Cometh the Hour

REVIEW: ‘Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe’ by Ian Kershaw

Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle / Wikimedia Commons
January 15, 2023

History has no "right side." It follows no predetermined path and has no inevitable endpoint. This may dismay those hoping to find some meaning in the march of time, but the logical consequence of its absence is to leave room for an individual to make a significant difference to the course of history.

In Personality and Power, Ian Kershaw, the distinguished British historian best known for his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, identifies 12 people who managed just that over one period in one place. The book is an attempt to view "the history of the twentieth century in Europe through the prism of some of the century’s outstanding—for better or, often, worse—political figures." But it is less a portrayal of the continent’s relatively recent past than an examination of the roles played by some of those who shaped it. Each were "either a head of state or head of government," a demarcation that excludes those lower down the pecking order—Trotsky, purged again—as well as artists, scientists, and military men.

Presidents, chairmen, and ayatollahs from outside Europe also fail to make the cut, as do European leaders whose influence was primarily domestic. And Kershaw omits representatives from "a different caste of political leaders … mostly social democrats or liberals," despite their contributions "to advances in social justice and of human rights." Kershaw is enough of a believer in the broad sweep of history that, in his view, for a leader to change its direction, there must already have been a sharp break in its flow. That would not, typically, be a moment when some benign reformer takes charge. Instead, Kershaw gives his readers Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Francisco Franco, Josip Broz Tito, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and (with a caveat) Helmut Kohl. No Piłsudski?

A five-second glance at that list should dispense with the idea that the achievements of those on it necessarily rest on "greatness," if that concept carries with it any suggestion of the admirable, the noble, or the heroic. But, just in case, Kershaw pokes around the ruins of the "Great Man" school of history to show how flimsy its foundations really were. In making his selection, he has jettisoned any questions of morality and concentrated solely on the impact these leaders had.

Most of Personality and Power is taken up with brief, perceptive accounts of Kershaw’s 12 subjects, which he dubs "a series of interpretative essays on the attainment and exercise of power by a number of striking political personalities." They are, he stresses, "not mini-biographies" (although those not too familiar with the stories of some or all of those featured could do worse than treat them as such). That said, Kershaw, a lively writer, throws in some entertaining biographical scraps. "Franco’s bladder-control," we are told, "was extraordinary."

Kershaw’s depiction of each of these leaders is, generally, as uncontentious as it can be with such figures. However, simply to attribute the Soviet famine deaths in the early 1930s to "collectivization" while not mentioning the weaponization of famine by Stalin’s regime against Ukraine is an unexpected lapse. Another, of considerably less importance, is Kershaw’s oddly ahistorical, vaguely apologetic comment on the lack of diversity in his list of leaders. This embarrassing nod to contemporary orthodox pieties is either undermined or reinforced (take your pick) by his use of "shrill" as an adjective to describe the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher, his lone woman.

In each case, Kershaw demonstrates how crisis was the precondition for the moment when that individual could have the most impact: "under settled conditions when there is no systemic crisis, political leaders merely nudge the lever of historical change a little." Helmut Kohl, who is Kershaw’s partial exception to this rule because he had risen to power before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, still took advantage of a crisis (albeit a benign one) to seize his moment. Reunification may have been all but unstoppable, but Kohl pushed it through with remarkable skill, a great deal of money, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s acquiescence. Gorbachev too is an exception of sorts. At different points Kershaw reveals somewhat conflicting views on the depth of the mess faced by the new Soviet leader on assuming office. But either way, it was Gorbachev’s own reforms that created the terminal crisis that transformed him into a world historical figure, essentially by being a good loser, even if Kershaw, mourning perhaps the post-Soviet social democracy that never was, doesn’t put it that bluntly.

While some of the leaders in Personality and Power had psyches that were distinctly off-kilter (Stalin took paranoia about as far as it can go outside a madhouse), they all had, to a greater or lesser extent, domineering, authoritarian personalities, astounding self-confidence, iron determination, the conviction that their way was the right one, and a willingness to do what was necessary to realize their goals, something that the dictators among them took to extremes with a savagery that was one of the hallmarks of the 20th century. All made the most of the opportunity presented to them by a systemic crisis, often brought about by war. De Gaulle did so twice, once in 1940 and again, in 1958 (at the depths of the Algerian morass) and none did so more dramatically than Lenin. Within some six months of returning to a Russia turned upside down by an incomplete revolution and a growing military catastrophe, he had turned his small Bolshevik sect into a mass movement that, if tenuously, grabbed control of what passed for Russia’s government.

Kershaw, in part, attributes the ability of Stalin, Lenin’s eventual successor, to take power and then rule in the way that he did to a decade of, effectively, institutionalized emergency. This had been both fomented and controlled by the party apparatus in the years after the revolution. Stalin used his mastery of this machinery and a series of brilliant political maneuvers to destroy all rivals, real, imagined, or potential. While Lenin resorted to terror against his opponents, within the party itself, there had been some possibility of debate. Not anymore.

Personality and Power is more than a thesis backed by a dozen case-studies. Kershaw is a scholar of power. He analyzes how it is won, maintained, and lost, when it is most dangerous, and how even dictatorships can be constrained. And as a scholar of power, particularly of the type wielded with such hideous results in the last century, he is distrustful of how it can be abused, and of promises and prescriptions being peddled by yet another charismatic personality with all the answers. He would prefer leaders who, "if less colorful, can offer competent, effective governance based on collective deliberation and well-founded, rational decisions aimed at improving the lives of all citizens." Kershaw admits this is "probably" utopian but doesn’t appear to recognize how such a vision, doomed to disappointment by our unruly species, could give rise to the frustrations among the bien pensants and the "sane" that could pave the way for technocracy. Indeed, whether through Brussels or Washington, that process may, slowly but surely, already be underway.

Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe
by Ian Kershaw
Penguin Press, 512 pp., $30

Andrew Stuttaford is the editor of National Review’s Capital Matters.