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Bismarck: A Life [Hardcover]

Jonathan Steinberg
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)

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Book Description

17 Feb 2011
This is the life story of one of the most interesting human beings who ever lived. A political genius who remade Europe and united Germany between 1862 and 1890 by the sheer power of his great personality. It takes the reader into close proximity with a human being of almost superhuman abilities. We see him through the eyes of his secretaries, his old friends, his neighbours, his enemies and the press. Otto von Bismarck 'made' Germany but never 'ruled' it. For twenty eight years he acted as a prime minister without a party. He made speeches, brilliant in content but hesitant in delivery, and rarely addressed a public meeting. He planned three wars and after a certain stage in his career always wore military uniform to which he had no claim. The 'Iron Chancellor', the image of Prussian militarism, suffered from hypochondria and hysteria. Contemporaries called him a 'dictator' and several observers credited him with 'demonic' powers'. They were not wrong. The sheer power of his remarkable 'sovereign sel' awed even his enemies. William I observed that it was hard to be emperor under a man like Bismarck. He towered physically and intellectually over his contemporaries. His spoken and written prose sparkled with wit, insight, grand visions and petty malice. He united Germany and transformed Europe like Napoleon before and Hitler after him but with neither their control of the state nor command of great armies. He was and remained a royal servant. This new biography explores the greatness and limits of a huge and ultimately destructive self. It uses the diaries and letters of his contemporaries to explore the most remarkable figure of the nineteenth century, a man who never said a dull thing or wrote a slack sentence. A political genius who combined creative and destructive traits, generosity and pettiness, tolerance and ferocious enmity, courtesy and rudeness - in short, not only the most important nineteenth-century statesman but by far the most entertaining.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; 1st edition (17 Feb 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199599017
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199599011
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 16.5 x 24.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 183,049 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


the best biography of the Iron Chancellor to date (Wall Street Journal)

Jonathan Steinberg delivers the best biography of Bismarck...superb. (Simon Sebag Montefiore, Daily Telegraph)

Steinberg succeeds in getting inside the mind of [Bismarck] (Daily Express)

Amazing story...Steinberg reveals the character never before. (Radio Times)

Magnificent...brings out the monstrous egotism of Bismarck more clearly than anybody before him...Steinberg has brilliantly transformed this man of "blood and iron" into a tragic figure worthy to be compared with Goethe's Faust (Daniel Johnson, New Criterion)

If scholars and history buffs want to meet Bismarck in flesh and blood, they need go no further. (Booklist)

Astute biography (Independent)

A fine lively and scholarly biography (01/06/11)

A fascinating biography...Steinberg breathes more life into Bismarck than any other biographer...the result is riveting, and we experience Bismarck as a hulking, breathing presence. (Wall Street Journal)

An incisive psychological approach (Editor's Choice, New York Times Book Review)

superb biography (London Review of Books)

The best study of its subject in the English language (Henry Kissinger, New York Times Book Review)

Fine biography (Irish Times)

Steinberg has an eye for details...and a talent for reconstructing the political drama of the period...Perhaps the greatest single pleasure of this books, and its signiture quality, [is] the unusually generous helping of quotations from those who came under Bismarck's spell.' (David Blackbourn, The Guardian)

This is the best one-volume life of Bismarck in English, much superior to older works. It brings us close to this galvanic, contradictory and ultimately self-destructive figure...' (David Blackbourn, The Guardian)

Rich and readable (Michael Burleigh, The Sunday Times)

This is a fine biography. (The Scotsman)

Otto von Bismarck became the dominant figure of his era and, as this rich and readable biography shows, had an almost uncanny sense of power. Steinberg's portrait is very much warts and all. (The Sunday Times)

Magnificent new biography. (Tim Blanning, Literary Review)

A first-rate biography that combines a standard historical narrative with an intriguing account of Bismarck as a personality...Bismarck offers a fresh and compelling portrait of a fascinating character. (Foreign Affairs)

About the Author

Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania, and Emeritus Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of Yesterday's Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet (1965), Why Switzerland? (2nd ed.1996) and All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust, 1941 to 1943 (classic edition 2002). He was also the principal author of The Deutsche Bank and its Gold Transactions during the Second World War (1999). --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
98 of 105 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Art of his Necessities 10 Mar 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Compared to Adolf Hitler, Otto von Bismarck has received little attention from English speaking popular historians since A.J.P. Taylor wrote a short but entertaining life (Bismarck, The Man and the Statesman (Hamish Hamilton, 1955). Yet Bismarck was, with Richelieu and Metternich, one of the greatest statesmen in the history of modern Europe and irrevocably set the parameters of European relations from 1870 until at least 1945. In an age of liberal revolutions, Bismarck, acting without party, class or personal power base unified Germany under an absolute monarch whilst presiding over a parliament elected by universal male suffrage. Counterintuitively sensing with Proudhon that 'universal suffrage is counter-revolution,' Bismarck created the servile state by being first to introduce a state system of accident, invalidity and old age insurance: he would, thereafter, have considered his work well done had he been able to put the genie of popular democracy back in the bottle by revoking the universal suffrage which he had unstoppered so as to dish the liberals. Yet for all his skill, Bismarck's legacy was a painful one. Once the monarchy which he had done so much to preserve fell into the unsafe hands of Wilhelm II, Germany was a dreadnought in risk of capsize, and the 30 years that followed 1914 can be seen as the working out at Europe's expense of the forces in German society that Bismarck had done so much to frustrate.

Whilst containing interesting information on Bismarck's character and temperament, A.J.P.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Curiously skewed 14 Sep 2011
By Ralph Blumenau TOP 500 REVIEWER
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 than 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.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Blood and Irony 31 Mar 2011
By Antenna TOP 500 REVIEWER
This is an intriguing study of a leader - part "charismatic" charmer, part ruthless monster. Bismarck is brought to life through hundreds of quotations from a wide variety of politicians and socialites who knew him. Their names alone make fascinating reading: Johann Bernard Graf von Reckburg und Rothenlöwen, for instance. Bismarck's own memoirs are quite revealing. In his youth he wrote in a witty and self-deprecating style - his account of a train journey with young children and a wife too embarrassed to breastfeed her howling baby could have been written yesterday.

Bismarck achieved the unification of the German States, and broke free from the dominance of the old Austrian Empire. He introduced a state-funded social security system a quarter of a century before Lloyd George managed it in Britain. Personally brave, yet aggressive and a bully, he was prepared to destroy those who challenged him, even old friends. An arch-manipulator who conducted domestic and foreign policy - realpolitik- like a chess or poker game which he had to win, he seemed to have a low boredom threshold and could not help experimenting with ideas - often quite visionary- to pass the time.

A man of contradictions, he persecuted the catholics when it suited him politically, and was often crudely anti-semitic - but he employed a Jewish banker to manage his investments, and remembered with nostalgia his late-night political discussions with the Jewish socialist Lasselle.

Despite his apparently despotic power and undeniable influence, he remained totally dependent on the support of the Prussian King whom he made into an Emperor, with whom he maintained a complex emotional relationship spanning several decades.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars As the book quotes many letters from Bismarck and other ...
As the book quotes many letters from Bismarck and other contemporaries it gives an interesting insight into the thinking of the main players, and also how historians use such data... Read more
Published 3 days ago by Stephen lockett
4.0 out of 5 stars ALTERNATIVE MODEL
The famous philosopher of history Robin George Collingwood proposed focusing on the mind of main decision makers with a maximal effort to achieve "reenactment. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Yehezkel Dror
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterly
This is an astonishingly clear and well written book about Bismark and the social and political environment of his time. Read more
Published 14 months ago by H. Carter
1.0 out of 5 stars Bad, really really bad
I have read dozens of history books, but this is the worst by far.

As others have pointed out the book is full of quotes from other books and correspondence which bring... Read more
Published 18 months ago by O. Beltrami
4.0 out of 5 stars A bismarrck of a story
Bismarck was a huge character in the nineteenth century, and this work reflects his eminence. It shows a vain, scheming, confrontational man: it also depicts a loving,... Read more
Published 20 months ago by The Snucist
2.0 out of 5 stars Bismark is a fascinating topic, but this book does not do justice
I have a strong interest in Prussia and the creation of Germany. Now the EU's largest and richest country, Germany and its predecessor had unlikely beginnings. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Mr. Charles H. Price
2.0 out of 5 stars Sadly, it's not worth the bones of a Pomeranian musketeer.
I genuinely cannot remember the last time I looked forward to a book with as much anticipation as I did for this biography of Bismarck. Read more
Published 22 months ago by The Man From Utopia
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't read this
What a load of rubbish. Steinberg clearly knows everything about his subject, but he completely lacks the ability to communicate his knowledge. Read more
Published 23 months ago by LemsfordAlex
4.0 out of 5 stars Should we blame him for WW's 1 and 2?
I read this in the Kindle edition which has no pictures or maps. Their absence was a little disappointing. Read more
Published on 15 Oct 2012 by caniscorpus
5.0 out of 5 stars A Bismarck bio that rewards perseverance
When I first opened Steinberg's biography and started to read my heart fell. It did not appear to be a conventional biography, but one hung around extracts from Bismarck's... Read more
Published on 22 Sep 2012 by Les Fearns
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