Personality and Power

By Ian Kershaw

The role of the individual in history is a timeless debating topic precisely because it can never be definitively answered. The flag-bearers for the two opposing sides are usually taken as Thomas Carlyle for the “great man” theory of history and Leo Tolstoy for the importance of fate and larger historical forces. But while “the question has lain close to the centre of historical enquiry ever since the study of history became a professional discipline in the nineteenth century,” Ian Kershaw says that it has mainly been addressed as “a theoretical issue . . . seldom confronted directly and empirically.”

You might think that this is what Kershaw is going to do then in Personality and Power, but it’s a task he’s both well-equipped and temperamentally unsuited for. Kershaw is a dry and painstaking historian, with a prose so geared toward qualification and half-statement that it’s hard to think of him confronting any question directly. In the sentence I just quoted from earlier, for example, I left out how the question of the “individual’s impact on historical change” has only “indirectly . . . lain close to the centre of historical enquiry.” Why “indirectly” when the statement that it only lays “close to the centre” is already vague enough?

This may seem like academic hair-splitting, but Kershaw is always engaged in this kind of rhetoric of half-statement, taking two steps forward and then sometimes two or more steps back. Was Mussolini involved in the assassination of the Socialist leader Matteotti? “Almost certainly he was at least indirectly implicated.” I don’t think you can be less conclusive in only eight words.

So if you’re looking for a direct and empirical answer to the question Personality and Power poses you may be disappointed by some flabby answers. “Without [Lenin] the twentieth century would have been different, if in ways we can only dimly imagine.” Well, sure. Hitler’s “colossal impact on European history during his era was second to none.” OK.

As for the role of the individual vs. historical forces, “Given a unique context that offered the necessary structural conditions, Stalin provides a self-evident case of the importance of the individual in history.” So which is it? The unique context and structural conditions, or the individual? Nothing seems self-evident about this. As for Mussolini, little of his route to power was under his “personal control.” There was “nothing inevitable” about his takeover, because without “the prevailing social, economic, and political preconditions his dictatorship would not have been possible.” I can’t get my head around this. If he was swept to power by the prevailing winds, with little under his control, doesn’t that make his takeover seem more, not less inevitable? Or here Kershaw is on De Gaulle and decolonization: “His achievement should not be exaggerated. The global pressure for decolonization was so strong that it would have happened anyway, whatever the character of the French government. Still, without de Gaulle’s leadership it could well have been a far more thorny path.” Could have. I suppose.

That said, I did find the discussion in Personality and Power to be mostly on point, insightful, and of real value in addressing the central question. The broad conclusions that Kershaw draws probably won’t surprise anyone, basically being elaborations on Marx’s dictum that individuals make history under existing circumstances, but he places them in a context that provides an appropriate historical scaffolding.

That scaffolding also encourages the reader to draw some of their own conclusions, or at least entertain further speculations. I found myself thinking back to an idea Bob Woodward put forward in his book Shadow about how post-Watergate American presidents were consumed by the “myth of the big-time president” and the need to prove themselves through leading the state through some dramatic crisis. And by dramatic crisis what they meant was a global war. One gets the same sense in this book of a number of oversize, big-time national leaders in the first half of the twentieth century followed by a bunch of bureaucrats of lesser stature. It’s a process that even got going before the Second World War though, as Kershaw notes in his introduction to Francisco Franco: “It is, of course, obvious that Franco’s wider impact scarcely compares with that of Hitler and Mussolini, or Lenin and Stalin. He presents a case study in the role and impact of the individual in history at the lower end of the scale.” Because Spain was too weak to get involved in the war (on Franco’s preferred side, anyway) and so sat on the sidelines of history.

Another point that I wondered about was the inverse relation between the immediate, dramatic impact made by revolutionary leaders and how lasting that impact was. The more radical, individually-directed historical changes tended to be the ones that didn’t last. History has a way of ironing out the bumps of oversized personalities. This doesn’t mean that such leaders didn’t “make” history, only that their window for making it was necessarily limited to their own lifetimes. Of course figures like Lenin and Hitler caused incalculable damage, but it’s hard to think of their legacies as anything other than something that had to be, with difficulty, overcome. Meanwhile, a genuine strongman like Josip Broz Tito could only influence his own part of Europe, with a legacy that disappeared on his death because Yugoslavia, like Spain, couldn’t make or break Europe on its own.

Kershaw insists this is not a series of pocket bios but I suspect that’s what most people will be reading it for. The larger question he sets out with, however, is broadly entertained. I thought the importance of luck – a determinative force in history that can’t really be analyzed but which can be of enormous importance – might have been addressed a little more. Also, in the back half of the book there were some figures I wasn’t sure belonged, like Helmut Kohl. And I was puzzled as to why Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was not only left out but not so much as mentioned anywhere. I realize the question of whether or to what extent Turkey should be considered part of Europe can be complicated, but I still thought his story very much belonged here.

Great men (and one woman, Margaret Thatcher), or broader historical forces? Obviously history is the product of both. A book like this lets us consider the question a little deeper though, and do some of the historical math.

Review first published online February 8, 2023.

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