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Bismarck: A Life

3.66  ·  Rating Details ·  697 Ratings  ·  89 Reviews
This riveting, New York Times bestselling biography illuminates the life of Otto von Bismarck, the statesman who unified Germany but who also embodied everything brutal and ruthless about Prussian culture.
Jonathan Steinberg draws heavily on contemporary writings, allowing Bismarck's friends and foes to tell the story. What rises from these pages is a complex giant of a ma
Hardcover, 592 pages
Published April 6th 2011 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2011)
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Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont
The Juggler

Nineteenth century Europe was a game of two halves or, better, a game of two men: the Emperor Napoleon, who dominated the first, and Otto von Bismarck, who dominated the second. If anything Bismarck was the more important of the two, creating not just a new Germany but a new Europe, with a legacy that extended well into the twentieth century. He was the greater because he was the more cunning; the lesser because his vision was considerably more limited. In some ways Bismarck was the
Nov 11, 2011 Arminius rated it liked it
“The Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck is regarded as the greatest statesman of the 19th Century due to his great accomplishments while running Prussia from 1861 to 1898. His first great accomplishment was unifying all the German people into one country. The last unification of Germany was in the 10th Century by Henry the Fowler and his son Otto the Great.

He started the reunification policy in 1864 when he authorized the Prussian Army to attack and consequently defeat Denmark to gain back the
Apr 13, 2011 Vheissu rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Vheissu by:
"Admirable" is not a word I can apply to Bismarck, nor it is a word that Steinberg suggests. Otto von Bismarck was a viscous, vindictive, duplicitous, unprincipled "dictator" (yes, dictator is how most of his friends and enemies viewed him in life), and hoary anti-Semite who ruthlessly destroyed friends and foes alike. Bismarck was just as happy to establish a social security system for the workers as he was to massacre striking workers if either served his immediate political purpose. Bismarck ...more
Mikey B.
Dec 26, 2012 Mikey B. rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, germany
My purpose in reading this book was to obtain background on German history in the 19th century and Mr. Steinberg is largely successful at this. We can clearly see that Bismarck was the catapult for the Germany of the 20th century.

The author paints a very complex portrait of Bismarck. He unified Germany and to some extent modernized it by increasing the electorate and introducing some social programs – by the end of the 19th century Germany had become a major industrial power. Even though he “pla
Jun 22, 2011 Dan rated it liked it
Shelves: 2011
This was a detailed treatment of The Mad Junker with lots of primary sources. It was a tough, tough read, though; very dense at times, and demanding that I recall my previous coursework in 19th century German history more than I thought it would. Those were OK. I will say I had two problems:

1. Author's insertion into narrative -- The author was WAY too visible in this book. Lots of first person pronouns and asides that would have been better off in the footnotes, or left out entirely.

2. Needed a
Apr 04, 2011 Richard marked it as not-gonna-read
(Well-reviewed in the New York Times by Henry Kissinger: Otto von Bismarck, Master Statesman.)

Abandoned. I'd still like to read on this topic, but this was the wrong biography to start with. Steinberg set out to illuminate the inner Bismarck, and I've still got to catch up on the politics of the era, not the personal demons and neuroses of its key player.
Not a terribly perceptive nor compelling read...but adequate. Useful for the novice Germanophile but nothing that hasn't been covered elsewhere and in some cases much better. Still, a mildly interesting read.

If you've access to nothing else on Bismarck this is worth a go.
Lars Brownworth
Aug 10, 2012 Lars Brownworth rated it it was ok
The first ingredient in a successful biography is a good subject, and Steinberg couldn’t have asked for a better one. He perfectly sums us the enigma of Bismark in his opening chapter: The Iron Chancellor made Germany but never ruled it. He was not charismatic or a great speaker. He had no military credentials, led no political party, had no great wealth, and served at the whim of three different emperors- any of whom could have dismissed him with a word. And yet, he dominated Germany and Europe ...more
Dec 03, 2013 Windsor rated it it was ok
Way too textbook ish for me. Got 130 pages in and couldn't do it anymore. Not my cup of tea.
Frank Stein
Feb 20, 2012 Frank Stein rated it it was amazing
An impressive and shocking portrait of a political genius and a damaged individual. Steinberg manages to depict the grand course of German history over the entirety of the nineteenth century through that era's most dominant personality, Otto von Bismarck.

On the whole, Steinberg aims at a psychological investigation, one achieved through heavy use of Bismarck's own writings and the writings of others who came in contact with him, both often supplied in large block quotes, sometimes three or four
Mar 18, 2015 Lisa rated it it was ok
This had such potential, but unfortunately the author's style turn what ought to be a fascinating read into a deadly dull and confusing slog. The introduction is wonderful, but things go downhill rather fast.

First, and this is admittedly a pet peeve of mine, the author proceeds in only vaguely chronological fashion, with frequent tangents to relate backstory of important figures in Bismarck's life or remind readers what is to come. Then there is the psychoanalysis which crops up again and again
Jul 19, 2014 Filip rated it it was ok
Old geezer on old geezer. Bismarck is the defining figure of German history in the 19th century, so I came to this biography with certain expectations. It soon became obvious, however, that the author lacked the freshness or empathy to make this biography come alive, and only cares about demonstrating a central thesis. Sentences are repeated, German names are mangled, and there are odd interjections like a grumpy uncle would make, especially concerning the European Union. So what's the central t ...more
Baris Balcioglu
Mar 25, 2017 Baris Balcioglu rated it it was ok
I like reading biographies and I asked my friend Hakan to purchase this book for me, so I had to read it to the end. One of the claims, from another book, is that Hitler came into power because people believed in Bismarckian type strong leaders, so I wanted learn more about him. This book heavily relies on excerpts from memoirs and letters of the people from that era. But I don't think that this serves the purpose. The author could have given us the interpretation instead. I really didn't unders ...more
Oct 06, 2011 Elizabeth rated it liked it
Bismarck changed the history of Europe -- this is one of those statements written in a high school term paper that makes the teacher roll his or her eyes. So tell me something I don't know. This biography explains how his personality, intelligence, and shear force of will allowed him to do this. It is a very dense history of necessity, but poorly edited and typeset. Being the pedant I am, I found it annoying that lines ran together with no spaces. Obviously the publisher didn't want to re-run th ...more
Elliot Schnapp
Aug 30, 2011 Elliot Schnapp rated it liked it
If only Steinberg could write. To say his prose is turgid is an understatement. Also persists in using the first person ("I discovered" "in my opinion" "as I delved further into the matter"), which I found utterly inappropriate in a biography. Presumes familiarity with persons and events in mid 19th century Prussia that I doubt many of his readers will have. His gross shortcomings as a writer are quite unfortunate because the content in much of the book is quite strong, particularly once the nar ...more
Henri Moreaux
I was very disappointed in this book.

Biographies generally need two additives, a good subject and a good narrative. Otto von Bismarck is a fantastic subject and led an extremely interesting life - he was essentially the Hitler of the 1800s.

I found the problem here though was the writer has taken an interesting subject and added dull narrative. I found it extremely difficult to 'get into' this book and it just seemed to ramble on and on. I found it resembled a textbook more than a non-fiction boo
Jan 10, 2012 Chris rated it liked it
This book suffers for its lack of context. Anybody who picks up a book like this will surely have some knowledge of European history, but to be appropriate for a broad audience, this book would have had to better explain the major events of 19th century German history that Bismarck was involved in. Steinberg glosses over events like the Crimean War, assuming his readers know all the details. I spent much of my time with this book referencing other works in order to provide the necessary informat ...more
Aug 01, 2012 Jonathan rated it it was amazing
Otto Von Bismarck was an appalling human being: anti-Semitic, misogynistic, vengeful, dishonest, given to temper tantrums, and a hypochondriac to boot. Yet, this giant of a man - in every sense - was 19th century Europe's most effective politician and diplomat, and was a major force in the formation of the German state. Such thundering contradictions and a firm grip of the historical context are grist for Professor Steinberg's thorough mill in this excellent and comprehensive biography. Since it ...more
Oct 04, 2011 Gobasso rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, biography
I could not think of a better description of the "Prussian" personality than this book. Bismarck was ruthless, single minded, prejudiced and unquestioning of his personal belief system. A true machiavellian. A sad tale. Especially when you realize that the government he devised was defunct for only 14 years when it was resurrected by the Nazi's. As Steinberg points out it did not have to be so. To our sorrow it was. I had been looking for a good biography of this important historical figure for ...more
William Ramsay
May 25, 2011 William Ramsay rated it liked it
I didn't finish this. Steinberg's premise was a good one. How did Bismark, who was not rich or well connected or a military man or even elected to any office, end up first unifying and then ruling Germany for thirty years? And he does a fairly good of explaining this up to a point. I think the point was reached when my eyes glazed over. I thought it was very boring. The most interesting revelation was that Bismark was six four and towered over everyone. It's a revelation because in all drawings ...more
Sep 22, 2011 Vladimir rated it it was amazing
Bismarck was ahead of his time politically, in the worst possible ways. He died long ago, in the service of a country that no longer exists. So it's possible to study him and see the dark side of the modern power-hungry administrative state without getting caught up in partisan sentimentality.
Aug 24, 2014 Keith rated it it was amazing
A magisterial account of the great man's life. It's hard to imagine any historian will ever do a better job of capturing Bismarck in all his complexity.
Doreen Petersen
Jan 11, 2014 Doreen Petersen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, biography
What a complex character Bismarck was. Kudos to the author of this book as the subject material must have been very challenging to write. I loved it.
Bill Manzi
I enjoyed the book, although it was, in my opinion, light on the the great achievements of Bismarck in foreign policy. Bismarck was a truly monumental historical figure who dominated his era, both domestically and internationally. Steinberg, while writing a strong book in many respects, betrays his anti-Bismarck bias throughout. Steinberg acknowledges Bismarck as a genius, but takes great pains to point out some of the "character flaws" of the great man. Such flaws include losing friends (always ...more
Nov 28, 2011 Mark rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Mar 14, 2015 Jeff rated it it was ok
Steinberg's biography oozes potential from its introductory chapter. Unfortunately, the remainder of the book falls short.

I have read numerous critical biographies of prominent historical figures. Too often, historians are content with a "flawed giant" interpretation that reeks of subtle apologetics. Steinberg is bold in his opening chapter, emphasizing that Bismarck's power and success developed from a gigantic, "sovereign" self. Bismarck, Steinberg argues, was a contradictory figure whose powe
Jan 01, 2012 Marks54 rated it really liked it
This is a very detailed biography of Otto von Bismarck. Who was he? The individual who made possible the formation of the German Empire in 1871 - and by doing so completely altered the course of European and world history since then. Without Bismarck, you do not have the chain of events that led to World War I. Without World War I, you don't have World War II, etc. I am not a believer in a "Great Man" school of history, but if you had to pick someone in the past two centuries who did exercise a ...more
Jul 17, 2012 Jenn rated it really liked it
I read this book on the Kindle, which made the format of the book a little difficult to get through, as the author frequently (REALLY frequently) quotes contemporary sources. While that lends a real air of authenticity to the book, it can be a little annoying and at times it just felt like I was reading quotes and not a book.

That being said, the book seems really well researched and provides a vivid picture of Bismarck and the politics of the time. There were so many people and names and sometim
Nov 12, 2011 Joe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent biography of the most important statesman of the late 19th century. Everything about Bismarck was larger than life: his personality, his ambition, his opportunism, his ego, his power of persuasion, his ruthlessness, his political vision, his physical size, his tantrums, his gluttony, and even the colossal size of his chamber pot.

His career lasted so long (from the late 1840s to the early 1890s, that the book gives us a good overview of Prussian and German politics via the dominant figu
Tom Brucia
Oct 20, 2012 Tom Brucia rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A densely written work which gives me a lot to think about. I think I'm going to reread it with a pad and pen and take a lot of detailed notes..... So many threads still echo in the 21st century, in some ways more in the U.S. than in modern Europe. It does leave me realizing that I need to find an equally compelling volume taking me from 1898 (death of Bismarck) to 1914 (start of World War I). One thing that surprised me was the Prussian and German obsession with law and legislation. I'm gradual ...more
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