Dhe British historian Ian Kershaw has written important books on modern history. His two-volume biography of Hitler and the two-volume history of the twentieth century (“Hell’s fall” and “Achterbahn”) are standard works. Kershaw has evaluated his in-depth knowledge of the sources and research literature in the book Turning Points for World War II, now with Man and the Force. About builders and destroyers of Europe in the 20th century” a kind of summary or concentrate of his life’s work appeared.
There are twelve personalities to whom Kershaw dedicates biographical portraits, from Lenin and Stalin to Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, only one woman is included, Margaret Thatcher. It goes without saying that biographical details cannot be gone into for about forty pages each, but, as is to be expected from Kershaw, these are solid short portraits, drawn partly from the sources and partly from the boundless secondary literature. The choice is well justified: It is about European history, i.e. about leading European politicians of the 20th century (besides the already mentioned Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill, Tito, de Gaulle, Adenauer, Franco). So the list includes bloody dictators as well as democratically elected leaders.
defeat and downfall
The biographical sketches are all structured in the same way, they lead from the preconditions for acquiring power to political achievements to the legacy. One may arrive at slightly different assessments than Kershaw in one case or another – he considers Gorbachev to be the most important figure of the second half of the century, he judges him unreservedly positive – but in general his assessments are well founded and appropriate. What Kershaw is actually concerned with is the interplay of the person and external circumstances: he quotes the famous Marx quote about people who made their history “not under self-chosen circumstances, but under immediately encountered (…) circumstances”. The biography thus becomes a “crossing point” in which structures and people are interwoven (Dilthey). Without attempting a category such as ‘greatness’, the starting point is that the figures treated made their mark on historical events and that history would probably have been different without them.
In order to fathom the rise and success or defeat and downfall of these leaders, Kershaw puts forward seven historical-politological research hypotheses as generalizing “assumptions”. Some of these are easy to understand (“In wars, even powerful political leaders are subject to the overwhelming constraints of military power”), some border on the trivial (“Democratic government imposes the tightest reins on individuals’ freedom of action…”).
Mixture of biography and structural history
All of this is based on the equally unsurprising general thesis that the “conditions under which a certain personality type can be successful as a political leader” vary in such a way “that generalizations are difficult”. This already indicates what is summarized as the result in the conclusion: Yes, personalities play a role, their determination, their charisma, their skill, their fortune, but also their brutality and nefariousness in the case of the dictators. Little can be generalized here because the historical constellations and conditions are too different.
Kershaw’s book is not really biographical, his portraits are too sketchy for that. And professional historians might have wished for a more detailed description of the course of time. But one of the book’s strengths is that it has a consistent style and the consistently applied schemes and questions make comparisons possible. It is all the more clear that the circumstances and the personalities were so different in each case that ultimately no “theory” can be distilled from them. However, the mixture of biography and structural history provides the historically interested layman with insightful excerpts from a panorama of the twentieth century.
Ian Kershaw: “Man and the Force”. About builders and destroyers of Europe in the 20th century. Translated from the English by Klaus-Dieter Schmidt. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Munich 2022. 592 p., ills., born, €36.