One may fully agree with Henry Kissinger in that Steinberg's book on Bismarck is "the best study of its subject in the English language" but for the German reader, as this one, it is very much an outside view on Bismarck. Although the English reader has access to the biographies by Gall and Pflanze as they have been translated into English, neither Engelberg's and Willms' treatises nor Schoeps' collection of contemporary opinions by and on Bismarck are available in English. Being aware of this circumstance, I find Steinberg's analysis of Bismarck's character, the Freudian explanation of his shortcomings and a great number of personal sketches (p.e. on Motley, Roon, Windthorst and Lassalle) fascinating and well put. A particularly informative as well as horrífying part of the treatise is the description of the development of anti-semitism in the conservative elements of German society. On Bismarck's foreign policy achievements in which his genius manifests itself, we get, alas, short shrift. Steinberg for my taste concentrates too much on the scheming leading to the spectacular results in this field. For the German reader also the transcription of source material into English is somewhat awkward and I trust the translation of Steinberg's book into German takes care of that. Although its volume is somewhat off-putting, this book is worth studying to the very end where the author's conclusion accurately and succinctly sums up his views on the most impressive and consequential 19th century statesman since Metternich.
Jonathan Steinberg tells us in his Preface that he has had access, which no earlier biographers have had, to what contemporaries have said in letters and diaries about Bismarck, and those sources are certainly interesting to read. The result is an emphasis on Bismarck's complex personality. For some of his characteristics possible explanations are supplied in Freudian terms - transferences of how he related to his father and his mother. There is a convincing explanation of Bismarck's many attacks of bad health, as being due to rage whenever he was thwarted or to exhaustion, rather than elation, whenever he had won a hard-fought struggle. Gut-busting over-eating did not help. He frequently threatened to resign if he did not get his way over the most trivial issues. The mystery is that William I, however severe their disagreements, always refused to let him go. Perhaps it was because William paid more attention that Steinberg does to Bismarck's value as a diplomatic genius; for Steinberg the central point is, over and over again, the dominance that Bismarck's personality exerted over the King. At the same time the constitution Bismarck had devised and the fact that he was never a party leader with a substantial personal parliamentary following meant that he was totally dependent on the monarch and never had any personal parliamentary following.
Bismarck is shown repeatedly to have been deeply neurotic, repeatedly to the point of hysteria, hate-filled, vindictive, and paranoid (with some justification: he had made so many enemies, at Court and elsewhere). His intemperate rages drove his doctor to resign. (The next doctor, regarded by his colleagues as a quack, was curiously successful by treating Bismarck with the "tender loving care" with which noone had ever treated him before.) Some observers thought Bismarck was close to madness. He was a fascinating mixture of intense emotions, cool-headed calculation - and, combining the two, a willingness to gamble politically for very high stakes.
Steinberg tells us that his original draft of 800 pages had to be cut down to the present 480 pages of text, and I do sympathize with the dilemmas such a massive cut presents to an author. I would like to think that that accounts for what I think is in places a rather skimped and occasionally not very clear account of the political history. There are, for example, more illuminating accounts than we find here of the issues leading up to Olmütz, of Bismarck's sudden change of policy very early on during his time as Prussian representative at Frankfurt, and of his transfer from there to St Petersburg. There is no reference to Bismarck's recommending an alliance with the Liberals in 1853 and again in 1861, only a year before, as Minister-President, he would so spectacularly defy them. There is no explanation why King William I initially sent him to be ambassador in Paris rather than call him to head the government; nor why Bismarck kept the Prussian Parliament in existence; the "Primacy of Foreign Policy", which accounts for so many of Bismarck's twists and turns at home, gets no mention.
While it is interesting to read of the earlier careers of people associated with Bismarck - Roon and Moltke are examples - the space allocated to these beginnings seems to me disproportionate in the context of the biography. There are many other digressions which I think could profitably have been cut or at least reduced..
On the other hand, Steinberg devotes 39 pages to steering us ably and in detail through all the complexities of the two years between the reopening of the Schleswig-Holstein question and the outbreak of the war with Austria.
But then the treatment of the run up to the Franco-Prussian War begins only in 1868, with the Hohenzollern candidature for the Spanish throne, and has nothing on the background - the previous humiliations that Napoleon III had brought upon himself by having Bismarck reject his requests for "pourboires" to compensate the French for not having got anything out of the Austro-Prussian War, or on the steps that Bismarck had taken to make sure that France had no allies when the war came. But we do have a detailed account of the furious rows between Bismarck and most of the generals during the siege of Paris.
Bismarck's diplomacy after 1871 is also treated in little more than outline. It was bound to fail in the end as the result of its own contradictions; but the skill with which Bismarck kept it going for nearly twenty years is not brought out here. Astonishingly, there is no mention of Bismarck's disagreement with William II over relations with Russia, which, though not the principal reason for his fall, was cleverly used as an afterthought in Bismarck's resignation letter and which, coupled with Tenniel's famous cartoon in The Times, has so impressed itself on the public mind as symbolic of the difference between Bismarck's prudent and the Kaiser's crude diplomacy.
This book gives us a striking portrait of an extremely unpleasant personality (although he could charm as well as bully); a good insight into domestic politics and intrigues; but it is skewed against what made Bismarck really great by failing to give an adequate account of the diplomacy which prepared for the unification of Germany and which then piloted Germany between the rocks onto which the Kaiser would steer the ship.
Die weitaus beste Bismarck-Biografie, die ich bisher gelesen habe. Nicht nur der geniale Politiker und Reichsgründer wird herausgestellt, sondern auch der Mensch Otto von Bismarck mit seinen Fähigkeiten, Stärken und Schwächen. Ein großartiges Buch von einem herausragenden Historiker.