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Bismarck: A Life 1st Edition

3.2 out of 5 stars 89 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199782529
ISBN-10: 0199782520
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. For over two decades the study of Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) has been structured by the seminal multivolume works of Lothar Gall and Otto Pflanze. Steinberg (Yesterday's Deterrent), a professor of modern European history at the University of Pennsylvania, brings a fresh perspective to the subject in a single volume whose insights and presentation make it no less canonical than its predecessors. Steinberg's Bismarck is a man whose power came not from the external "forces and factors," as stated by Gall and Pflanze, but from "the sovereignty of an extraordinary, gigantic self." He embodied Hegel's concept of a world-historical figure: shaping events and people by the potency of his intellect, the force of his character, and the strength of his will. Yet Steinberg demonstrates that Bismarck's rise and survival depended on his relationship to King William I. Serving as prime minister at the pleasure of William I, Devoid of any principle beyond the exercise of power, defining politics as struggle in domestic and international contexts, he singlehandedly "brought about a complete transformation in the European international order." As Steinberg relates, he fostered enmity in order to resolve conflict. The results were a restless Reich, an antagonistic Europe, and eventually a world war. B&w photos. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 6, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199782520
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199782529
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 1.8 x 6.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #846,984 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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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.
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