Napoleon, Bismarck, Lenin—all three changed the face of Europe and each contributed to the making of our midtwentieth century world. In each case, the achievement transcends the man, and although the temptation to write their biographies will recur in each generation, the difficulty of doing so remains almost insuperable. However much “world-historical” individuals on this scale may seem to disprove the view of history that sees great events solely as the result of social change and economic pressures, nevertheless it is impossible to write the life of any one of them without also writing about the whole complex of political forces, economic trends, and social movements with which they had to contend and which they had to try and master. In a biography of this kind, the man who is its subject often fades away, his human characteristics overlaid by his historical significance. Perhaps in the case of a cold power-seeking rationalist like Napoleon or an inspired and ruthless doctrinaire like Lenin, this does not much matter; but in Bismarck’s case the individual personality is always imposing itself on our view of the statesman, and thus the biographers have been faced with problems of a psychological as well as of a historical kind and have often found it hard to strike the balance between them.
Throughout Germany at the end of the last century Bismarck monuments of all kinds preserved the image of the Iron Chancellor, as he was commemorated by the painters and sculptors of the day, and this picture of the Olympian Bismarck, masterful, farsighted, impassive, the wise father-figure whose loss prevented the Germans from realizing the full potentialities of the Empire which he had created for them, has died hard. It is only in the recent biographies by the late Erich Eyck (a neglected masterpiece which should certainly be made available in a full English translation instead of in an unsatisfactory abridgement), A.J.P. Taylor, and now Werner Richter, that the true character of the man and the weaknesses of the statesman are beginning to emerge. Herr Richter is an experienced biographer who has written the lives of many nineteenth-century figures, both German and foreign, and he has, without adding much that is new to the accounts and interpretations of his latest predecessors, produced a serious—even solemn, skillfully composed and well-balanced book, excellently translated by Brian Battershaw. While concentrating on Bismarck’s political career, and especially on his foreign policy, he gives us enough detail about his personal life to start us wondering what Bismarck was really like. It is hard to resist the conclusion that he was a very unpleasant man indeed, vindictive, bad-tempered, coarse, and philistine. Yet he was much more complicated than either his admirers have suggested or his critics allowed. The large, over-powering physical appearance was belied by the succession of psychosomatic ailments which plagued him all his life; the vast appetites (his favorite drink was a mixture of champagne and stout) contrast with a sensibility that could lead …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.