One of the recurring questions that historians and philosophers debate is the Great Man and Woman View of History. To what extent do great individuals – “great” in the sense of important, rather than morally good – change the course of history? Do they really matter, or is history just the result of what TS Eliot called “vast impersonal forces”, deep seas of popular movements upon which the actions of mere individuals are no more than the froth and foam?
Sir Ian Kershaw, the great (in both senses) biographer of Adolf Hitler, makes an important contribution to this debate with a book of 12 chapters on individual leaders – six authoritarians, five democrats, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who moved from one to the other . Three of Kershaw’s subjects – Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher – are the same people as Henry Kissinger chose from a group of six in his recent book Leadership, so their places in the pantheon seem assured.
Kershaw’s well-researched, well-written and thought-provoking book defends the concept of individuals “bringing about epochal historical change”. His thesis is more than supported by his persuasive and nuanced pen-portraits, which also include, on the democrat side, Helmut Kohl and Winston Churchill; plus, on the authoritarian side, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Tito. Future editions of this book would greatly benefit from a chapter on Vladimir Putin, who has both built a major European coalition (against himself) and ordered the destruction of Europe’s second-largest country.
Kershaw argues that “Western-style liberal democracy has certainly become more difficult to manage” in an era of populism and identity politics, and his warning that Chinese authoritarianism will create its “greatest future geopolitical problems” is clearly timely.
However, his analysis of the dangers of populism slipping into authoritarianism and threats to democracy are undermined by his mischaracterization of Boris Johnson as the epitome of a populist politician, which simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Kershaw is right to denounce populists’ “capacity to remove constitutional restraints”, but Johnson never had such an intention, nor capacity.
Although Kershaw is generally of the political Left (albeit, as he points out, never a Marxist), he has thankfully managed to avoid the Brexit Derangement Syndrome that is nowadays drawing so many historians into hysterical denunciations of the British people’s democratic decision in the 2016 referendum, confining himself to the accurate statement that “Mrs Thatcher was, beyond the grave, the godmother to Brexit”.
He clearly does not like her – “Arrogance of power made her fatally impervious to all contrary advice” – but Kershaw is too professionally objective an historian not to conclude that, “Like her or loathe her, she was without doubt an extraordinary political leader. ” (One hopes that, during his publicity program for this book, he is asked why the Tories have now had three female prime ministers against the Labor Party’s none.)
Kershaw argues, controversially: “Greatness is a notion best discarded as applied to political leadership,” preferring the concept of “historical impact”. Personally, I doubt whether “The Impactful Men and Woman Theory of History” will catch on. We all recognize that to describe Lenin or Stalin as “great” does not imply that we admire them. Maybe Kershaw’s other term, “transformative”, has a better chance of adoption.
Kershaw repeats the canard that “Churchill was in the main a political failure before 1940”, the accusation inherent in the title of Robert Rhodes James’s 1970 book, Churchill: A Study in Failure. But is that really true? By 1940, Churchill had such a long list of successes to his name that, even though he had been out of office for eight years of the previous nine, he was still one of only two contenders for the premiership that May. It was precisely because he had been such a successful politician – a founder of the Welfare State, former Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man who readied the Grand Fleet for the Great War, warned against Hitler, and so on – that he was even in the running in 1940. This old theory needs revising.
Kershaw is on firmer ground when he demolishes the myth that Churchill supported European federalism, pointing out that, in fact, “He was ultimately too wedded to a belief in British exceptionalism, in the empire and the primacy of the Atlantic bonds of the English- speaking nations to see Britain politically and economically integrated in the new Europe.”
As one might expect from someone who has spent much of his working life studying Adolf Hitler, Kershaw’s essay on him is the best chapter of this fine book. In a mere 26 pages, it sums up the Führer better than anything I have ever read of comparable length, and deserves to be put on the school history curriculum. It’s worth the price of the book on its own, probing deep into the psyche of the man.
“Genocide was no incidental by-product of the war,” Kershaw explains. “It was central to it.” Although the SS had “developed their own dynamic” for mass murder, “the crucial steps into genocide still needed Hitler, however, not just to set the time, but to provide the necessary authorization”. This was given on October 17 1939 to a small group of Nazi leaders when he made it clear that the “hard ethnic struggle” in Poland must not be hampered by mere legalities. He meanwhile signed the authorization for the euthanasia of tens of thousands of mentally and physically handicapped Germans.
Kershaw is rightly scalding about the concept of charisma, which can be deliberately manufactured. Hitler, for instance, never allowed himself to be photographed in spectacles as they detracted from his image as a superman; he had his rallies choreographed by Albert Speer and his cult burnished by Leni Riefenstahl in her films, but it was all a totally artificial construct.
Faked or not, leaders’ personalities do indeed have a central part to play in the unfolding of events, Kershaw concludes. He has certainly chosen the correct dozen to support his theory, which further serves to refute the Marxist interpretation of history.
Personality and Power is published by Allen Lane at £30. To order your copy for £25 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books