65 of 79 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sinking of Bismark
A disfavorable examination of the life of the most famous Prussian statesman. While I found Professor Steinberg's book interesting I could not help but think the author overplayed the dysfunctional aspects of the Iron Chancellor. After all, Bismarck did create a major European state and was widely acknowledged as the most powerful and talented master of the diplomatic...
Published on April 23, 2011 by Christian Schlect
245 of 279 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A poor attempt at character assassination
I was really looking forward to reading this book. It had received a great review in "The New York Times Book Review", and it sounded so good, that I pre-ordered it from Amazon that same Sunday. In addition, this is a period of history I have become interested in lately and it sounded perfect.
Bismarck is truly a disappointment and it fails on many levels...
Published on May 4, 2011 by S. Stoessel
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245 of 279 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A poor attempt at character assassination,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)I was really looking forward to reading this book. It had received a great review in "The New York Times Book Review", and it sounded so good, that I pre-ordered it from Amazon that same Sunday. In addition, this is a period of history I have become interested in lately and it sounded perfect.
Bismarck is truly a disappointment and it fails on many levels. As a previous Amazon reviewer noted, the author doesn't like or admire Bismarck. Steinberg literally calls Bismarck "monstrous" at one point in the book. All of Bismarck's triumphs are mitigated with a remark, implying it was an unintended consequence or someone else would have done better or sooner or faster. All of Bismarck's failures and weaknesses are thoroughly examined, and these traits are then parceled out among Prussian society. It is ironic then that the picture Steinberg paints of Bismarck is strikingly similar to the life of Winston Churchill.
The book is difficult to read. The relentlessly negative tone gives the narrative a ponderous feel. The text is not well organized. Characters come and go nearly at random. For example, Ludwig Windthorst is introduced and developed on pages 272-4, ca. 1867 and then dropped like a stone on p.275, not to return for another twenty years. On top of this, Steinberg is not very skilled at setting up the context of particular events. (I had to resort to Wikipedia several times to understand things.) Non-Prussian characters are only sketchily treated. There are no maps in book. The author jumps excessively back and forth in time. For one amazing passage, in the space of two pages (p. 142-143), the author moves from ca. 1858, forward to Nazi Germany, recedes back to 1846, and then forward to 1848. Things advance to 1850, and, following a quick hop back to 1847, the narrative returns to 1858. The effect is that time and space become relative.
The blurriness is deliberate. Steinberg wants to be right, and furthermore, he wants the reader to know that he is right. A great deal of Steinberg's analysis relies on the sophism of "The Law of Unintended Consequences." This truly becomes annoying. Can Steinberg really have expected Bismarck to have been omniscient or not act at all? The author telegraphs all the important punches in the book thereby eliminating the narrative of some much needed drama and precious continuity. One can almost imagine him jumping up and down like a know-it-all high-school nerd, yelling, "See! Here's where he makes that mistake I told you two pages ago that he would make!" Only rarely have I observed the phase, "The attentive reader will have noticed ..." and it is hardly the mark of a secure writer. But Steinberg uses it several times to make some fairly obvious points which the reader indeed had noticed. The attentive reader will also notice several other agendas at play in the book.
Overall, this book is too poor a read for a causal or introductory reader to find enjoyable. It is too biased for anyone not already familiar with the subject to read unquestioningly. There are numerous small details the author apparently has unearthed, so this book could be used as a source book to track those down. Otherwise, this book is not worth reading.
73 of 83 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Disappointment,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)I have read four biographies of Bismarck and consider him one of the two or three most fascinating and important people in the 19th century--and almost as significant in the 20th century insofar as he created several of the mechanisms that would ultimately produce the two world wars. I was therefore very excited to see the appearance of this volume and the very good early reviews it received.
Reading the thing, however, has brought real disappointment. The book is not devoid of insights; Steinberg does an unusually good job, for instance, explaining why Bismarck was so focused on securing the German hinterland as a hedge against Austrian intrigue and in showing how he turned the working classes against the middle-class liberal movement. But one must read a lot of pages to find such gems, considerably more than in other biographies of great statesmen and women. There is also the problem Kissinger noted: Steinberg's obvious contempt for Bismarck, which colors his treatment of the subject. Many readers would doubtless reach the same conclusion, but surely they should be given the opportunity to do so from an independent examination of the evidence rather than being told constantly what to think.
Stylistically, the book is turgid. Steinberg includes scores of long quotations from other books--often two or three paragraph-length excerpts on a single page--and many of these don't really support his argument. The reader thus finds himself saying, "okay, but why is this quotation here at all?" and then going back to rediscover the point that the author was previously trying to make. For a few pages midway through the book I tried in frustration to skip the long quotations and follow only Steinberg's actual text in the hope of finding a more coherent thread. But there was none; the author had simply lost his narrative direction, a problem that occurs several times. The book also includes bizarre digressions. At one point, for instance, he chases the wild goose of Ferdinand Lassalle (the leader of the Prussian working classes) and his love affairs, then digresses further into Lassalle's visit to Karl Marx's residence and the extent to which Marx's wife wanted to impress the visitor. Steinberg then asks "does one catch the whiff of jealousy in Marx's attitude to Lassalle?" Well, sure, but what does all of this have to do with Bismarck? Then there is Steinberg's annoying habit of injecting himself into the narrative. "My reading of the sources suggests . . .," "my hunch is that . . .," etc., are phrases that needlessly shift attention away from the subject and to the author. Once or twice may be tolerable, but to do this dozens of times is remarkably self-indulgent.
I gave Steinberg two stars because of his occasional insights. I would have loved to give him five, but this biography is too difficult to read given the limited contribution it makes to the existing literature.
65 of 79 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Sinking of Bismark,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)A disfavorable examination of the life of the most famous Prussian statesman. While I found Professor Steinberg's book interesting I could not help but think the author overplayed the dysfunctional aspects of the Iron Chancellor. After all, Bismarck did create a major European state and was widely acknowledged as the most powerful and talented master of the diplomatic game. He simply could not have been the total moral and personal failure that is portrayed here. And if he was, why did "kindly" Kaiser Wilhelm I keep him around?
Professor Steinberg's main focus is on the personal, both physical and psychological, side of his subject. For example, much ink is spilled on Bismarck's eating habits while the effects of the introduction of worker health benefits are given little attention.
While I am skeptical of some of the author's strong conclusions, nonetheless this is a book all students of modern Europe, and especially Germany, should read.
Correction for next edition: principal for principle, on page 135 in reference to mode of transportation.
34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Terrible biography,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)Simply put, it fails on almost every level. Too short to provide a definitive account of the man (and wasting too much space on character assassination to permit much detail to be afforded to the well-known and the lesser known events of his career). Too cursory to be academic and too purposeful to be good popular history. Bespeckled with irritating mistakes like the constant misspelling of Field Marshal. He cherrypicks anecdote and comment to demonstrate that Bismarck is an anti-Semite, ignoring evidence of improvement in Jewish life during his career and treating dismissively his extensive professional contacts with prominent Jews and what seemed to be a personal affinity for many of them. He devotes less than a page and a half to social security legislation and dozens of pages to partisan warfare, designed to prove that Bismarck was petty and vindictive. The analogies to contemporary events are strained and unnecessary. The extrapolation from very limited evidence of important character traits, such as libido, is unbecoming a serious attempt at biography.
At the end of the day Steinberg simply cannot assess Bismarck on his own terms, he has to treat him as the linear ancestor of Hitler. Countless events and personalities intervened between Bismarck's fall and Hitler's rise, and to pin the latter on the former is patently unfair. Bismarck was anti-Semitic, to be sure, but some rather disgusting statements and his indifference before the mob are all that Steinberg can muster to prove that he was hostile to the Jews and that he helped pave the way for what came later. That is to ignore the time period in which Bismarck operated, one in which Russian pogroms were taking place and the Dreyfuss Affair was bringing out a great deal of ugliness in French public life. He was a good deal better than many of his contemporaries and Jews made marked progress because of changes he helped to bring about.
No one is well-served by this book. It does not educate the novice and it offers little analysis worthy of the more seasoned reader.
49 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Father of Germany,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)At long last, an up-to-date, authoritative biography of the father of Germany. If you wish to understand Germany and the Germans of the twentieth century then you must, absolutely must, read about the father of it all, Bismarck of the nineteenth century. To some of us he was probably just the individual who the Nazis named a battleship after, but to those who have a deeper understanding of this nation's history this Prussian is the genesis of modern Germany. Bismarck, and not any of the Kaisers, is literally the father.
Beyond the standard biographical material, Jonathan Steinberg provides an in-depth exposition of the psyche of the man at his core: his spirit, his strengths and weaknesses and his obsession with power. He pierces the armor of the Iron Chancellor and shows the impact of this uniquely indomitable character which united Germany as a nation and placed a Prussian imprint upon it. His larger than life personality was his only strength and he used it to create a strong nation.
This is a must read for those who wish to understand the genesis of Germany and the source of its twentieth century heritage.
Henry Kissinger wrote a review of this book which was published by "The New York Times." I recommend it. You can find the link in Wikipedia with a search for "Bismarck."
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed opinion,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)The book is worth reading for the wealth of information and primary source material it supplies. However, whenever Steinberg inserts his own "insights" and opinions the book loses value. As other reviewers noted, he is certainly no Bismarck fan. That fact does not bother me. What bothers me is the shockingly mundane, inane, pathetic and simple-minded comments and conclusions Steinberg inserts throughout the text. I cannot believe this man is a Penn scholar. For example (page 169) when discussing how Bismarck and Roon were having difficulty in contacting each other, he ends the paragraph with this amazing insight; "How the cell phone simplifies arrangements?" Really? The cell phone aides communications? His attempts at psychoanalyzing Bismarck are hysterical in their lameness. The good news is that once you accept the limited original thinking ability of the author, the hundreds of letters quoted and insights of the actual 19th century figures are worth reading, and I did learn from them, not Steinberg.
17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars interesting, but a slow and lugubrious read,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)After reading the glowing NYT review by Kissinger, I knew I had to read this book. However, after carefully reading it myself, I now wonder if Kissenger actually did because, while essential to understanding the 19C and German history, this is a perfectly awful reading experience: abstruse, rambling, lacking sufficient context, and stylistically leaden. I enjoyed what I was learning, but it was a chore, rarely a pleasure.
Bismark came from Prussia's Junker aristocracy, which was notorious for its cheapness, conservatism, narrow views, and near-fanatical devotion to a semi-autocratic state. Hating industrialization and the free trade mentality of capitalism, they developed a virulent hatred of Jews, whom they regarded as the principal beneficiaries of their loss of feudal privilege. Bismark grew up when the economic position of the Junkers was in precipitous decline, though they still held a strangle hold on top bureaucratic and military positions that depended on courtier maneuverings to ingratiate themselves with the King. For a long time, he lived as a country squire, getting in duels and the machinations you would expect of courtiers. Educated and evidently brilliant, he married a woman from his class who turned out to be dull, self-absorbed, and vindictive.
Then, at about 30, he suddenly decided to go into politics. Through family connections, he secured a position as Ambassador to the 40-something German states in the loose federation that survived the Napoleonic upheavals. There, he got to know everyone of importance and knew that he had found his true vocation. When a new king, Wilhelm I, took over he was appointed to what is similar to Prime Minister. While parliamentary institutions were growing in importance, his position depended entirely on his relationship to the king, whom he manipulated for nearly 30 years to stay at the pinnacle of power, though the queen despised what he stood for and distrusted him her entire life.
In that position, Bismark was able to impose the domination of Prussia on all the German states, with the exception of Austria. This was accomplished on occasion by force, but usually by guile and threat. From a small kingdom, Prussia became one of the greatest powers in Europe, indeed it became a Reich, or EMpire, in central europe. This wiped away the balance of power system that Metternich had imposed after Napoleon's defeat, creating the conditions for WWI.
Internally, to consolidate the state and eliminate regional feudal differences and privilege, Bismark involved himself in a web of political intrigue of an intimidating complexity. He fought the aristocracy, the liberals and socialists, the industrial class and Jews, and Catholics. The nub of this is minute detail, far too much of which was included in the book. Unfortunately, the larger context was consistently neglected, so the meaning of these incidents and why they were important is rarely explained, and if it is, the author does not recapitulate it when needed. The same goes for international politics; at one point, he goes into the politics that went on during the Berlin Conference, but never mentions why the 3 Emperors were meeting and what their accord meant. Either he assumed readers would know all this, which I didn't, or it is just really bad writing. As such, it is most appropriate for graduate students in Germany history, not the general reader, and it reads like a much-labored-upon academic text.
An obscenely large portion of the book describes Bismark's long periods of illness: he was a neurotic invalid much of the time. While it needs to be mentioned, I got very tired of the endless descriptions of his intestinal problems and the like. That being said, his narcissistic character is well covered. He was also paranoid, vengeful, and full of rage and personal hatreds in which he indulged even at the expense of state and family. He even ruined the life of his own son, who fell for a woman whose family had been designated "enemies" by Bismark, forcing him to cancel their engagement; the resulting dishonor (she had divorced an aristocrat to marry the boy) ruined the son's career, but also perhaps precipitated the alcoholism that eventually killed him at 50. Regarding the state, once fired, he leaked information in the hopes of creating an international crisis, which would demonstrate he was indispensable.
The writer's style does not help the book. I found the number and length of quotes he inserts in the text increasingly irritating. Not only did they often support minor points however much flavor they lent, but they were full of allusions and nuance that were either oblique or too subtle for me. As a result, I had to slow down to read the quotes for fear that I would miss some important point. It was frustrating and boring and eventually infuriating.
Towards the end of his career, Bismark made so many secret alliances and political arrangements that no one but he knew them all, and his failing mental powers meant that he was losing the ability to juggle them successfully. When the erratic and ambitious Wilhelm II finally fired him, it opened his Empire to mediocre intrigues and drift. If anything, Bismark was a courtier and diplomat of genius, even though his legacy was to create the conditions for WWI to occur 25 years after his fall from power. Unfortunately, the epilogue does very little to tie all of this together, so I am left feeling an obligation (as opposed to a desire) to read more elsewhere to complete the picture.
To his credit, he was also the first leader in Europe to create a social safety net. He also allowed the creation of a putative parliament, which slipped from his control when political conditions changed. But he remained the creature of autocratic control, never subject to the rule of law and utterly ruthless in his exercise of power. In the end, power was all that meant anything to him.
I give this 3 stars because of its academic competence, but do not recommend it as a reading experience. This is not the kind of biography that transports the reader to a different time and place, but an academic exercise that must be studied rather than read for pleasure.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Disappointing Book on an Important Subject,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)It is usually a mistake for a biographer to write on a person whom he hates, and this book is no exception. It is a sign of the decline of both historical knowledge and appreciation of good writing that this book has received generally good reviews from Anglo-American reviewers, while being quite properly ignored by the German press.
Prof. Steinberg makes it clear from his first chapter that he despises both Bismarck himself and the Prussia which Bismarck led. He never misses an opportunity to throw a disparaging adjective at his subject, while occasionally, and with equal lack of support, characterizing him as the greatest statesman of his time. This makes the book difficult to read, but a historian can still profit from some of the facts that Prof. Steinberg throws out without awareness of their significance. A good example of this inadvertent usefulness is his notation of Bismarck's close friendship with the American historian John Lothrop Motley. Prof. Steinberg manages to miss an important connection here: Motley was Lincoln's ambassador to Austria during the American Civil War, and was a key member of the diplomatic quartet that included Charles Francis Adams, John Bigelow (another American friend of Bismarck whom Steinberg fails to mention), and Cassius M. Clay (Union ambassador to Russia), who together helped establish close relations with Prussia and Russia, whose pressure helped keep Britain and France from intervening on behalf of the Confederacy and thereby helped save the Union. Relations between the Union and Prussia were sufficiently close that Prussian officers accompanied Gen. Sherman's armies on their campaigns, and what they learned showed up later in their tactics in the Franco-Prussian War, where Prussian forces were accompanied in their turn by U.S. officers including Gen. Sheridan, then second in command of the U.S. Army.
Otherwise, it is hard to take seriously a book that gives more space to how the Bismarck herring got its name than it does to the vexed issue of Alsace-Lorraine, and which insists on looking at Bismarck and his Prussia from the wrong end of the telescope--looking back from the 20th century, as if Bismarck inevitably led to Hitler, rather than looking at Bismarck in the Prussia where he was born, which was surrounded by hostile powers (Lothar Gall's altogether superior biography notes that the French army had four times as many soldiers as its Prussian counterpart at the time Prussia began to reform its army in 1859)--and France had occupied most of Germany under Napoleon I, while French statesmen such as Adolphe Thiers, as Germany later began to unify, stated that France's rightful frontier was on the Rhine--which would have stripped the nascent Germany of some of its richest territory.
Steinberg also totally fails to discuss the difficult issue facing German statesmen as unification began as to whether to pursue a kleindeutsch or grossdeutsch state--whether the new Germany should include or exclude Austria. Bismarck, it should be noted, emphatically rejected an inclusion of Austrian territory--a policy that Hitler later reversed--and strongly rejected German involvement in the growing tensions in the Balkans that helped lead to World War I. It is rather odd that a biography of Bismarck should entirely omit his famous dictum that "[T]he Balkans are not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier." It is also odd that a book on Bismarck should devote only a handful of pages to his invention of the modern welfare state, while rambling endlessly about personal characteristics such as his alleged gluttony--a trait which, if he did in fact possess it, he shared with many leading statesmen of his day.
In short, this is a book from which a specialist in German history can gain some valuable nuggets of fact, but which could lead a casual reader badly astray if he or she should manage to wander through Steinberg's thicket of bad writing.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Biography for the Dedicated Historian,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)I agree with almost everything other reviewers have said in support of whatever star ranking they provide, but I would warn readers that they will find it tough going to wade through Steinberg's writing style. You will have to backtrack any number of times to find antecedents of pronouns when he doesn't use the usual grammatical rules. You will have to backtrack also to find the end of a thread he started several hundred pages back, when by surprise he picks it up again.
Someone could write a book, and maybe someone has, to compare and contrast the character and personality of Bismarck to Hitler. Bismarck's rule was nearly as supreme as Hitler's, but Bismarck was no necrophile while Hitler was politically inept. Bismarck's legacy left for the 20th century to resolve would be a more important topic, especially for the modern growth of anti-Semitism, for the voicelessness of the working lower classes and for his establishment of social security, employee accident insurance, and other social innovations. One could argue that Hitler's Third Reich was actually just a conclusion of what he called Bismarck's Second Reich.
I gave this book a high star ranking because of its thoroughly researched and effective mix of Bismarck's personal and political life.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Freudian pap,
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Paperback)Jonathan Steinberg starts analyzing Bismarck's relationship to his parents from page 33 onward. He does so along Freudian lines on the basis of historical documents. This is unprofessional to say the least and downright weird in the year 2010. It's also very revealing of the author's underlying bias. In effect he's saying that he believes Bismarck to be an emotionally stunted creep but he's too chicken to say that outright so hides behind pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo.
If you cannot approach your subject with anything resembling objectivity maybe you shouldn't write a biography.
I think I'll pass.
I have to say, though, the University of Pennsylvania sure knows how to pick 'em. JoePa, Michael Mann and now Jonathan Steinberg*. Tsk tsk.
*and this, kids, is how you do a proper character assassination. No need to necromance poor old Sigmund.
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Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg (Hardcover - April 6, 2011)