Since there are a passel of Bismarck biographies, Steinberg recognizes that a new portrait requires a new approach. He adopts one of expansive quotation from Bismarck’s correspondence and from observations of him by contemporaries, which well suits the style of power Bismarck wielded from 1862 to 1890. It was personalistic, entailing domination of his nominal sovereign, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and of subordinate and rival Prussian officials. If Bismarck’s will to power conveys the reputation for unprincipled ruthlessness reflected in his sobriquet, the Iron Chancellor, it also belies human qualities in the man who engineered three wars by which he united Germany. He could be witty and convivial, he adored a handful of relatives and friends, and, less positively, he grumbled about pedestrian inadequacies in his food and housing. But the salient characterization emerging from this presentation is that of a cynic ruled by wrath. If scholars and history buffs want to meet Bismarck in flesh and blood, they need go no further. Steinberg’s integration of psychological insights and Bismarck’s political strategies yields a worthy biography. --Gilbert Taylor
"In his wonderful „Bismarck: A Life”, Steinberg argues that Bismarck’s successes (and some of his failures) can be largely attributed to the awesome force of his personality. Not “social structures.” Not “historical patterns.” Not “underlying forces.” But charisma pure and simple. Time and again Steinberg finds those around Bismarck attesting to the fact that he just wasn’t like everyone else. He was smarter, wittier, stronger, more willful, more cunning, more temperamental, and in most ways larger than life. And this was the nearly uniform (though not always positive) assessment of the some of the most impressive figures of his day. It’s a compelling case.
And it provokes a question about German political culture, for Bismarck was not the first or the last “genius” to rule some or all of the Reich. Fredrick the Great preceded him, and Hitler followed. What are we to make of that? I’ll leave it to you to decide."
Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania, and Emeritus Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge. His books include Yesterday's Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet and All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust 1941 - 1943.