Personality and Power

From The Wall Street Journal:

Channeling the romanticism of the mid-19th 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, of France without Napoleon, and of Christianity without Luther. This emphasis on the tectonic clout of individuals has long been a staple of Anglo-American history writing. Running counter to this model is the Marxist emphasis on structural determinants and socio-economic preconditions, said to mold history more powerfully than any single person. The Great Man—by this logic—merely harnesses 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. He balks, however, at using the word “greatness,” saying that to define it is “ultimately a futile exercise.” This is wise, as the personalities Mr. Kershaw examines include Hitler and Stalin, “great” only to those whose moral values are offensive.

Starting 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 “major significance” not just in their own country but well beyond. Some readers will be grumpy, and rightly, about the omission of Americans. Shouldn’t Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, for instance, star in a head count of the most salient makers of modern Europe? Mr. Kershaw, an eminent British historian and the author of a monumental two-volume biography of Hitler, offers a poor reason for their exclusion. Including “even one non-European leader,” he writes, “would give rise to the obvious objection: why stop there?”

Some of his choices are questionable in other ways. Does Francisco Franco really deserve to be on a shortlist of the 12 most consequential European leaders of the 20th century? I think not, given that his “fascist-style autarky” cut Spain off from Europe. Readers will, nonetheless, delight in the knowledge that Franco’s cabinet meetings, often hours long, never allowed for a toilet break, “much to the distress of some of his ministers.” Mr. Kershaw tells us that the generalísimo had “extraordinary” bladder control and also that his most notable legacy was to ensure that Spain became so averse to political isolation that it is today among the most enthusiastic members of the European Union.

Some may also find odd the inclusion of Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslavian dictator, but Mr. Kershaw makes a lively case for him. He does, however, acknowledge that it is “difficult to speak in any meaningful way of a lasting legacy.” Tito was “the founder, inspiration, and fulcrum” of the postwar Yugoslav state. How crucial he was to its existence is shown by how the “edifice that he had built was torn apart” by ethnic warring just a few years after his death. Most significantly, says Mr. Kershaw, Tito had been a “pivot” between East and West in the Cold War, much lauded for his ability to thumb his nose at Stalin, who sought to assassinate him on more than one occasion. Mr. Kershaw offers us the delicious information—culled from the biography of Stalin by the historian Robert Service—that the Soviet strongman kept in his desk a note from Tito. It read: “If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll 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 was reminded of a saying, allegedly Chinese, but evidently without a clear provenance, “May you live in interesting times.”

The Twentieth Century certainly qualified as an interesting time for a great many people around the world. So far, the Twenty-First Century is relatively tame by comparison. PG hopes it continues to be uninteresting compared with the Twentieth.

13 thoughts on “Personality and Power”

  1. “Tame” depends on location, PG. But, yes, if averaging turmoil made any sense, this century has been rather mild, so far. Long way to go, however, and only our grandchildren will have the final assessment to make.

      • Of course, the nineteenth century actually ran from mid1815 to mid 1914 and – in Europe at least – was pretty turmoil free, especially compared with the long eighteenth and the twentieth. A lot of credit must go to the participants in the Congress of Vienna some of whom had the experience of 20+ years of more or less continuous war to motivate them.

        However, as Felix notes, location matters and places like China saw plenty of turmoil (most notably the Taiping Rebellion) though possibly not as bad as the twentieth.

        • Mike, the “location matters” is precisely what makes the Long 19th Century (whether one begins it in 1792 or 1815 is a matter of taste and preconceived emphasis) look tame. One reaches that conclusion only if “the world” is viewed from within 900km of Paris, with everywhere else (including both this side of the Pond, the Dark Continent, and the Oriental World… choosing those descriptors with malice aforethought) being merely howling wilderness yet to be conquered and civilized. Calling any period including the Second War of American Secession, the Boer War, the Crimean War, either two or three invasions of France (depending on that choice of starting point), and the successful revolt and seccession of an entire continent (South America) “mild” is a bit misleading.

          • My choice of 1815 was deliberate. Historically, I adopt the concept of a “long” eighteenth century (roughly 1690 to 1815) where there were six or seven – it depends how you count them –European wars which typically involved a large proportion of the states in the continent and frequently saw fighting in large parts of the non-European world. Indeed, the case can be made that they included World Wars 1 to 4. (An Anglocentric view of this period would be that it comprised a second Hundred Years war and the culmination of the Anglo-French rivalry, though other states would no doubt take a different view and events like the Great Northern War certainly do not fit into this pattern.)

            The post 1815 nineteenth century was much less turbulent in Europe: there were still many internal conflicts and some interstate wars, but they were much more limited in both duration and extent. And my reference to “Europe” both here and in my previous comment was also deliberate as I was not intending to claim “mildness” for the events in the rest of the world, or for the European nations’ involvement in the rest or the world. However, I cannot think of any conflict in that period that would qualify as a World War.

    • Definitely location-specific: I’m pretty sure in Libya they’ve been pining for Gaddafi.
      And the 20’s have so far been anything but tame, with this in prospect:

      The world is living off last year’s harvest. That ends in a month or so.
      Minimal impact in the US, deadly in large portions of the world.

      Tame is in the eye of the beholder.

      • Uh, that depends on what you define as war, PG.
        The so-called “war on terror”, the ongoing decades old global conflict against the endless islamist insurgencies shares most of the characteristics of a war and it encompasses multiple theaters and multiple combatants on each side, which are traits of world wars. It might not be a Napoleonic War with massive armies facing each other to destroy each other’s center of power but that isn’t the only kind of war.

        Right now the war in Ukraine is global in impact, it involves multiple players from all over on each side, and can easily explode in actual fighting in other theaters. It isn’t a global war yet, but with the western camp depleting its munitions and weapon reserves all it takes is an opportunistic strike by China, North Korea, or Iran to meet most definitions of War. The “west” may not have *official* troops on the ground but it is hard not to consider the US, UK, France, etc as combatants actively seeking the destruction of russian armies. (For good and valid geopolitical reasons, particularly after Putin’s invasion proved the russian armies are incapable of stand up to NATO in a direct conventional fight. Any such confrontation would inevitably lead russia’s destruction or a nuclear exchange.)

        Consider the parallels of Russia invading Ukraine to Germany invading Czechoslovakia in 1938. Same excuse even.

        As to the 20th, one of my touchstone geopolitical books, THE SHIELD OF ACHILLES, offers up the proposition that the entirety of the 20th was a single long “epochal”war that started in 1910 with the Ruso-Japanese war, ran through dozens of phases, locations, and combatants through 1990 and the fall of the Soviet union. In that view, the 20th started late and ended early.

        Being an older book it ends with the War on Terror and misses the emerging wars of the early 21st. However, its argues that each “epochal” war has its roots in the “peace” that “settled” the previous war. Sound familiar?

        While the fools that bought into the “end of history” myth ignored russia destabilizing its independent neighbor states and attacking the west continually all century, russia itself has never given up its dream of Empire. Note that Putin’s popularity after the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 hit 80%. That being an honest accounting.

        1990 settled nothing.

        The early 21st was always going to feature three regional wars: the only question was who would move first, Russia, China, or Iran. Russia went first and got way with Crimea scot free so that emboldened them to go for the whole country. Iran is helping them prolong the war, looking for the right moment to move. China has their own plans that need to take into account their internal problems that might require their own “Short victorious war”.

        All three antagonists believe the West’s sociopolitical troubles (it’s not just the US) make it vulnerable and they *know* they are depleting some of their munitions. A good time to move.

        Top candidate to move next is Iran, given the current spat between the US and the Saudis that might lead the US to cut the latter loose and make the closure of Hormuz easier. And what would *that* do to the west and Russia’s leverage?

        Still think we’re not looking at a global war?

        • F. – The 21st Century has certainly not been a time of widespread peace, but the scale of the losses has not come close to the 20th Century Wars.

          World War I

          The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I, was around 40 million. There were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded.
          The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians.
          The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 5.7 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million.

          Source: Centre européen Robert Schuman

          World War II was the deadliest war in human history.

          Battle Deaths 15,000,000
          Battle Wounded 25,000,000
          Civilian Deaths 45,000,000
          *Worldwide casualty estimates vary widely in several sources. The number of civilian deaths in China alone might well be more than 50,000,000.

          21st Century Wars

          By far the deadliest war in the 21st Century (so far) has been the Second Congo War (1998–2003). An estimated three million people—mostly civilians—were killed in the fighting or died of disease or malnutrition as a result of the conflict.

          #2 in the 21st Century – Syrian Civil War, triggered by the Arab Spring. It is estimated that 1 in 10 Syrians had been killed or wounded by the fighting. Four million people fled the country, while millions more were internally displaced. At least 470,000 deaths were caused directly or indirectly by the war, and life expectancy at birth experienced a shocking plunge from over 70 years (preconflict) to just 55 years in 2015.


  2. No, the casualties don’t compare…
    …but neither does the style of warfare.

    Countries at war no longer throw millions of unprotected men with a helmet and a rifle at each other.
    Not even Russia.
    Or Africa, where most of the old school tribal conflicts still play out.

    Today countries make war with economic tools, with information, misinformation, covert maneuvers, corruption, or narcotics. It’s still war and in most cases it is global, whether against Islamists or the west, on earth, above or under water, in the air or in space.

    War these days isn’t about killing of people but about asserting power and control, with drones, missiles and satellites. Come a non-nuclear war we might see less people die in combat than die in car accidents in a year. If nothing else because it’s expensive and takes time to recruit and train competent warriors. To say nothing of their equipment, as Russia is finding out.

    With the nature of war changing, so too must the definition of what global war entails.
    We need to look forward, not back.

    • The war may start with high tech stuff, and go on for quite a while with the high tech. But without a winner, I suspect it will get right back to the infantry in the field. Ukraine is very interesting in how they incorporated the mobile high tech into infantry units. A couple of guys pull the trigger, run like hell, and look back at the smoking tank they hit. And when the missiles have all been shot? Lock and load and saddle up.

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