Personality and Power – The Passive Voice

From the Wall Street Journal:

Channeling the romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle, philosopher and essayist, wrote that all history is, “at bottom,” made and shaped by Great Men. The arc of Germany would have been very different without Bismarck, that of France without Napoleon, and that of Christianity without Luther. This emphasis on the tectonic influence of individuals has long been a staple of Anglo-American history writing. Against this model is the Marxist emphasis on structural determinants and socioeconomic preconditions, which are said to shape history more strongly than any one person. The Great Man, according to this logic, simply takes advantage of the currents that swirl around him.

In “Personality and Power”, Ian Kershaw studies the most important “builders and destroyers” in the history of 20th century Europe. However, he balks at using the word “greatness”, saying that defining it is “ultimately an exercise in futility”. This is wise, since the personalities Kershaw examines include Hitler and Stalin, “great” only to those whose moral values ​​are offensive.

Beginning chronologically with Lenin and ending with Helmut Kohl, the last European titan of the last century, he offers case studies of 11 men and one woman (Margaret Thatcher) of “great importance” not only in their own country but far beyond. Some readers will be sulking, and rightly so, at the omission of the Americans. Shouldn’t Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, for example, star in a recount of the most outstanding creators of modern Europe? Mr. Kershaw, an eminent British historian and author of a monumental two-volume biography of Hitler, offers a poor reason for his exclusion. Including “even a non-European leader”, he writes, “would give rise to the obvious objection: why stop there?”

Some of his choices are questionable in other respects. Does Francisco Franco really deserve to be on a list of the 12 most important European leaders of the 20th century? I think not, given that his “fascist-style autarchy” isolated Spain from Europe. However, readers will be delighted to learn that Franco’s cabinet meetings, which often lasted several hours, never allowed bathroom breaks, “to the distress of some of his ministers.” Mr. Kershaw tells us that the generalissimo had “extraordinary” bladder control and also that his most notable legacy was making Spain so averse to political isolation that it is today among the most enthusiastic members of the Union. European.

Some may also find the inclusion of Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav dictator, strange, but Mr. Kershaw makes a living case for him. However, he acknowledges that it is “difficult to speak meaningfully of a lasting legacy.” Tito was “the founder, the inspiration and the fulcrum” of the post-war Yugoslav state. How crucial he was to his existence is shown in how the “edifice he had built was torn apart” by ethnic wars just a few years after his death. Most significantly, says Kershaw, Tito had been a “pivot” between East and West in the Cold War, highly praised for his ability to outwit Stalin, who tried to assassinate him on more than one occasion. Mr. Kershaw offers us the delightful information, drawn from the historian Robert Service’s biography of Stalin, that the Soviet strongman kept a note from Tito in his desk. He would say: “If you don’t stop sending assassins, I will send one to Moscow and I won’t have to send a second.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

While reading the OP, PG remembered a saying, supposedly Chinese, but evidently without clear provenance, “May you live in interesting times.”

The 20th century certainly qualified as an interesting time for many people around the world. So far, the 21st century is relatively tame by comparison. PG expects it to remain uninteresting compared to the Twentieth.

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