Saturday, September 24, 2022

Personality and Power by Ian Kershaw — do ‘great men’ shape the course of world history?

Putin Ally Dies After Falling Down Stairs on Day of Russia Mobilization

The Soviet leader’s death is a reminder that the ‘great man theory’ of history is truer than we might like to think

Personality and Power by Ian Kershaw — do ‘great men’ shape the course of world history? 

Ian Kershaw’s essays explore whether 20th-century leaders seized power through sheer force of personality or were mere opportunists

We are living through a great geopolitical upheaval. Cherished hopes that the end of the cold war would see the effortless march of western democracy have collided with the rise of a generation of autocrats and populists. 
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have been making the political weather. Alongside them, populists in the mould of Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Narendra Modi have been challenging liberal democracy from within. Unspoken is how far this phalanx of “strongman” (all are male) leaders have seized power through sheer force of personality or to what extent they are opportunists seizing on a moment of political and economic dislocation. Would Putin be in the Kremlin had it not been for Russia’s collapse into chaos during the 1990s; would Trump have made it to the White House had not anything-goes-globalism ended in the 2008 crash and robbed Americans of their dream?
 Towering personalities or propitious circumstance? Is history, for good or ill, written by remarkable individuals? Or do such leaders ride the wave of circumstance as beneficiaries of social and economic rupture and moments of great peril?

As long ago as the 1840s the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle declared the past to be “the history of the great men who have worked there”. A decade or so later the economic determinism of one Karl Marx promoted a rather different view: “Men make their own history, but not as they please, in conditions of their own choosing, but rather under those directly encountered, given and inherited”. 
Kershaw does not make value judgments between ‘builders’ and ‘destroyers’ — but leaders who for good, and most strikingly ill, succeeded in bending the arc of history We could stir serendipity, or perhaps luck, into this mix. As the historian Ian Kershaw notes in his illuminating new book, Personality and Power, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s role in the 1917 revolution would have been very different had not Germany assured him and some 30 fellow exiles safe passage from Switzerland to Petrograd. The complex interplay of human agency with what British prime minister Harold Macmillan once called “events” is Kershaw’s prism for an insightful series of essays about 12 exceptional leaders who stood at the centre of Europe’s 20th century. These are not all “great” figures — Kershaw does not make value judgments between “builders” and “destroyers” — but leaders who for good, and most strikingly ill, succeeded in bending the arc of history. Organised around a series of individual portraits, the book is more than the sum of its parts. 
We learn that Carlyle was right. To chart the place of Hitler and Stalin or Churchill and De Gaulle is to appreciate the profound impact of individuals. But Marx, we see, also had a point. Churchill and De Gaulle were among the consequential leaders made by the moment. Lenin, the first of Kershaw’s subjects, emerges as one whose leadership of the Bolsheviks and defeat of the rival Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks was indisputably rooted in unshakeable certainty and unbending will. 
The result was an ideology that shaped the Soviet Union and divided the world for 70 years. He started out, though, an opportunist. As Kershaw puts it, Lenin was “borne along by the revolutionary currents of his time”. But “the way the revolution changed Russia and Europe is unimaginable without Lenin’s leadership”.

Adolf Hitler more than any other symbolises the horror of this epoch in European history. Kershaw, a long-time authority on Hitler and Nazi Germany, puts it succinctly: “The Second World War and the Holocaust defined the 20th century as nothing else did”. These were the projects of one, all-powerful leader. 
The incalculable act of human evil that was the Holocaust is impossible to imagine outside of Hitler’s Reich.

Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical rule in the Soviet Union was soaked in the blood of many millions of innocents, but Hitler, in Kershaw’s words, “was the prime mover of the most fundamental collapse of civilisation that modern history has witnessed.” History here is on the side of Carlyle. But it wasn’t just Hitler. At the beginning, he was the beneficiary of the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Later he was cheered by millions of Germans: “It took the grandchildren’s generation to turn a glaring spotlight on the extent of the complicity in the crimes of the Nazi era.” 
Tyrants paint themselves in primary colours. Hitler, Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and the rest made their own rules. The standout democratic leaders of Europe’s 20th century — Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and, later, Konrad Adenauer, Margaret Thatcher (the only woman in this gallery) and Helmut Kohl — operated within political systems that demanded leadership rooted in persuasion as much as force of personality. To Kershaw’s mind, Churchill’s leadership during Britain’s moment of existential peril makes the greatest claim for force of personality: “The role of the individual in history has never been more clearly demonstrated than in the critical events of 1940. 
Without him history would have taken a different course”. A course, the author adds, that might well have seen Britain and Europe long under the Reich’s jackboot. De Gaulle’s role spanned war and peace — safeguarding French nationhood during German occupation and then, in the Fifth Republic, rebuilding the framework for democratic stability in a famously disputatious society.

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In Britain, politics is still influenced by the “Thatcher revolution”. By most standards the British prime minister was a remarkable, if divisive, leader. To my mind, though, the most consequential figure of the second half of the century was Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader who presided over the end of the Soviet empire. Here, once again, Carlyle shakes hands with Marx but it is the Scotsman who makes the stronger case. Gorbachev’s leadership was of course shaped by circumstance. 
Perhaps even the author of The Communist Manifesto might have been driven to admit that the Soviet Union of the 1980s was irreparably broken. Though who else but this last Soviet leader could have overseen the peaceful dissolution of Lenin’s legacy, the restoration of democracy to eastern and central Europe, and the end of the most potentially dangerous confrontation in world history? 
Today’s threat from Putin’s armed revisionism is real. But for nearly four decades the world lived on the very edge of mutually assured nuclear destruction as democracy battled totalitarianism in almost every corner of the globe. Kershaw is right: “In his [Gorbachev’s] case, it can categorically be said that an individual changed history — and for the better”.

Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe, by Ian Kershaw, Allen Lane £30/Penguin Press $30, 512 pages

Former Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel, and former South African dissident Nelson Mandela were held in high regard around the world for their courage and moral strength.

Havel's life, like that of his African counterpart Nelson Mandela, has been shaped and determined by the large political shifts of the twentieth century. 

Are some people born to lead? If we look at the great leaders of the past such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth I, and Abraham Lincoln, we will find that they do seem to differ from ordinary human beings in several aspects. The same applies to the contemporary leaders like George W. Bush and Mahatma Gandhi. They definitely possess high levels of ambition coupled with clear visions of precisely where they want to go. These leaders are cited as naturally great leaders, born with a set of personal qualities that made them effective leaders. Even today, the belief that truly great leaders are born is common.