Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe
Ian Kershaw | Allen Lane, UK | 2022, 510 pp

Anyone who reflects on 20th century European history will ponder the perennial question: do exceptional individuals make history, or does change come about through impersonal events?

Historian Ian Kershaw, biographer of Hitler, examines 11 men and one woman who left a significant mark on their times against the backdrop and context of their rise to power. They are Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer, Franco, Tito, Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl: six dictators, five democrats and Gorbachev, who fits neither category.

Each chapter follows a similar formula: the background of the particular personality; their achievements or otherwise; and their legacy. The result is stimulating, provocative, absorbing.

Tyrants

In this “series of interpretative essays”, I suspect readers will be drawn to the malign figures, dictators who left behind destruction simply because, estranged from the common run of mankind, they excite our morbid curiosity.

Writing of Lenin, Kershaw suggests that although revolution was inevitable in Russia, the country was not “preordained” to follow the path it took. The way the revolution changed Russia would have been “unimaginable” without Lenin’s leadership and exceptional qualities: organisational brilliance, acute intelligence, enormous energy, electrifying oratory and a gifted polemicist. Merciless towards “class enemies”, sure he was always right, he lived for politics, had few friends and “had long seen himself as a man of destiny”.

It is worth listing these characteristics as Lenin, unsurprisingly, shared them with others in this exclusive club. Mussolini also had enormous vitality, few friends, was intolerant of opposing views, had indomitable willpower and was manipulative, intelligent and ruthless. He cultivated a ‘heroic’ image of a man of destiny. Like Lenin he seized the opportunities that arose, brought about by a combination of World War I, the threat of a socialist revolution in Italy and, crucially, the support of conservative power elites who, as with Hitler, thought he could be contained. Mussolini, in Kershaw’s estimation, was responsible for dominating his country’s rival Fascist groups and was the driving force ‘in the fatal subjugation of Italian to German interests’.

Dictators can sometimes deceive their predictable enemies. Churchill at one time admired Mussolini and Pope Pius XI, whose pontificate was energetic in many ways, thought him sent by “Providence” to free Italy from liberalism. And at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences, Stalin exuded avuncular bonhomie, deceiving both Roosevelt and Churchill and causing Anthony Eden to remark that “Stalin would be his first choice on a negotiating team”. It can be hard for people of decent instincts to see evil for what it is.

Genocidal

Kershaw’s essay on Hitler, his special subject, is masterly. Resisting the temptation to seek psychological explanations in a warped childhood, he points to Hitler’s “extraordinary talent for demagogic rhetoric” and his uncanny ability to connect his own anger, resentment and hatred with the basest instincts of his audience. Yet without the Great Depression of 1929, “Germany would have been spared Hitler’s dictatorship”; and the country’s conservative ruling class “helped to dig their own grave between 1930-1933”. Kershaw is clear that without Hitler there would have been no Holocaust: “He personally licensed, authorised, approved and legitimated what his underlings were doing.”

The same is true of Stalin. To Kershaw it is evident that he had a paranoid personality disorder, seeing “betrayal” everywhere, culminating in the Great Terror of the late 1930s. He asks, was this “terror”, the hallmark of Stalin’s regime, intrinsic to the Soviet system or was it a “horrific outflow from the dictator’s warped mind?” and concludes: “He directly instigated, encouraged, authorised and confirmed all the major decisions” concerning the gross cruelty of his time; but as with the Nazis, he was aided and abetted by a huge number of willing agents of state bureaucracy.

War and peace

Konrad Adenauer, untainted by any association with the Nazis during the Third Reich, which he abhorred and during whose years he lost his livelihood, his home and saw his family dispersed, nonetheless earns Kershaw’s criticism for his “rehabilitation and integration of former Nazis in the new democracy”, deeming “their skills indispensable for the Federal Republic”. Could Adenauer have done differently? I rather think not. Yet Kershaw agrees that his achievement “in extraordinarily difficult circumstances in establishing a peaceful democratic West Germany… was enormous”.

Although Churchill, appointed prime minister in May 1940, later wrote: “It felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour”, Kershaw suggests that chance played its part in this high-flown rhetoric, just as it was World War II which brought de Gaulle to political prominence (not unlike Churchill, he had written a schoolboy essay in 1905 in which he had envisaged France being saved “by a General de Gaulle”.)

Soviet unravelling

For me, easily the most interesting — and tragic — figure in these pages is Mikhail Gorbachev, esteemed in the West yet rejected by his own country, Russia, for having brought ruin to a once-great power. Kershaw asks: “Did he simply assist the unstoppable collapse of the Soviet Union or did he actually cause it?”

He concludes, using a medical metaphor, that Gorbachev’s reforms had indeed put a sick but stable patient, who might have continued as an invalid for years, “on life support” — and that “Yeltsin pulled the plug”. Appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party between 1985-1991, Gorbachev knew by 1988 that the momentum for change — begun by him — could not be checked, commenting: “I’m doomed to go forward, and only forward.”

Similarities

What do the 12 figures under scrutiny have in common? Kershaw believes they all possessed extraordinary determination, strength of character, a relentless will to succeed. “They were all ‘driven’ individuals” and “even democratic leaders had to have a streak of ruthlessness”.

Certainly Margaret Thatcher (whom it is clear the Left-leaning Kershaw does not warm to) is recognisable in this description. She, like the others, took advantage of a (relatively) turbulent political situation to propel herself into a position of power where her natural drive and gifts could be fully employed. Few people are like this. That is why we like to read about them.

This review has been republished with the author’s permission from The Conservative Woman.