Bismarck – A Life

Bismarck – A Life
By Jonathan Steinberg
Oxford University Press – £25.00

‘’Falsehood and honesty, kindness and vengeance, gargantuan energies and hypochondriac frailty, charm and cold remoteness, frankness and deceit, Bismarck was all those contradictions but one attribute never changed. Anybody who said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing in Bismarck’s opinion would finish in outer darkness.’’

Such is one of many acerbic assertions amid this powerhouse of a new biography on one of the most politically powerful and influential figures of the nineteenth century, Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck. As a direct result, Bismarck – A Life is an altogether astute and gutsy powerhouse of a biography, simply because it reads with inexorable brave alacrity that is more oft than not, aligned with alarmingly portent consideration throughout.

The above quotation for instance at the conclusion of Chapter Six (‘Power’), is neither the first nor the last of such design to be found among the 583 pages; which includes an unsurprisingly thorough Bibliography. There are numerous similar examples where author Jonathan Steinberg hasn’t so much gone out on a literary limb, as confidently substantiated his research by way of both writing and shooting from the historical hip.

In the very same chapter, Steinberg describes British Prime Minister Disraeli as a: ‘’novelist, dandy, brilliant speaker […] the only contemporary of Bismarck’s who could match him in wit and political agility.’’ While in relation to religion, Christianity in particular, Steinberg writes (with just a gallant dash of audacious and inflammatory aplomb): ‘’Bismarck’s sick soul needed a release and to his Junker friends that release could be found at any moment through penitence, grace, and the love of God. It was Bismarck’s tragedy – and Germany’s – that he never learned how to be a proper Christian, had no understanding of the virtue of humility, and still less about the interaction of his sick body and his sick soul.’’

Suffice to say, what we have here is by no means an obsequious, fuddy-duddy, patronising disquisition of a biography; but rather, a living, breathing, dense dissertation, that is as alive as it is informative as it is regal as it is robust as it is on occasion risqué. No wonder Henry Kissinger has been quoted in the New York Times Book Review as claiming Bismarck – A Life to be: ‘’the best study of its subject in the English language.’’

Admittedly, I haven’t read all there is to read on Bismarck, but I have read a number of biographies, of which this really is one of the most conducive in terms of coming away from the subject with a certain amount of cohesive connection. For like Bismarck himself, this veritable tomb like analysis is quintessentially multi-dimensional in that it traverses Bismarck’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as his fears, foibles and ferocious ambition. And this is partially substantiated by Odo Russell, who, as British ambassador to Prussia in 1865 summed Bismarck up thus: ‘’Do not forget that Bismarck is made up of two individuals, a colossal chess player full of the most daring combinations and with the quickest eye for the right combination at the right moment and who will sacrifice everything even his personal hatred to the success of his game – and an individual with the strangest and still stronger antipathies who will sacrifice everything except his combinations.

Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania, not to mention an Emeritus Fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge; whose previous books include Yesterday’s Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet, All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust, 1941 to 1943 and is the principal author of The Deutsche Bank and its Gold Transactions during the Second World War. If this more than in-depth, towering biography of one of history’s most fascinating, misunderstood and complex of personalities is anything to go by, here’s hoping he finds the time, as well as the inspiration, to write at least another – if not many more.

David Marx


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