A Giant Maligned

The “Great Men” of history were mostly mad or bad, and often both.  To be driven by pride, vanity, and ruthless ambition is common and unremarkable.  That drive is not sufficient to leave a lasting mark on the affairs of mankind, of course, but it is necessary.

It is therefore redundant to dig diligently into the significance of Alexander’s sexual proclivities, or to ponder the impact of the sudden death of Caesar’s father or Muhammad’s, or to dwell on Napoleon’s height, Marx’s self-hating Jewishness, Stalin’s early religiosity, Hitler’s uncertain bloodline, FDR’s polio.  To be obsessed with politics means to be unstable ab initio.  An inquiry into the roots of an historical figure’s specific form of instability merely describes his path to the pedestal.  It “explains” little.

This, in short, is the problem with Jonathan Steinberg’s massive biography of Otto von Bismarck.  The author sets out to explain “how Bismarck exercised his personal power,” and the method is supposedly to let those on whom the power was exercised “tell the story.”  But in the ensuing 500-odd pages, Steinberg proceeds to use judiciously selected quotations from Bismarck’s contemporaries to tell his own story based on his own feelings and impressions—jaundiced...

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