Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Is Biography Proper History?

By Jonathan Steinberg

When I began my career in academic life as an historian, the answer was a loud No. Biography fell into the category of ‘unserious’ stuff, written by amateurs. Not any more. Big biographies of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Churchill, Lyndon Johnson and many others pour from the pens of the most distinguished academic historians. My Bismarck: A Life, which appears in February in the UK and April in the USA, will, I hope, find readers both in the professional historical profession and among the public. What has changed? Why has biography become respectable as a form of research?

In the 1960s when I started, the prevailing paradigm came from social sciences. History had to build sociological modes like the totalitarianism model. It had to measure, count and verify. It had to study structures and functions of  the social order, drawn from Marxist analysis or Weberian sociology.  Anything else seemed dangerously uncertain, ill-defined and, worse, ‘subjective’.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought down the whole edifice of social science. Nobody in the spectrum of social studies had a clue that the Soviet Union and its vast empire could vaporize in two years as if it had been a mirage; anything with ‘social’ in its terminologies lost purchase along with socialism. The gap left in the set of tools available to historians has not yet been filled. But there were lives out there to study. Even I, educated in Parsonian structural-functional analysis and a dedicated social scientific historian, had noticed an absurd contrast between my models and a twentieth century reality dominated by huge charismatic individuals: Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Mao, Castro, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Biography established itself, I think, because the social science models left out the power of human personality. Serious historians of National Socialism realized that they had to solve the Hitler problem. The great Hitler biographer, Ian Kershaw, begins his massive 2 volume biography with a section called ‘Reflecting on Hitler’ with these words:

‘The legacy of Hitler belongs to all of us. Part of that legacy is the continuing duty to seek understanding of how Hitler was possible. ..the character of his power – the power of the  Führer . . . a social construct, a creation of social expectations and motivations vested in Hitler by his followers.’ (pp. xiv and xxvi)

Kershaw makes a fundamental and liberating distinction between the life of the man Hitler and the interaction of that life with the category of rule associated with the term Führer or leader, a political, objective reality, which we can study as we can the growth of modern industry or the changes in population.

In writing my book, I worked on the same principle. For the last four decades, since I first lectured on Bismarck as a very junior research fellow at Cambridge, his achievement puzzled me. How had he done it?  Bismarck achieved his feats because his powerful personality disarmed and commanded his supporters and his opponents alike for nearly four decades, but  every individual, no matter how great, works within real parameters. Changes in the international balance of power, over which he had no control made his success possible. The institutional structure of the Kingdom of Prussia after the Revolution of 1848 gave him levers of power. The Prussian army over which Bismarck as a civilian could by definition have no say, made his victories possible.  He needed a general to be Minister of War, who knew he was a genius and found one in Albrecht von Roon (1803-1879). Finally he had to manipulate the old King William I (1797-1888) and that King had to live a long time which he did. The relationship between Bismarck and the old King needs a biographer, not a social scientist, to explain. I see it as a drama between father and son and between the adopted son and a Queen who hated him as he hated her. In that triangle Bismarck unfolded his genius and in the struggle against his enemies, often female, he became physically and psychologically ill.

Biography can be proper history if it asks the kind of questions which an academic historian can define and offers evidence to support the answer. I hope I have managed to achieve that.

Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania, and Emeritus Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of Bismarck: A Life, the first major biography of Bismarck for thirty years. You can watch him talk about the book on our YouTube channel.

Recent Comments

  1. Lippy

    Yes, I agree with the human agency approach – one person can have sea-changing impact on a society or nation.

    But cannot an understanding also be developed from a comparative approach – by looking at similarities and differences we can measure influence. Maybe this is a traditional way of looking at history, as oppossed to your modern focus.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *