“The history of what man has accomplished in this world,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1840, “is at bottom the History of the Great Men.” Historians have long moved away from such an interpretation of human events, but in the era of Putin, Trump and others, the looming figure of the giant personality that bends history to her, or mostly his, will has returned. In this selection of essays on 12 such figures who built and destroyed 20th-century Europe, Ian Kershaw asks: “How important are individuals in the shaping of history?”
The 11 men and one woman (Kershaw notes that European politics was very much a “white man’s game”) are widely regarded as the period’s totemic political figures, although the long-lasting leaders of smaller countries such as Éamon de Valera and the Portuguese dictator António Salazar might have made interesting inclusions. There is no single personality type: some were intellectual, others incurious; some immediately charismatic, others long dismissed; some ideological, others primarily ambitious. Their most common trait was a thirst for power and a desire to exercise it.
The book’s structure (neither biographies nor narratives) can feel awkward, but each case study buttresses Kershaw’s conclusion that the 12 “were not just makers of the 20th century” but “were also made by it”. Without their decisions and personalities, history would have been different; but equally without extraordinary events and contexts, they would not have achieved such power.
At the heart of what he has elsewhere called Europe’s journey “to hell and back” was Adolf Hitler, on whom Kershaw is one of the world’s leading experts. Building on the arguments he has made in his definitive biographies and analyses of the Nazi dictator, Kershaw emphasises that while the “unremarkable” Hitler was propelled and enabled by vast structural forces from militarism to anti-Semitism, “he was the prime mover of the most fundamental collapse of civilisation that modern history has witnessed”.
That interplay of the individual and their context animates all of Kershaw’s case studies, not least in the Soviet Union. Lenin was the “beneficiary not the creator” of revolutionary currents, but his “personal role was crucial”, and “without him the 20th century would have been different”. Both his defenders and enemies concentrated on Stalin’s personal power (”everything”, said Nikita Khrushchev, “was dependent on the wilfulness of one man”), but the brutal dictator was also “an integral part of Soviet history, not a break in it”. And while the USSR was pulled apart by huge structural problems, Kershaw stresses the personal importance of the late Mikhail Gorbachev: “In his case, it can categorically be said that an individual changed history — and for the better.”
Kershaw sees another such instance in Winston Churchill’s actions in 1940, in which he argues that “the role of the individual in history has never been more clearly demonstrated”. Yet Churchill’s checkered career was mostly defined by the times around him, and his legacy is mostly in how “he is enshrined in the British view of the past and the present”, in ways that “have not helped” post-imperial Britain come to terms with its place in Europe or the world.
Perhaps the defining personality of that national anxiety has been Margaret Thatcher, a woman Kershaw sees as the “godmother of Brexit from beyond the grave”, as well as the driving force behind the UK’s neoliberal economy and political culture. But “in much of what she accomplished, she was swimming with a strong tide behind her” and “her global impact can be exaggerated”.
There is, wisely, no unifying theory of personality and power in Kershaw’s conclusions. History ‘offers few if any persuasive prescriptions for the future’, he writes
At what Kershaw calls “the lower end of the scale”, Spanish and Yugoslav dictators Franco and Tito showcase figures whose personalities and actions made a great impact domestically, if not in the wider Continent or in a posthumous legacy. Kershaw sees the longest-lasting legacies in the postwar leaders of France and Germany. Elected leaders are even more subject to “long-term, powerful currents of historical change that the individual cannot control” than dictators, but they can still make a huge impact.
Even though the times made and then passed Charles de Gaulle, his self-serving 1958 constitution “stood the test of time” after 170 years of French political upheaval. In Konrad Adenauer’s stewardship of a democratic West Germany, and Helmut Kohl’s brave commitments to German unification and the euro, Kershaw sees the keystones to the Europe of today.
There is, wisely, no unifying theory of personality and power in Kershaw’s conclusions. History “offers few if any persuasive prescriptions for the future”. He does note, however, that 20th-century Europe shows the dangers of powerful personalities dominating politics with big promises, not least as “the concentration of power enhances the potential impact of the individual — often with negative, sometimes catastrophic, consequences”.
His final thoughts are cautionary: “Be careful what you wish for.”
Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer