Otto von Bismarck (1815–98) is a wonderful gift to a biographer: he was not just the Reichsgründer (empire founder) who created a united Germany by instigating successful wars with his neighbours, he was literally huge; a Rabelaisian character, often seated before a dining table with a tankard of beer or a flute of champagne in his hand.
Hero to some and devil to others, either way Bismarck was an unmistakable political genius. He is credited with being the inventor of modern realpolitik – politics that espouse no greater morality than the interests of the state – and yet he was very much that state’s first servant.
He was paranoid, a liar, a glutton and a hypochondriac; and dealt harshly with his best friends at the merest whiff of betrayal. He was petty, throwing childish tantrums when he failed to get his way: a technique which normally had the desired effect with William I of Prussia who became the first German emperor.
Such tactics failed with his last master and former pupil, William II. When he threw a heavy file on the king’s desk, young William grasped his sabre, and Bismarck was sacked.
As a Prussian Lutheran, Bismarck hated Austrians and Catholics, but was prepared to do deals with them if it suited him.
The Prussian king was most reluctant to go to war with Austria, and yet once he had won the decisive battle of Königgrätz in 1866, he wanted massive territorial adjustments and victory parades. Bismarck prudently stayed his hand: Austria would have its uses later.
There have been many lives of Bismarck since the chancellor penned his own misleading memoirs in retirement. The new biography comes with a fine pedigree: Jonathan Steinberg was for a generation and more an authority on modern Germany at Cambridge and an expert on the origins of the German navy.
He takes us through the familiar territory of Otto’s childhood. Bismarck was a Junker, or Prussian squire, but one with a cold, middle-class mother. He was a dandy at university, where he befriended the American historian John Motley. He failed as a diplomat, embraced the life of a feudal farmer and – possibly with marriage in mind – became briefly a Bible-bashing evangelical.
Bismarck rose to prominence on the back of the 1848 revolution and achieved power at the moment when the king considered abdication. He was never a modern statesman; he was more like an old-fashioned Prussian Landrat or local administrator – a powerful civil servant acting in the king’s name.
Steinberg’s book suffers from poor editing. Oxford University Press could not make up their minds whether the spelling and syntax was to be English or American. There are no footnotes, so explanatory material encumbers the narrative together with repeats, anachronistic judgments and frequent conjecture.
Occasionally we surface from 19th-century Germany to find ourselves in a lecture theatre where the author pauses for a metaphor drawn from current events, or an insight that might better have been consigned to the preface or epilogue on how his views changed in the course of writing the book.
It also dwells too much on Bismarck and the Jews. He was hardly averse to them. He admired the socialist Ferdinand Lassalle and used the journalist Maximilian Harden.
By the standards of his time and caste, Bismarck qualifies only as a mild anti-Semite.
But for all that it is a fine, lively and scholarly biography. To write a good life you must either love, or loathe your subject. I feel Steinberg wants to loathe Bismarck, but sometimes he almost loves him.
He dismisses his legacy: his achievement was to stay in power, and yet he makes Bismarck responsible for Germany’s problems, all of them, ending with Hitler.
In truth any strong Germany was likely to disrupt Europe’s equilibrium and reduce the continent to a number of armed camps. The only man who might have had the nous to prevent that was Bismarck himself.
Giles MacDonogh is the author of Great Battles: 50 Key Battles from the Ancient World to the Present Day (Quercus, 2010)