“Bismarck: A Life” by Jonathan Steinberg – Blood and Irony

This is my review of Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg.

This is an intriguing study of a leader – part “charismatic” charmer, part ruthless monster. Bismarck is brought to life through hundreds of quotations from a wide variety of politicians and socialites who knew him. Their names alone make fascinating reading: Johann Bernard Graf von Reckburg und Rothenlöwen, for instance. Bismarck’s own memoirs are quite revealing. In his youth he wrote in a witty and self-deprecating style – his account of a train journey with young children and a wife too embarrassed to breastfeed her howling baby could have been written yesterday.

Bismarck achieved the unification of the German States, and broke free from the dominance of the old Austrian Empire. He introduced a state-funded social security system a quarter of a century before Lloyd George managed it in Britain. Personally brave, yet aggressive and a bully, he was prepared to destroy those who challenged him, even old friends. An arch-manipulator who conducted domestic and foreign policy – realpolitik- like a chess or poker game which he had to win, he seemed to have a low boredom threshold and could not help experimenting with ideas – often quite visionary- to pass the time.

A man of contradictions, he persecuted the catholics when it suited him politically, and was often crudely anti-semitic – but he employed a Jewish banker to manage his investments, and remembered with nostalgia his late-night political discussions with the Jewish socialist Lasselle.

Despite his apparently despotic power and undeniable influence, he remained totally dependent on the support of the Prussian King whom he made into an Emperor, with whom he maintained a complex emotional relationship spanning several decades. When William 1 thwarted him, Bismarck often threatened to resign, relying on the knowledge that the Emperor needed him: the strain triggered frequent bouts of debilitating – probably largely psychosomatic – illness, aggravated by monumental gluttony. Eventually, the young “Kaiser Bill” sacked him. Would Bismarck have become a Stalin if not constrained by the role of servant to a succession of royal masters?

Branded from youth “the mad Junker”, he lost his sense of proportion under the weight of work he assumed, a classic example of the costs of an inability to delegate, and with age he became ever more vindictive and in need of anger management training.

Although I would give this five stars for – slightly repetitive- analysis of a complex personality, a few points frustrated me. The index is largely based on the names of the key characters, so it is impossible to look up quickly a specific event or topic of which you may need to remind yourself. Even the list of names seems incomplete. I could not find Lasselle in the index, although he has a short but important section in the text. Another anomaly is that William 1, who ruled for decades, gets a much shorter list of entries than his son, Frederick III who only actually ruled for a few months in 1888. Some minor characters are described in such detail that they distract you from the overall chain of events being covered. I found the details of some of the diplomatic activities and important pieces of domestic legislation similarly hard to grasp, and wondered how thoroughly some of this has been edited.

However, for the overall portrayal of Bismarck’s character and an explanation of the “unintended consequences” which led to the First World War and the rise of Hitler, I recommend this book, perhaps supported by a more basic history of the period, such as Modern Europe, 1789-1989 (Koenigsberger and Briggs History of Europe) by Asa Briggs and Patricia Clavin, 1996.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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