I was really looking forward to reading this book. It had received a great review in "The New York Times Book Review", and it sounded so good, that I pre-ordered it from Amazon that same Sunday. In addition, this is a period of history I have become interested in lately and it sounded perfect.
Bismarck is truly a disappointment and it fails on many levels. As a previous Amazon reviewer noted, the author doesn't like or admire Bismarck. Steinberg literally calls Bismarck "monstrous" at one point in the book. All of Bismarck's triumphs are mitigated with a remark, implying it was an unintended consequence or someone else would have done better or sooner or faster. All of Bismarck's failures and weaknesses are thoroughly examined, and these traits are then parceled out among Prussian society. It is ironic then that the picture Steinberg paints of Bismarck is strikingly similar to the life of Winston Churchill.
The book is difficult to read. The relentlessly negative tone gives the narrative a ponderous feel. The text is not well organized. Characters come and go nearly at random. For example, Ludwig Windthorst is introduced and developed on pages 272-4, ca. 1867 and then dropped like a stone on p.275, not to return for another twenty years. On top of this, Steinberg is not very skilled at setting up the context of particular events. (I had to resort to Wikipedia several times to understand things.) Non-Prussian characters are only sketchily treated. There are no maps in book. The author jumps excessively back and forth in time. For one amazing passage, in the space of two pages (p. 142-143), the author moves from ca. 1858, forward to Nazi Germany, recedes back to 1846, and then forward to 1848. Things advance to 1850, and, following a quick hop back to 1847, the narrative returns to 1858. The effect is that time and space become relative.
The blurriness is deliberate. Steinberg wants to be right, and furthermore, he wants the reader to know that he is right. A great deal of Steinberg's analysis relies on the sophism of "The Law of Unintended Consequences." This truly becomes annoying. Can Steinberg really have expected Bismarck to have been omniscient or not act at all? The author telegraphs all the important punches in the book thereby eliminating the narrative of some much needed drama and precious continuity. One can almost imagine him jumping up and down like a know-it-all high-school nerd, yelling, "See! Here's where he makes that mistake I told you two pages ago that he would make!" Only rarely have I observed the phase, "The attentive reader will have noticed ..." and it is hardly the mark of a secure writer. But Steinberg uses it several times to make some fairly obvious points which the reader indeed had noticed. The attentive reader will also notice several other agendas at play in the book.
Overall, this book is too poor a read for a causal or introductory reader to find enjoyable. It is too biased for anyone not already familiar with the subject to read unquestioningly. There are numerous small details the author apparently has unearthed, so this book could be used as a source book to track those down. Otherwise, this book is not worth reading.