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Bismarck: A Life.

Bismarck." A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011. xii, 577 pp. $34.95 US (cloth).

The figure of Otto von Bismarck has always been an object of intense fascination for scholars. He has been the subject of numerous biographies and the central figure in even more studies on German history, modern diplomacy, and nineteenth century Europe. In each case the author has had to contend with explaining how Bismarck wielded the extraordinary power that shaped the destiny of one state and altered the trajectory of European and world politics. A difficult challenge, but Jonathan Steinberg's Bismarck: A Life is clearly up to the task. Steinberg has crafted one of the liveliest and vibrant portraits of Bismarck as he explores "how Bismarck exercised his personal power ... let[ting] those on whom the power was exercised, friend and foe, German and foreign, young and old, anybody who experienced the power of Bismarck's personality close up and experienced the impact, tell the story (p. 9)." Steinberg does so admirably, bringing to life a powerful individual and the world in which he lived.

Steinberg's account deftly takes the reader through the ups and downs of a man who was initially far from becoming the larger-than-life figure that dominated the nineteenth century. Bismarck endured an unhappy childhood in which he loved his "weak" father and hated his domineering mother--a "parental triangle" that Steinberg sees as an important recurring factor that profoundly shaped Bismarck's later life, as he found himself assailed by two such "triangles" during his career: between Kaiser William I and his wife, Empress Augusta, and between Crown Prince Frederick III and the Crown Princess Victoria. Following his graduation from university in Gottingen, Bismarck struggled to find his way in the civil service. Lacking the passion and drive that defined his political career and a suitable outlet for his unquenchable appetite for dominance, Bismarck instead became a full-time manager of one of the family estates. While he earned quite a reputation among the local Junkers for his restless extravagance and series of passionate love affairs, he longed for something greater. Afraid life was passing him by, Bismarck settled for a less than ideal wife before channeling his exhaustive energy into politics where his latent talents found their fullest expression. The revolutions of 1848 provided Bismarck with the opportunity to win the respect and support of conservatives due to his strong stance against revolution and his incisive and dramatic speeches in the Prussian parliament. Through his connections with leading conservatives, Steinberg explains, Bismarck won the ear of the Prussian king, Frederick William IV. He then spent much of the 1850s at the Frankfurt Parliament carving out a separate path from those that guided his foray into politics.

In the constitutional crisis of 1862, Bismarck used the same talents and tactics with William I that had worked so well his father, cementing his role in German politics. What follows next, then, is the inherently familiar waxing of realpolitik: destabilization of the Liberals, skillful diplomacy, successive military triumphs, and the proclamation of a united Germany, all engineered by Bismarck. Then came the challenges of ruling the Reich: balancing domestic growth and maturation with some of the deftest diplomacy ever seen. All the while, Bismarck's cynicism, paranoia, appetite for success, and rage at perceived enemies continued to grow, driving the mad genius to greater public triumphs and deepening private despair. Steinberg captures all of this beautifully through penetrating analysis and copious use of primary sources.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of Steinberg's work. While previous biographies such as those by Lothar Gall, Otto Pflanze, and Edgar Feuchtwagner delve into primary sources, Steinberg is the first to draw extensively on those that knew him best: friends and enemies alike, who helped shaped Bismarck and were certainly shaped by him. From the American John Lothrop Morley, an early friend of Bismarck's whose literary character Otto yon Rabenmark provides a revealing mirror for a young Bismarck, to Hildegard Spitzemberg, a consummate diarist who knew Bismarck and his wife for over thirty years, to Albrecht von Roon, the man who recognized Bismarck's political acumen at an early age and remained loyal until his death in 1879, Steinberg captures the drama and intrigue of the age with rich subtlety and detail. In doing so, not only does Steinberg bring his central figure to life, but also the secondary individuals that are key to his story: people like Hans von Kleist, Ferdinand LaSalle, Edwin yon Manteuffel, Laura Russell, Marie yon Thadden-Trieglaff and Leopold and Ludwig yon Gerlach.

Steinberg's main argument is that it was neither political institutions nor ideology that allowed Bismarck to wield so much power, but rather his "sovereign self." Ultimately, Steinberg argues, Bismarck's power lay in the magnetism of his personality, actions, and words, which had a seductive and hypnotic effect on all who knew him, whether they loathed him or loved him. As a result, the Iron Chancellor imposed his will on Germany and European politics for over thirty years, dictating the course of history in the process. This is a key development from Lothar Gall, who saw in Bismarck a "white revolutionary," the first modern politician who needed no power base from which to rule, rather just the force of his will. While one might be initially skeptical of this interpretation, the use of sources from those Bismarck charmed and seduced, coupled with an impressive command of secondary literature, removes any lingering doubts.

Steinberg's account of Bismarck is a fresh, engaging, and compelling look at one of the most influential figures of the nineteenth century. While there are minor points to quibble with--Steinberg's psychological analysis can occasionally divert too much attention away from the story he seeks to tell (particularly when major events such as the scramble for colonies are covered only briefly) and his attempt to create a direct line between Bismarck and Hitler may be a bit strong--Steinberg has produced an astute and thoughtful study. The author of a biography of Bismarck has quite a historiographical legacy to deal with, but Steinberg's entry matches up with the best this tradition has to offer. Bismarck: A Life is an excellent addition, and should rapidly take its place as one of the best one-volume studies of this deeply fascinating individual.

Matthew A. Yokell

Texas A&M University
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Author:Yokell, Matthew A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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