In Bismark: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg suggests that the modern German state had its origins in the imagination of Prince Otto von Bismark. However, Steinberg builds his case with such apparent animus toward the subject that the value of this book is somewhat undermined. Steinberg implicitly lays at Bismark’s door responsibility for WWI (by creating the German Empire and buttressing autocracy), WWII (by reinforcing the Junker class and doubling down on militarism), and genocide of the Jewish people (by fueling antisemitism).
Steinberg’s approach is comprehensive. He traces Bismark’s rise to power and attempts to lay bare the state-builder’s multiple motivations. In support of his analysis, Steinberg provides extended excerpts from Bismark’s correspondence and from other first-person accounts. The portrait of Bismark that emerges is more demonic than Machiavellian.
Bismark, by Steinberg’s account, was a hypochondriacal, reactionary, anti-Semite, an ingrate with an unbridled thirst for power. Despite Steinberg’s compilation of evidence, the reader is left with doubts about the integrity of this author’s presentation. His loathing for Bismark is so manifest that we feel bias must inevitably influence judgment.
However, because Steinberg’s book is well resourced, it has much to offer. I was interested, for example, to learn how Germany reacted to the revolutions of 1848. Also interesting was the tension between the papacy and secular heads of Europe. Most fascinating was Bismark’s effort to weaken a rival, France, by aligning himself with Russia. I wondered, as I read, if there was a corollary with present times–with Donald Trump’s expressed criticism of NATO and his avowed admiration for Russia.
I recommend this book, but with reservations. For a complete view of Bismark, it would be a good idea to read a second biography. Many questions, in my mind, remained at the book’s end. Chief among these was, what was Bismark really like?
A. G. Moore June 2017