Personality and Power

  • By Ian Kershaw
  • Penguin Press
  • 512 pp.
  • Reviewed by Elizabeth J. Moore
  • February 4, 2024

Assessing a dozen leaders’ pivotal (or not-so-pivotal) impact on the world.

Personality and Power

In Karl Marx’s words, “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.” This is the idea behind Ian Kershaw’s Personality and Power, which examines how and under what conditions political leaders shape history — and particularly the role that individual personalities play.

Kershaw, best known for his biographies of Adolf Hitler, centers his book around 12 “interpretive essays” on European political leaders of the 20th century whom he deems to have had the greatest impact (whether beneficial or catastrophic) on history: Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini, Hitler, Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Francisco Franco, Josip Broz Tito, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Helmut Kohl.

This is quite a disparate assortment, but a cross-cutting theme in the book is that for all of these leaders, commanding personalities were insufficient. None of them were preordained to be rulers and likely would have been mere footnotes to history if not for the extraordinary circumstances — the World Wars, civil wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the end of the Cold War, and more — that propelled them to power and influence.

But when such disruptive events occurred, personal characteristics such as ruthlessness (even the democratic leaders were not immune to authoritarian tendencies), single-mindedness, fixation on success, and “a level of egocentrism that demanded extreme loyalty and subordinated everybody and everything to the attainment of desired goals” had them primed and ready to seize the opportunities presented.

In discussing such circumstances, in fact, Kershaw raises some interesting counterfactuals: What if Wilhelmine Germany had not aided Lenin’s return to Russia? What if Lenin had lived to old age? What if German political elites in the early 1930s had not convinced President von Hindenburg to make Hitler Reich chancellor? What if a prime minister other than Churchill had been given charge in May 1940? The alternative realities are simultaneously thought-provoking and sobering.

Not all of the book is similarly compelling, however. Kershaw had to bound his subject somehow — hence his choice of 20th-century European political leaders. Yet it is a stretch to label some of them transformative, and the plethora of profiles thus weakens rather than supports his argument. The reader may be tempted to ask whether this work might have been enlivened by swapping in some non-Europeans or 21st-century figures with more captivating stories.

Franco, for example, had no hand in starting the civil war that catapulted him to power, had a regime that hewed closely to the stances of Spanish power elites at the time, was heavily reliant on largesse from other fascist countries, and “had little to do with the circumstances that were to end Spain’s international isolation and pariah status” after World War II.

For his part, Mussolini may have been a pioneer of global fascism, but he still had to answer to the Italian king and other Italian elites, and after 1936, “was the driving force in the fateful subjugation of Italian to German interests.” His main legacy was a country in ruins; “Italy’s future after the war lay in the negation of all that Mussolini stood for.”

Even de Gaulle is a dubious choice. The liberation of France in 1944 was primarily thanks to Allied forces and the French Resistance — something de Gaulle was loath to admit — and it was Churchill who ensured that France was ceded such postwar great-power perks as a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and a zone of occupation in defeated Germany. The restoration of French grandeur was more a Gaullist fantasy than actual fact.

The entire list is problematic simply because of its “comparing apples to oranges” nature. A “leader taxonomy” — rather than the chronological ordering of the profiles — might have alleviated some of this awkwardness. Possible categories could have been dictators vs. democratic leaders; creators vs. destroyers; or leaders with national vs. international impact.

A “late bloomers” category could have included Churchill and Kohl — neither of whom seemed marked for an extraordinary destiny until worldwide crises brought them to the fore at pivotal junctures in history — as well as Adenauer, who had a long and successful tenure leading the nascent West Germany in spite of attaining power at an age (73) when he might have been expected to retire.

At the end of his book, Kershaw attempts to wrap things up by measuring his figures against “seven general propositions about personal leadership.” This is not particularly revelatory. Some propositions are so obvious — “democratic government imposes the greatest limitation on the individual’s freedom of action and scope to determine historical change” — that they hardly bear stating.

Conversely, others are so broad — “the individual leader’s power and room for maneuver are in good measure dependent upon the institutional basis and relative strength of support, primarily among the secondary conduits of power, but also among the wider public” — that they appear to have been fitted to the leaders rather than vice-versa.

Fortunately, the concluding chapter is not strictly necessary (although reducing it to an at-a-glance chart might have been an aid to the reader). It is clear from the profiles themselves that the best predictor of the rise of authoritarian leaders is a period of disruption that spurs disorientation, discontent, and longing to take things back to a mythic past when everything was better. Ideally, democratic guardrails will prevent the rise of another Hitler or Mussolini. No country (including, as recent events attest, the United States) is immune to this phenomenon, and in an age of burgeoning populist movements, it is a lesson that should be heeded around the world.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Elizabeth J. Moore is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. She was a longtime senior analyst and instructor who worked in the Defense, State, and Treasury departments, on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s President’s Daily Brief Staff, and at the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. She holds a master’s degree in international politics from American University.

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