon I, Akhenaton, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Oliver Cromwell.)
KANE TAYLOR is home/school/life's Tech Talk columnist and an avid history buff.