Genius Rebuked
Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford, 592 pp., $34.95)


Among the statesmen of his generation, Bismarck may very well be the best company. Disraeli alone can rival him in wit, personal fascination, and deviousness. They met in 1862, before either of them had reached the top of the greasy pole, and later in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin, after both had attained secular immortality. Disraeli was by then 73, and without a trace of sullenness he contented himself with recording, in a series of brilliant letters, the spectacle of the younger man in motion, mastering everything in sight.

In Bismarck: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg, an emeritus fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written what may be the best introduction in English to Bismarck the man. No writer can unravel the tangled skein of Bismarck the diplomat in a way that is easy for a reader new to the subject to follow; it is enough for a book if it deepens the picture of the living personality behind the diplomacy. This Steinberg has done, through a skillful use of diaries, letters, and memoirs, and by availing himself of the most recent German scholarship.

“Faust complains of having two souls in his breast,” Bismarck said. “I have a whole squabbling crowd. It goes on as in a republic.” Two personas emerged early: the “mad Junker,” a violently eccentric reactionary, and the cool chess player who used the “mad Junker” as a foil. One of Bismarck’s closest friends, the American diplomat and historian John Lothrop Motley, explained the relation between the two Bismarcks in his 1839 novel Morton’s Hope, a book that grew out of his student days in Göttingen. Bismarck figures as Otto von Rabenmark, who “in every respect,” Morton (Motley) says, “went immeasurably beyond any person I have ever known.” He drank deeply, dressed wildly, and provoked innumerable duels; but always with an object in view. “You see I am a very rational sort of person now,” Rabenmark tells Morton, “and you would hardly take me for the same crazy mountebank you met in the street half an hour ago. But then I see that this is the way to obtain superiority. I determined at once on arriving in the university, that to obtain mastery over my competitors, who were all extravagant, savage, eccentric, was to be ten times as extravagant and savage as anyone else.”

The savage extravagance was not altogether feigned. Bismarck’s “hypochondria, gluttony, rage, and despair,” Steinberg writes, were always present, but grew more pronounced as he grew more powerful. His “health, temper, and emotional life deteriorated the more successful he became.” His letters are heavy with spleen. He was so enraged by “those who keep knocking at my door” to “annoy me with questions” that “I could bite the table.” “Now that I have talked myself hoarse to artisans and statesmen,” he wrote in 1859, “I have almost gone mad from annoyance, hunger, and too much business.” “I am sick to death and have gall-bladder problems,” he wrote ten years later. “I have not slept for 36 hours and spent the entire night throwing up. My head feels like a glowing oven.”

When, in the 1860s, the fate of Germany and his own power hung in the balance, Bismarck suppressed his more disagreeable qualities to win the game. Between his accession as minister-president of Prussia in 1862 and the unification of the German Empire in 1871, he allowed the “mad Junker” out of his cage only when it served a constructive purpose. But after he had, in his words, “beaten them all,” he raved and stormed whenever the mood was on him. The realist who said that politics is the “art of the possible” engaged in a fatuous attempt to crush the Church of Rome in a nation that was heavily Catholic. He was under a “psychological necessity,” said Friedrich von Holstein, of making “his power felt by tormenting, harrying, and ill-treating” others. The Berlin salonière Hildegard von Spitzemberg, who adored him, was appalled by the “brutality and heartlessness” with which he “trampled” people “into the dust.” Disraeli, observing him in Berlin, told Lady Bradford that he “is a complete despot here,” and “from the highest to the lowest” the Prussians “tremble at his frown.”

May 16, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 9

Books, Arts & Manners
  • William Voegeli reviews The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.
  • Michael Knox Beran reviews Bismarck: A Life, by Jonathan Steinberg.
  • Robert VerBruggen reviews Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, by Bryan Caplan.
  • Jay Nordlinger on his friendship with the late composer Lee Hoiby.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Conspirator.
  • John Derbyshire contemplates the fragility of civilization.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
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Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .