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A perceptive study of the “Iron Chancellor”

Bismarck: A Life - Jonathan Steinberg

No single person was more responsible for the creation of Germany in 1871 than Otto von Bismarck. First as minister-president of Prussia, then as chancellor of the German Empire he shaped and guided the creation and development of the country for over a quarter of a century. Yet as Jonathan Steinberg points out in the introduction to his biography of the man, he was a ruler without any sort of sovereignty or popular support, a fact that makes his achievement all the more remarkable. How Bismarck came to occupy this role and stamp he placed on Germany is detailed in this perceptive book, which provides an understanding of his achievements within the context of his life and times.


Little about Bismarck’s early years indicated the outsize role he would play in history. Born to a Prussian landowning family, he benefitted from the opportunities open to him as a member of the Junker class. Drawn to politics in his early thirties, he soon made a name for himself as a staunch supporter of the Prussian king, Frederick William IV and in 1851 was named the Prussian representative to the Diet of the German Confederation. It was here that he developed his famous pragmatism as a politician, as well as fostering an image of recklessness he felt would serve him well in his political dealings. Yet he desired to be at the heart of power, and he succeeded in winning appointment as Prussia’ minister-president in 1862 thanks to the active support of Albrecht von Roon and other members of a conservative camarilla.


Once in power Bismarck began a remarkable transformation of European politics. The key to his power, as Steinberg notes, lay not with party support or military backing but from his ability to dominate Frederick William’s brother and successor, William I. With the king’s backing, Bismarck was able to remake the map of Europe, forging the nation of Germany from the disparate states that survived the Napoleonic era. Yet the governing system he constructed was one designed to maximize his authority as chancellor, thwarting the demands of liberal politicians for a greater voice for parliamentary democracy. This system proved to be a double-edged sword, however, as Bismarck found out when William’s grandson William II took the throne. Lacking the hold that he had on the new emperor’s grandfather, Bismarck’s resignation was finally accepted in 1890, leaving the governing power of the advanced industrial state in the hands of a mercurial young monarch and his independent and assertive military.


Steinberg’s book is an excellent account of Bismarck’s life and times. He offers a fascinating portrait of a dramatic politician who dominated the politics of his nation as few have before or since. By setting Bismarck’s life into the context of its times, he demonstrates well the impact Bismarck’s policies had – for better and for worse – on the development of Germany as a nation. Unfortunately this does come at a cost, as Bismarck’s private life is generally given short shrift outside of its impact upon his temperament, but such a sacrifice is understandable given the challenge of summarizing such a long career within the confines of a single volume. Steinberg succeeds in providing readers with what is likely to be the best single-volume biography of the “Iron Chancellor” for decades to come, one that should be read by anyone seeking to understand this fascinating and important figure.