Bismarck, by A. J. P. Taylor

February 14, 2011 at 20:51 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics) (, , , )


Taylor’s excellent biography is written with a very self-conscious reference to the First and Second World Wars, and the somewhat obvious statement (once even overtly stated) that Bismarck’s policies and weaknesses as an egotist directly led to both forms the spiritual core of this work. As an apologetic as to why Germany ‘went bad’ it is arrogant and harsh, and it would be interesting to see a similarly detailed look at Germany’s foundation and Bismarck’s career written in a post-Soviet world, and with reflections on current German politics; though such an account would surely seem as myopic and dated as Taylor’s does, fifty years later.

A fatal weakness is Taylor’s attempt to solve the problems of Bismarck’s life through the pseudopsychology of Jung and Freud, usually at the cost of describing those influential figures around him; it was disappointing to see that key members of the German government such as the Crown Prince and Princess were flatly ignored, while Queen Victoria and Alexander III were given only peripheral and half-hearted depictions. Of great interest is Taylor’s theory that Bismarckian political strategies survived the old politician, and lasted long into the twentieth century, partly responsible for the precarious Entente/Alliance system, and ending only with the outbreak of the Great War. This theorising and type of thinking absolutely smacks of wishful thinking and post-war revisionism, and yet the pieces do actually fit. It would be unwise to dismiss Taylor’s hypotheses simply because of his proximity to his subject. Once again, a modern study of this theory would be invaluable, though not of course automatically superior. Ultimately, Taylor’s biography is neither a panegyric nor a damnation of all things German, and if it paints an unbalanced portrait of Bismarck then it also offers several very apt and interesting analyses, from the similarities between his foreign policy and Napoleon’s Continental System to at least a cursory look at his schizophrenic relationship with the British Empire, and his own forays into colonial Imperialism. Taylor chooses the fields upon which he desires to fight, and he makes his stand well; and if he has his reasons for omitting or including material according to his own whims, this hardly denigrates the general standard of this perfectly sufficient biography.

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