From the first page of the book, Taylor emphasizes the historical setting of Bismarck’s life. He shows the significance of 1815, the year of Bismarck’s birth and of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Schönhausen, the town near the Elbe River where Bismarck was born, was also an important factor in his career. Although this biography was not written for young adult readers, it does teach the importance of history in shaping the destinies of individuals and of countries.
Bismarck presents many valuable lessons to young readers, both positive and negative. In discussing Bismarck’s personal life, Taylor does not omit the negative influence of his subject’s personal habits; young readers learn of the effects of not following sound religious, moral, and ethical principles, as well as the results of alcohol and tobacco use and of excessive eating. Another negative lesson can be inferred from Bismarck’s contempt and arrogance toward his associates. Bismarck is portrayed as a person who carried the idea of self-esteem to the point of self-conceit.
The book’s positive lessons for young readers include Bismarck’s ability to show moderation in victory. He would never take advantage of a situation, not even a war, to obtain more than was necessary to meet his immediate needs. Very few statesmen have been able to exercise such restraint. Taylor states Bismarck’s belief that there are times for a leader to apply the spur and times also to pull...
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Taylor’s work must be classified as one of the most thorough biographies in English of Bismarck. The author tried to refute some traditional misconceptions, such as the idea that Bismarck’s famous “iron and blood” statement meant that he believed only in military power to solve national problems. Taylor emphasizes throughout the book that Bismarck’s methodology was a combination of constitutional reform, German nationalism, and traditional royal power. Many historians would not agree with Taylor’s conclusion that, during his retirement years, Bismarck was more concerned with personal revenge than he was with preserving the German Empire. Taylor supports this conclusion, however, with references to Bismarck’s writings, speeches, and other actions during that period of his life.
If there is one hindrance to a young reader’s understanding of this book, it would be the use of French and German phrases, only some of which are translated in the footnotes. This minor difficulty does not negate the personal and historical value of Bismarck.