Riding through Lorraine after the defeat of France in the autumn of 1870, Otto von Bismarck was accosted by a woman whose husband had just been taken into custody for attacking a Prussian hussar with a spade. ‘In the kindliest possible manner’ he replied to her tearful entreaties: ‘Well, my good woman, you can be quite sure that your husband’ – and at this point he drew a line around his neck with his finger – ‘will very soon be hanged!’ This contrast between civilised exterior and brutal substance arises often in Jonathan Steinberg’s magnificent new biography. Disraeli, for example, was impressed by Bismarck’s ‘sweet and gentle voice’ and his ‘peculiarly refined enunciation’ but added that it made all the more appalling the terrible things he actually said. Bismarck not only loved to outrage people, he turned offensiveness into a political tactic right from the start, subduing his fellow conservatives in the Prussian Parliament by presenting himself as ‘the most extreme of extremists, the wildest of reactionaries, and the most savage of debaters’.
A self-centred, neurotic, corrupt, vindictive, treacherous, unprincipled, despotic, gluttonous ingrate, and a habitual liar to boot, Bismarck was a spectacularly nasty piece of work. That is well known, of course. What marks out Steinberg’s account is his ability to get inside his subject’s seething mind. The praise bestowed