In many respects, the career of Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German Empire, reflected the onset of modern times. His background as a rural aristocrat, and his particular hold on power thanks to his ability to manipulate Emperor William I, would have been commonplace for centuries, but Bismarck was first minister of a rapidly industrialising and urbanising society and was to be challenged by the rise of mass politics.
Here, Jonathan Steinberg has produced a well-grounded biography that offers not only an instructive account of Prussian history in the period, but also a perceptive understanding of the enigmas of personality. With Bismarck, the faults were many. Self-obsessed, he was unable to find any true peace. He was also nasty, matched his illnesses (for example, a facial neuralgia "like a sword being shoved through my cheek") with a skill at hypochondria, and there was a "void" at the core of his relationship with his wife. Disloyal to supervisors and colleagues, Bismarck's control was described as "a specialisation in dishonourable humiliation". In his memoirs, he failed to acknowledge the vital assistance of others.
Steinberg writes well and has an eye for the randomness of life, considering the possibility that his subject's life would have been cut short by an 1852 duel arising from Bismarck smoking a cigar at the Federal Council to assert Prussia's equality with Austria. He argues that Bismarck lacked redeeming human virtues and had no cultural interests. Ironically, Bismarck emerges as a subject for some of the arts for which he had such little time. Steinberg sees him as a victim of his own character, driven to wield a power he could not live with. The account is convincing, but would have benefited from a detailed comparison with other first ministers in European monarchies.
There are also interesting echoes of other times and places. When, in 1870, the French emissary met Bismarck and Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke in order to discuss terms for the French army surrounded in Sedan, he argued that generosity was the sole possible base for a lasting peace, only for Bismarck to reply that it was particularly difficult to rely on the gratitude of a people. The French diplomat stressed the pacific tendency arising from French capitalism, but Bismarck drew attention to the bellicosity of the press and population of Paris.
UK academics might like to consider the extent to which the current criteria for "research excellence" make it increasingly likely that a work such as this - a biography of ambition and scholarship - will come not from Britain but from the US. Moreover, the fascination of so many historians with the minuscule and with subjects that do not resonate in the public sphere mean that few historians on either side of the Atlantic will be able to match Steinberg's achievement.
Bismarck: A Life
By Jonathan Steinberg. Oxford University Press. 592pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780199599011. Published 17 February 2011