Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe by Ian Kershaw

(Penguin Press)

Review by Brian Tanguay

In Personality and Power, historian Ian Kershaw poses and answers fundamental questions of historical analysis about twelve individuals who significantly impacted — for good or ill —  twentieth century Europe. The ways in which leaders are restrained by forces beyond their control, the influence of social and political conditions on the type of power leaders embody and employ, and how and why certain individuals rise to power are among these fundamental questions. Kershaw demonstrates how these and other questions apply to democratic as well as authoritarian leaders. The relationship between personality and policy has long preoccupied historians, and given recent history in the United States and elsewhere, as democracies struggle and authoritarian figures rise, the analysis in Personality and Power is especially relevant.   

Kershaw’s prose is accessible and organized in a way suitable for general readers. He lays out the Preconditions that helped each figure come to power and concludes each profile with a summation of the figure’s Legacy. Readers can gain a great deal from these sections alone.

Along with the Russian revolution, the two world wars arguably had the greatest influence on reshaping the European political, economic and social landscape. It was a male century, too, so it’s not surprising that with the exception of Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, all Kershaw’s subjects are men. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Churchill were obvious inclusions, but I found the profiles of other figures, particularly Konrad Adenaur of Germany and Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, very intriguing. I hadn’t fully grasped the monumental consequences Gorbachev’s reformist agenda set in motion, leading, not only to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but the reunification of Germany.  

As Kershaw notes, the opportunity for an individual to make a significant impact is greatest in times of upheaval and uncertainty, when existing structures collapse or become weakened by internal or external threats. Winston Churchill’s authoritarian bent, imperial worldview, and bulldog personality were perfectly suited to guiding Britain through the perils and hardship of the war, but less acceptable in the years after. Like Hitler in Germany, Josip Broz Tito held Yugoslavia together by creating and perpetuating a cult of personality around himself. “He was the founder, inspiration and fulcrum,” Kershaw writes, “of the Yugoslav state, its indispensable focus of integration until his death.” But for all the power and control Tito wielded for decades, his relevance in the daily lives of most people proved insignificant. National unity evaporated with Tito’s passing and Yugolsavia disintegrated. 

When Joseph Biden was inaugurated in January 2021 he faced a number of difficulties, including the very recent attack on the U.S. Capitol, a chaotic transition, and the lingering Covid pandemic. A full plate. But consider what Konrad Adenaur faced when he assumed leadership of West Germany. Not only was Germany’s infrastructure and economy in ruins after the war, its people exhausted, but most of the world viewed Germany as a pariah. West Germany was lodged in the epicenter of the Cold War, between the victorious allied powers in the west and the Soviets in the east. Germany hadn’t been a functioning democracy since the collapse of the Weimar Republic in the 1920’s. And as if all this wasn’t enough, the question of what to do with remnants of the Nazi regime loomed.

As Kershaw writes, “Adenauer’s approach to the Hitler years was perfectly attuned to a society more anxious to look to future peace, prosperity and stability than to rake over the crimes of the very recent past.” It’s not surprising that West Germans were more preoccupied with economic issues than the prosecution of former Nazis. Had Adenauer devoted his entire political energy and capital to denazification at the outset, would the Federal Republic have fared as well as it did? Although this decision tarnished his legacy in some quarters, Adenauer believed that establishing democratic consensus and re-starting the economy had to precede condemnation of the Nazis. He proved to be very prudent, West Germany not only recovered, it prospered. 

That’s a measure of uncommonly constructive and regenerative leadership, the kind that often seems in short supply. Adenauer’s political skill and judgment were more remarkable than I realized or appreciated. If he hadn’t pushed for the Federal Republic to turn toward the western alliance in the early 1950’s, the history of Germany and Europe might have unfolded very differently. 

Similarly, German reunification might not have happened when it did without Mikhail Gorbachev. He was the driving and dynamic force. Before Gorbachev emerged on the scene, German reunification was a distant, almost unthinkable aspiration. “It was remarkable, in retrospect,” writes Kershaw, “that the encrusted, unbending Soviet system could have produced an insider who rose to the top possessed by the desire to change the very framework of power that had made him possible in the first place.” Gorbachev became General Secretary at the age of fifty-four; only Stalin held the post at a younger age. But the comparison dies there: Stalin, like Lenin before him, ruled by terror; Gorbachev was unique — a persuader with missionary zeal. He had, as Kershaw points out, inherited a superpower; in less than a decade it was gone. Not overthrown from without, but collapsing on its own contradictions. Kershaw attributes Russia’s subsequent descent into a criminalized state rife with mafia-style violence to Boris Yeltsin rather than Gorbachev. 

I found Personality and Power extremely readable and engaging; I gained new information and historical context from it. I was born in the second half of the twentieth century and am thankful it was more constructive, prosperous and peaceful than the first half, despite being clouded by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear disaster. The fall of the Iron Curtain, the creation of the European Community, and the reunification of Germany are astounding developments in retrospect, part of complex political, social and economic processes. It’s equally astounding to think about the millions of lives that were directly affected by the decisions taken by these political leaders.