“Great men are nearly always bad men,” declared the British historian Lord Acton. Perhaps he had in mind his era’s greatest statesman, but Otto von Bismarck—a genius of cynicism—fits Acton’s description to a T. Unhindered by anything resembling principle, prepared to start three wars to accomplish his goals but thereafter prudent and restrained in his diplomacy, ferocious to his enemies and not much kinder to family and friends, Bismarck towered over not just his nation—and Germany was his nation—but his continent.
Steinberg’s biography is a superb, finely written demonstration of the importance of individuals to history. Bismarck had no better or more enduring power base than the trust of his elderly Prussian king (and later German emperor). Wilhelm I was 65 and Bismarck 47 when they began their 26-year collaboration in 1862. The rest of the royal family hated the king’s iron chancellor, and if Wilhelm had not lived until 91, Bismarck would not have had the opportunity to weld 37 German-speaking states into a world power. And he did it all—keeping Wilhelm on his side despite Bismarck’s massive temper tantrums and endless bouts of hypochondriacal illnesses—through sheer force of personality. Everything about Bismarck was outsized: his capacity for work, his command of detail, his misogyny, his rages, his appetite—even his other bodily functions, according to one house guest who marvelled, starry-eyed, over the size of the chancellor’s chamber pots.
Since he was dedicated to nothing except keeping Prussian absolutism—and that feudal relic, the Prussian Junker class—in charge of the most advanced industrial nation in Europe, Bismarck accommodated liberal concepts (universal suffrage) and socialist demands (old-age pensions and workplace insurance) to garner popular support for his militaristic reactionary monarchy. In so doing he set up a state so finely tuned for his personal rule, and so accustomed to blind obedience, that it was bound to be both menacing and unstable in others’ hands—Kaiser Wilhelm II, for one, or Adolf Hitler.