Review: Ian Kershaw’s Personality and Power


Personality and Power:
Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe

New York: Penguin Press, 2022

Margot Metroland

This book caught my eye when it came out a few months ago because its format reminded me of Standardbearers: British Roots of the New Right, which I reviewed here some seasons back. That is to say, a collection of short critical biographies of a dozen or so worthies, assembled together on a common theme. In the case of Personality and Power, most of the worthies are rather more famous than the serried ranks assembled in Standardbearers. They are the 20th century statesmen (including one woman), mainly European (including British), who made a striking difference in the cohesion and political direction of their countries.

These include Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Francisco Franco, Helmut Kohl, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Margaret Thatcher and others. As this sample suggests, Kershaw is not making any value judgment. His subjects made the cut if they were a) prominent government leaders, b) navigated one or more severe crisis while in office, and c) set their country on a new path, with a new and different national self-regard. You can be a president, a prime minister, or a dictator; lead a democracy or a totalitarian satrapy; you can be a Builder or a Destroyer; just so long as you were head of a government and made a difference.

Kershaw is generally very fair and insightful in these analytical biographies. He considers Josef Broz “Tito” a thug but gives him his due as a consummate opportunist able to navigate the rapids of the Cold War years, thereby making himself very popular in the West while still polishing his Communist credentials. Helmut Kohl he regards as a wayward political hack who had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. Francisco Franco he admires for his close-mouthed, steely determination, and refusal to be challenged or countermanded by rivals and associates. There’s a wonderful description of how he would hold day-long conferences with ministers and subordinates, subduing them by refusing to let them answer the call of nature. “Franco’s bladder control was extraordinary; until December 1968 he never paused the meetings to go to the toilet.” This headstrong, I-will-not-be-crossed personality we also find in Margaret Thatcher, Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer (though without the proscription on lavatory breaks).

The author falls down in his analyses of the two most popular subjects of 20th century history, Messrs. Churchill and Hitler. We get the worshipful praise and steadfast apologias for the first—it’s like something out of Martin Gilbert or the preposterous Churchill stans of Hillsdale College. And then we are fed rote and unnuanced Schrecklichkeit in consideration of the second. (Hitler’s face “has come to represent the face of political evil.”) Really now, a veteran historical writer and Hitler biographer like Kershaw should realize that titanic figures, whether you love ’em or hate ’em, are best painted in shades of grey. Among other things, it makes the story more interesting.

The book is unfortunately structured like a pineapple upside-down cake, with all the fruity goodness baked in at the bottom—that is to say, in the long plenary “Conclusion: History Makers — in Their Time.” So what you want to do here is turn the cake over, and begin from that end: you may read the biographies afterwards, or refer to them now and again, as though they were appendices, as you work your way through the tasty Conclusion. It would have been better if Kershaw had combined this Conclusion with his Introduction, which touches on some of the same subjects without going into them in depth.

Class equilibrium?

As a starting point, Kershaw weighs Karl Marx’s theory of “class equilibrium,” which supposedly explained why a “nonentity” and “buffoon” like Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was able to ascend to power in mid-nineteenth century France. [1] By “class equilibrium,” Marx/Kershaw mean a political situation where there was no clear ascendancy to power, no “bourgeois capitalists” in total control, no powerful aristocracy, no Deep State, no dictatorship of the proletariat. I’d say that’s pretty much the story of most of Western Europe for the past century or two, so we shouldn’t be surprised that none of Kershaw’s subjects fit the theory. Nevertheless he litmus-tests them one-by-one and finds that not only are they contra Marx, the circumstances that brought them to power were quite different from “class equilibrium” and much easier to explain. They possessed a dominating personality and they were standing in the right place during a political upheaval or vast shift in public sentiment. And they proved themselves and steered their nation’s destiny through some major early crisis. That’s pretty much the commonality here.

As a digression, I’ll say that Kershaw’s challenge to Marx’s purported theory is really shooting fish in a barrel. Does any knowledgeable person today regard Louis Napoleon Bonaparte the way Marx did? A clown, a bottle-imp who strived but failed to achieve the gloire of his illustrious uncle? I doubt it. As president and emperor, Napoleon III served a good deal longer than his uncle did as consul and emperor (22 years vs. 14+) and did so without tearing Europe apart. When he fell from power, it was entirely because of his good intentions: he lifted censorship of the press in 1869, whereupon the irresponsible journo firebrands and their Assembly friends immediately commenced sword-rattling against Prussia…and we know where that led. By any measure Napoleon III was one of the most, if not the most, able and brave statesman of his time. Marx didn’t like him simply because this Bonaparte didn’t fit neatly into his timeline of historical necessity.

Helmut Kohl

Anyway, being the right figure at the right time, and sometimes a stubborn cuss, was what allowed someone like Helmut Kohl to make the cut in the Kershaw schema. Germany needed a unifier 1989-90, and here was this grinning, oversize paterfamilias, with no serious political enemies, ready to welcome the tatty, broken-down, polluted DDR into the mighty economy of the Federal Republic. Kohl’s predecessor Helmut Schmidt, an economist by training, might have done a better job of integrating the economies, instead of simply giving the store away as Kohl was prone to, but Schmidt’s political career by then was kaput. At one point in 1990 Chancellor Kohl was going to merge the East German Mark with the Deutschmark at a 1:1 parity, although the true exchange rate (per Kershaw, quoting a Kohl biographer) was 1:8 or even 1:9! Eventually the Bundesbank talked him down to a 1:2 exchange for most currency, with a 1:1 for some savings and pensions. But even the 1:2 rate proved destabilizing to the already tottering East German economy. Wages and salaries immediately rocketed skyward, without being offset by new revenue from outside. “As moribund industries collapsed, unemployment soared.” The outside world wasn’t suddenly rushing in to buy Trabants simply because the Berlin Wall came down. Economic malaise inevitably spread to Germany as a whole, as it was the old West Germany that paid most of the cost of unification. Perhaps this was inevitable; anyway the restructuring depressed the economy for most of the 1990s.

A happier instance of headstrong insistence had come early in the Kohl chancellorship, in May 1985. That was the famous incident when Helmut Kohl took Ronald Reagan to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg. Reagan was then doing the rounds of 40-year VE-Day commemorations in Europe. Since Kohl had been excluded from the Normandy events the previous year, it was thought fitting and proper for the President to drop by a German military cemetery, and say a word or two about amity and peace.

Immediately an “international” (ahem) hue and cry was raised when it was revealed that adjacent to the Wehrmacht cemetery was a plot with the remains of 47 Waffen SS men. Reagan and Kohl were urged to call off the event. Kohl stood his ground and, backed up by White House support (Pat Buchanan, mostly), the President went off to Bitburg, for a brief and quiet ceremony. The whole affair looks comic in hindsight now [2] but in Germany it raised the stature of Chancellor Kohl immensely. Put it in context: a couple of years earlier, the new chancellor had permitted the placement of Pershing II missiles on German soil, and now the American President returned the favor by showing solidarity with the Germans and their war dead

Margaret Thatcher

The Milk-Snatcher: Ian Kershaw likes her very much. There’s an Alan Clark level of fawning admiration. If she weren’t the only woman here, she’d be the quintessential example of leadership, per Kershaw standards. “Often feminine but never a feminist,” and opposed to tokenism, Thatcher was an outlier in more ways than one.

She came to power because she was pretty much the last man left standing. As you may recall, Edward Heath lost the premiership in March 1974 in the wake of miner strikes, three-day-day workweeks, and severe power (i.e., utility) cutbacks, problems that were exacerbated by OPEC’s cut in fuel exports. Any government would have been tossed out after that. Harold Wilson came in with a slight plurality and a few months later he nearly got tossed out as well. Somehow Labour staggered on for a few years more, usually with a razor-thin majority or coalition government. In 1976 Wilson resigned, perhaps for health reasons, perhaps not [3], to be succeeded by onetime chancellor James Callaghan. Meantime Heath had been voted out as Conservative party leader. When an election finally needed to be called in 1979, any head of the Conservatives would have ended up as prime minister, and by this point that leader happened to be Milk-Snatcher Thatcher.

In hindsight Thatcher’s initiatives, whether in the Heath government or her own, were so terribly commonsensical that it’s astonishing they caused a fuss in the 1970s-80s. Do 11-year-olds need free milk at school? Is there something weird about allowing council-house residents to buy and own their homes? Is it really wild and crazy to de-nationalize Rolls-Royce or British Telecom? But these were portrayed as radical ideas at the time.

Kershaw considers the Falklands War in the spring of 1982 to be the turning point in Mrs. Thatcher’s success as PM. It may be true that her post-Falklands approval rating had doubled (to 51%), and it certainly was a time of peak British glory after the sooty, bedraggled, unemployed 1970s. But when an election was called in 1983 and Thatcher’s Conservatives won again, and with a great gain in seats (though not popular vote), it was patently obvious that Labour didn’t stand much of a chance. Mrs. Thatcher would probably have won in any case. The crises that tempered her between taking office in 1979 and the Falklands War were continual, and if times were difficult at least the government didn’t seem as ineffectual as in the 1970s.

And then there was the new Labour party leader, an old socialist journalist named Michael Foot—nicknamed Worzel Gummidge by Private Eye, after a musical scarecrow, because of his unkempt appearance. While Foot was a worthy man in many ways (an old associate of Orwell’s, after all), he did not command respect. Post-election, Labour dumped him for Neil Kinnock, whose poor-mouth speech was famously plagiarized by Joe Biden, and who went on to lose to Mrs. Thatcher in 1987 in a time of greatly rising prosperity. Meantime the PM was operating from a position of strength, successfully settling the miners’ strike in 1985, leaving us a patch of history that is mainly remembered in the context of film scripts (Brassed Off, Billy Elliott).

Mikhail Gorbachev

Even more crumbly and bedraggled than Great Britain in the 1970s and 80s was that other sometime superpower, the Soviet Union. Kershaw offers us the charming insight that Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded in his transformation of the USSR because he possessed “unquenchable self-confidence: and “naive optimism,” traits sorely missing in his immediate predecessors: thuggish nonentity Konstantin Chernenko, and the KGB’s career hood Yuri Andropov, memorable for welcoming Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956 and also sending them into Prague in 1968. Gorbachev on the other hand is memorable for having a port-wine birthmark on his forehead, for being an amiable negotiator and apparent friend to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, for pronouncing a new policy of Glasnost, or government transparency, and finally for bringing the Cold War to an end with a soft landing. Russian nationalists may view his legacy very dubiously: in 1980 the USSR was not only a superpower, it was a leader in science and technology. Twenty years later it was a frail assemblage of Eastern European and Asiatic “republics” and breakaway provinces, some of which are continuing to break away.

Konrad Adenauer

No statesman is without a blemish, but Konrad Adenauer may come closest in the Kershaw lineup. What a very old West German Chancellor he was, 73 when first elected (1949) and 87 when he resigned, with yet another four years to live. A conservative Catholic Rhinelander, he became lord mayor of Cologne in 1917—youngest Oberbürgermeister in the state of Prussia—and remained such until deposed at the start of the Nazi era. Thereafter he and his large family lived in penury for some years,  subsisting on handouts from friends until he finally was granted his pension in 1937 (parts of the German bureaucracy had managed to remain honorably intact). For a while he took refuge in a monastery. Postwar he emerged as one of the few politicians who had never been a Socialist, a Communist, a Nazi, or an anti-Hitler plotter. He helped found the CDU (Christian Democratic Union party) immediately after the war, and declared he intended to become Federal Chancellor. Writes Kershaw,

He had a high level of self-discipline and — even in advanced old age — a Stakhanovite capacity for hard work. He would prove unshakeably loyal to his colleagues and advisers. Neither in appearance nor in public speaking did he exude natural charisma. He instinctively conveyed authority, however…

The key plot point in Adenauer’s early career as Federal Chancellor came in 1952. Stalin was making overtures to the new Federal Republic (BRD), proposing a Four-Power Conference to “reunite” Germany into a neutral state with “free activity of democratic parties and organizations.” Reunite, that is, according to the 1945 borders; no East Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania.

Stalin’s initiative was a plain attempt to wean the Federal Republic away from the embrace of the western Allies. Smelling danger, Adenauer’s negative reaction was unhesitating…

Superficially, what Stalin was offering was far from unattractive… There were powerful voices [in the West] at least in favour of exploring the possibilities… Adenauer authorized a press communique however that was strongly negative in tone, given the threat Stalin’s initiative posed … and the certain and permanent loss of the eastern provinces. Opinion surveys showed that his stance enjoyed much support with the public.

Comment: this episode is the background to F. P. Yockey’s The Enemy of Europe (1953) a long propaganda tract of the period, aimed mainly at West Germans, and cleverly echoing both pro-Soviet and nationalist-Right agitation of the time. Yockey calls out the anti-nationalist politicians who allied themselves with the USA and the Allied High Commission, referring to them as the “Michel element,” Michel being an old German idiom for cowardly dunderhead, here used with traitorous overtones. Yockey doesn’t name any politicians, but the main suspect would have to be Chancellor Adenauer. Though in reality Adenauer helped issue a general amnesty for most of the former Nazi Party members, including full reinstatement with pension rights for civil servants and career soldiers. His regard for nationalist feeling is one reason why he was elected for four terms.

In those early years of the Federal Republic, opinion polls showed that half the population thought National Socialism was a good idea, that the best era in twentieth century Germany was 1933-1939, and that the Führer had done much more for the country than Herr Adenauer. But opinion polls swung around as the Adenauer years flew by. By the time he finally resigned in 1963, age 87, he was rated the greatest German ever, even greater than Bismarck.

Much of this was due to the economic miracle, the Wirtschaftwunder, of the 1950s. Kershaw is careful to point out that the this boom was not directed by Adenauer but by his finance minister and successor Ludwig Erhard, who used the power of the state to support “a burgeoning liberal market economy linked to principles of social welfare.” But another, major reason for the popularity of both Adenauer and Erhard was that the Iron Curtain ran down the middle of Germany. Over on the other side was a glaring example of a system that was abhorrent to most Germans.

Kershaw bias

Kershaw has a decided political bias, of the moderate-Left stripe. Indications are that this is simply because his political education sort of ended in the 1990s, ergo he spouts  commonplace verities from that time. At one point he mentions that when Franco won the Spanish Civil War he had some difficulty forming a consensus because he had no support in the “working class.” No support in the working class—truly? Well, who exactly was fighting on the winning side? Were they all upper bourgeoisie, latifundian grandées, bishops of Burgos and Seville?

What Kershaw really means is that there weren’t any Popular Front-style Left-wing cadres in Franco’s camp. But how could there have been? Anyway this is a very strange and dangerous outlook to have, or at least an unfortunately lazy slip of tongue and pen.

Trying to stay topical, Kershaw makes a late (2019?) interpolation to his manuscript:

Having recently experienced how, out of the blue, the coronavirus pandemic could upturn societies across the globe, we need a special reminder of the impersonal determinants of historical change (though its harmful impact could be significantly worsened by the role of individual leadership, such as that of Trump or the Brazilian president Jair Bolnosaro).

And then, later on:

Democracy is in some ways on the retreat. Donald Trump’s four years as President of the USA showed alarmingly how personality could challenge (and even warp) the structures of the world’s foremost democracy. The American constitution only just survived the battering it took from Trump, and its much-vaunted checks and balances proved to be weaker than had been presumed. The pseudo-monarchical executive powers of the President are, as Trump showed, so extensive that, in the wrong hands, they can endanger democracy itself. The damage Trump’s narcissistic personality and autocratic style of leadership inflicted on the USA, and on democracy in other parts of the world, cannot yet be fully assessed. He came to power on the promise of upholding America’s strength. But he has left the USA looking globally weaker as it contends with forces of authoritarianism, especially though not solely in China.

There are no words. This incoherent rant completely undoes Kershaw’s reasonable analysis elsewhere in the book, as he reveals himself as just one more ignorant foreigner who can’t find Idaho on a map. His broad implication—that President Trump was more radical and alarming than immediate predecessors Obama, Bush the Younger, and Clinton—is laughable. So Donald Trump has a “narcissistic personality and autocratic style of leadership”? More narcissistic than, say, GWB, LBJ, FDR? Where do you see this, Prof. Kershaw? More narcissistic than, say, your big hero Winston Spencer Churchill? Is not a domineering, self-aggrandizing style key to effective leadership, for good or ill, according to the theories you propound here in your little book?

Ian Kershaw enjoys sausage, he likes to eat it, he likes to critique it. He just can’t bear to see sausage being made.


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