‘Bismarck: A Life’, J. Steinberg

I started this biography of Bismarck a very long time ago. I finished it today. It has probably taken me a year and a half to finish it, but that is only because I mainly read it when I had nothing else going on book-wise. Admittedly, the style of the book is rather heavy but in many ways I think that is the way Bismarck needs to be described. It would be difficult to carry the serious aspect of the man who governed so much for so long in lighter tones.

Mr Steinberg brings to life this man who served three Emperors of Germany, created the Empire, and who was still willing to dispose of it just to retain power for a longer period of time. In his mind, in the mind of the Prince Bismarck, power was everything and disobedience was not allowed. He was the state, and the state was him. Only… it was not. The state was the Emperor.

Wilhelm I and his relationship with the Minister-President and Chancellor is touched upon in considerable length in this work, and I have to say I am surprised by the amount of manipulation that went on. Alongside that, one has to keep in mind that the Queen/Empress Augusta had her wishes and plans, and the Crown Prince and Princess their own as well. The court of the Hohenzollern was an interesting place, but the presence of Bismarck made it very different to what it would have been otherwise.

The author, in a number of different places, remarks upon the extraordinary good luck of Bismarck to have served Wilhelm, and for Wilhelm to have lived to such an old age. The hint is very clear — Wilhelm was the King/Emperor that Bismarck could serve, for his moods and wishes would not work as well against either Friedrich III or Wilhelm II.

Now comes the time in which I have to lament that the book takes the general English approach and uses William instead of Wilhelm and Frederick instead of Friedrich. Yet, other German names are retained in their original forms. This can lead to some confusion, and I would generally prefer the original to be kept throughout. Or it might be that I am confused now…

Back to the book : Following Bismarck’s life from the early days, a very different aristocrat to what I originally thought he was revealed himself. The photo we generally see and picture of the man is one of military bearing and dignity. I was surprised to learn how manufactured that image was, and how Bismarck avoided military service. I am appalled at how Bismarck treated his friends and allies. But, I still think I understand him. He had one wish, and that wish was power.

This book brings out what a man’s wish for power can mean. The extents to which the Prince would descend or ascend only to maintain his own hold on power are staggering. And, yet, it is a story of others alongside the Iron Chancellor — others such as the notable Liberals Ludwig Windthorst and Eduard Lasker. Indeed, I think that the story that bears telling alongside that of Bismarck is that of Windthorst who managed to outmaneuver the cunning Chancellor on a number of occasions.

And, yet, this book did not set out to describe the others. It set out to tell us a story of a man who ruled, and to tell this story without unnecessary embellishments. I believe it is the truth as close to it as we can so long afterwards when we read the words on this Prince of Germany, who wished himself to be simply known as

‘A faithful German servant of Kaiser Wilhelm I’

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