Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe, with Ian Kershaw

Nov 16, 2022

Throughout the 20th century, European leaders from Stalin to Mussolini, from Gorbachev to Thatcher, and more, have shifted global narratives by sheer force of will. In Personality and Power, British historian Ian Kershaw attempts to understand these rulers and their outsized effect on history. In this virtual event, Doorstep co-hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev speak with Kershaw on the lasting influence of these "builders and destroyers." How do today's leaders—Zelenksyy, Trump, Putin, Xi, etc.—compare?

Watch the Full Event

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep Book Talks. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council. We're so excited today to welcome Sir Ian Kershaw, the author of so many books and decorated historian. How many accolades can I give you, Sir Ian? Today we are here to talk with our audience about your latest book Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe. As you see, I have many questions for you. What an important time to discuss your book, what an important look at where we are coming from as we head into new elections and new leaders. Maybe we should all send them this book so that they can learn from what happened in the past and take it into the future.

For here, for the United States, we are coming out of an election and out of an announcement—by someone who you mention in your book—of a third presidential run. I am re-reading my notes on this book, thinking, Wow, what an important time to have this discussion of Personality and Power and a look at how leaders shape history. What a moment. Thank you so much for joining us.

To our audience, thank you for joining us. We will take your questions in the latter half, but we want to start off with an overview, Sir Ian, of how you came to this book. I think it's important, but what was the driving impetus for you to write and put together this survey of 12 leaders? We will go into more specifics after we hear your overview.

IAN KERSHAW: First of all, thank you very much for this invitation. It is an absolute delight to be with you this evening, and I am looking forward to the discussion with you in the next few minutes.

What persuaded me to write this book? It was really nothing to do with the issues that you just mentioned. I have written two extensive books on the history of Europe in which each of these individuals figure to some extent, but I had the feeling at the end that I was not able to do justice to the roles played by these individuals, and therefore I thought I would write another book about the 20th century in Europe where the individuals took center stage. I looked at it through that question of to what extent there were structural constraints and structural issues that determined European history and to what extent these individuals did make their own history. Were they makers of history or were they made by it? In a sense of course it is both. That was my motivation for writing the book in the first place.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We have a wide selection of leaders. For our audience, who may not have the book yet, could you take us through some of your framework for choosing these 12? Some are dictators and authoritarians. Some are coming from more democratically selected societies. What was some of your top line when choosing these 12, and why 12? Why not eight?

IAN KERSHAW: The number 12 was in a way incidental. I had two criteria. The first and most important of the criteria was that each of the individuals I chose had to have shaped the history of Europe in the 20th century through some personal impact. I was looking at the impact of these individuals. So the first one was that each of them had to have had an impact on the history of Europe in the 20th century. There were many others that I thought of including but then discarded at the end because I thought their impact probably wasn't as substantial.

The second criterion was that they had to be European leaders, either heads of government or heads of state. It was a difficult decision in some ways, but I decided to exclude non-Europeans from this. Most prominent of the ones that I considered long and hard was Roosevelt because obviously he was an American president who did have a huge impact in the Second World War on Europe.

I decided in the end that it would have opened up the question: Well, why not other U.S. presidents who also made a significant contribution—Woodrow Wilson right through to Bill Clinton probably, and you can pick and choose a number of them? Because of my method of approaching this book, which meant that I had to go into the preconditions of the impact of these individuals, which then took me into the prehistory in the different European countries, I thought with a figure like Roosevelt I would then have to go into the prehistory in American history, which would take me outside the European context that I was trying to deal with. Also of course, not just U.S. presidents, but you could then think of others who ought to be included. What about Mao Zedong, for example, and so on? The overall project would become absolutely enormous if that had been the case.

Why 12 and not eight? Just because I thought each of these individuals was worthy of a place. It could have been eight, and a shorter book, it's true.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: One of the things I am very struck by, having read the book, is that you picked, as you said, leaders, heads of government and heads of state, but not simply people who were at the helm when major events were happening but people who seemed to take their cognitive imprint and imprint it on the institutions, the state, the party, and so on. These leaders are not people who simply happened to be in charge when something happened but as you said were shapers and perhaps not even just shapers but had a vision and were able to get others to accept it and shape institutions to carry out their vision. In this case I am thinking simply of Vladimir Lenin, who was not at the head of the Soviet state for very long but whose imprint on what was the Russian Empire and then became the Soviet Union, leaves a legacy that we are still unraveling or dealing with today.

To take from the 20th century to the 21st, do you see any signs of 21st-century leaders that might be part of a volume two of makers and shapers of Europe? Is it too early to tell, or do we not have the right conditions for that type of leadership?

IAN KERSHAW: Just one word on the people that I chose to add onto to what I said earlier, which is that a leitmotif of the book is crisis, so each of these leaders is in one way or another a product of crisis with the exception maybe of Helmut Kohl, who then benefits from crisis, who uses crisis to his own advantage.

To answer your question about the 21st century, we are of course only a quarter of the way through it, and the people we instinctively think of as important in the 21st century now—we could obviously talk about Putin and in your own country evidently Trump—we can't actually deal with their full legacy because we don't know what that legacy is going to be. It's too early.

There are other people I would have included, and these, as I have just indicated in the case of ex-President Trump, are not European leaders, so if there were to be a volume two—which I won't be writing incidentally—it would have to be on a global scale and not just European, a reflection of Europe's own declining position probably globally but also the fact that major players globally are now essential components of Europe. So it would be a global history of power and not just Europe. I think that is maybe the most important thing which has changed from the 20th century, that we can no longer see this as a European story, but it has to be a global story.

TATIANA SERAFIN: For our audience at home, I wanted to mention the names of who you cover in case anyone has questions. The twelve are Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer, Franco, Tito, Thatcher, Gorbachev, and Kohl, some of whom you have mentioned, but if our audience wants to formulate any questions, those were the 12.

The construct I found of the chapters is interesting, and I want to delve into that as we start looking at specific figures. As you mentioned, there are two parts to your look at each character, the preconditions of power, how they were able to rise, their personality—and I love how you structure the look at their leadership through the crises they managed—then how it changed when they were in power, and then the legacy.

I think it is important for some of these characters to mention that they were such central and important figures and had such outsized personalities at the time, but their legacy, like Tito, is dust in the wind. I think this is the importance of the book in giving perspective, which sometimes I think if you are on Twitter all the time you lack, and certainly Tito's story is one such story that might lead us into this discussion of perspective and how we can maybe apply some of the lessons of looking at current leaders with this idea of perspective and legacy.

I love the legacy part of each chapter. What were some of the legacy frameworks you looked at when you were looking at legacy?

IAN KERSHAW: Some of the legacies were very long-lasting as in the case of Lenin, for example, not just a personal legacy but a doctrine associated with Lenin that lasted right through until 1991. On the other hand, in the case of Tito, it was an extremely short legacy. The shortness of the legacy is demonstrated by that figure himself, who in a way almost singlehandedly held that fairly ramshackle system together. Within ten years of his death it was then plunged into war. In each case then, the legacy reflects the importance of the individual.

To take one other example, Mussolini. Mussolini is in a sense in the news again because Georgia Meloni, who had a neo-fascist past, has now taken over as prime minister of Italy, and that has brought back into the fore then what Mussolini's legacy was for Italy and other elements of Italian political culture which actually still pick up on Mussolini's legacy.

The notion that seems to appeal to the right in Italy is that Mussolini was essentially—there were good times, he was a good dictator and didn't really do much harm. If you look at it, that is a false image of what Mussolini had been like. That image has lasted through into present-day politics to some extent in Italy. In these ways you can actually see the legacy.

One other point to make, one other legacy. The moral legacy of Hitler is still with us today and not just in Europe either but more or less globally in a sense with the impact of anti-Semitism, with the state of Israel as one part of Hitler's legacy too, and so on. We have in a number of ways then a moral legacy which in different ways is reflected right to this day and is going on into the future. In every one of these instances the question of legacy is a crucial one to pose about the impact of that individual on history.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think oftentimes readers and commentators will gravitate to what we might describe as the "negative" personalities that you are describing—Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin to begin with—but there is also the question of the legacy of some of the other leaders that you have covered, and I was struck in reading the chapters on Charles de Gaulle and then on Margaret Thatcher the extent to which they have legacies that subsequent prime ministers and presidents operate in the shadow of, certainly in France with de Gaulle, but the extent to which Margaret Thatcher set a legacy for Britain. The arguments, policies, and direction that she set forward have continued to endure.

Can you talk a bit more about that type of legacy, the heirs or successors to a legacy? As you said, Tito had no heirs. His heirs decided to destroy Yugoslavia, but we have in France, in Britain, and by extension in the European Union and how it has evolved and how Europe itself has in some ways toggled between Thatcher and de Gaulle with Adenauer and Kohl perhaps also there. Maybe a bit more on those legacies, the living legacies or the continuing legacies of some of the people you have covered in the book.

IAN KERSHAW: That is obviously a very good and important question. In the case of Charles de Gaulle the most obvious part of his legacy is the fact that France still has the constitution that he created in 1958. He actually set up a framework of government for France which exists to this day. Everywhere that you go in France there are General de Gaulle squares, de Gaulle statues, an airport named after him, and so on, so his legacy is self-evident everywhere you travel in France and in the institutions of that country. I think it is probably the case that his legacy now overshadows that of Napoleon, for example, so he is the individual who had the greatest impact on French history.

Yet in his own lifetime he was a divisive figure in many ways, uniting the French people of course in the latter stages of the Second World War but thereafter in many ways divisive internally within France. But his legacy is that of the great national figure, almost a unifying figure, which is a bit of a contrast to what he was in his lifetime.

In the case of Thatcher there is no question that she was divisive in her lifetime and is divisive to this day. A part of her legacy which took shape after her death and long after she had left power, was that—as I make the case in the book—she was the midwife of Brexit in a way and that because of her impact on the right of the Conservative Party she shaped the debate which gathered in pace until between 2012 and 2016, when it became a poisonous factor in British politics and then resulted in the referendum result which took Britain, to my great sorrow, out of the European Union.

Just on the European Union for a second, two people I did not include in the book because they did not fit my criteria were Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, both them founders of what later became the European Union, but neither of them was actually a head of state or head of government, so they didn't figure. But there we have a collective enterprise in a way that has become of extraordinary importance in European terms. If the book was on institutions as opposed to individuals, then the European Union would certainly have a prominent role.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I love the legacy discussion, but one of the other parts—I am going backwards, I suppose, because legacy is always the ending part of the chapter—that was fascinating to me is as we look at perspective and today's leaders and what kind of legacy are they going to leave. I am not so sure that our leaders today think that way, but what they do think about is who they are as people on the stage. If anybody exemplifies their need to be on the stage and to be heard, in America at least, it's Donald Trump.

I love your list of what defines the personalities in this book. I want to read a few and then maybe have you discuss how you put this together. The common threads between the leaders discussed in the book, and I think we can see this obviously: "Single-mindedness, extraordinary determination, strength of character to surmount hardships, relentless will to succeed, driven, and fulfilling destiny." Reading these, of course I am thinking of Zelenskyy and the war, and we will talk about that in a second because I think speaking of crises we are in crisis.

But let's stick with personality for a second. Down this list—"Ability to inspire, language that captures, taste for power," and then interestingly enough is "authoritarian instinct." "Ruthlessness" was another word you used. I thought, Wow, even in leaders that are supposedly coming from rules-based systems and democratic institutions, this slight instinctive authoritarianism. Can you speak a little bit more about that? Certainly we see this in a Hitler or a Stalin, but it wasn't a term that I would use for a Kohl or a Thatcher, and yet you provided some examples. I want to dig deeper into that.

IAN KERSHAW: Obviously if we are talking about the dictators of the first half of the 20th century, then authoritarianism has a different ring to using that term for political leaders of the second half of the 20th century such as Thatcher or Helmut Kohl, and yet they did share some of these characteristics that you have mentioned, in fact many of the characteristics, and they did have that element of wanting not just to be part of a collective but actually to lead that collective and shape it. Thatcher imprinted her own message on her own cabinet in Britain the whole way through.

You could say the same about Adenauer in Germany. Afterwards he worked collectively, but he led that cabinet. He was not just the most prominent member of it. He actually led it in the direction that he wanted to go.

So I think it may well be that this authoritarian leaning anyway is a prerequisite of any individual who is going to make a mark on history. It can be a very negative element. In the case of, say, Winston Churchill in 1940 it was a very positive characteristic. There was not time then to go through all the democratic niceties. He had to take quick decisions.

He took the crucial decision in May 1940 about whether Britain should stay in the war or whether it should look for terms first from Mussolini and secondly and unquestionably from Hitler. There would have been a very different outcome to the war in Europe and globally if that approach had been taken. Yet Churchill still, when that decision was being made, led that decision. He imprinted his own mind upon it, but he did actually discuss it for three days with his war cabinet, another four people, so five people in all took that decision but led by Churchill.

The same with Adenauer in the case of whether West Germany—or as it was at the time, the Federal Republic of Germany—should continue to look Westward, in particular to the United States, and bind itself there or whether it should consider Stalin's apparent or seeming offer in 1952 of a "neutralized" Germany and a "democratic" Germany. What these terms would have meant to Stalin were different from what we understand by them probably, but nonetheless it was in certain ways a tempting offer, and the Social Democratic Party in Germany was in certain ways attracted by this offer. Adenauer himself led the decision immediately to reject this offer from Stalin and to continue the binding of West Germany to the West and to the United States in particular.

It seems in retrospect that that was an axiomatic decision that he would have taken. It was obvious that that was the way today. It was not so obvious at the time. It was a key decision. Adenauer's authoritarian leanings pushed that cabinet in the right direction at the time, but he didn't just say, "Let's talk about this." Rather he gave them what he wanted to see as the outcome to that and led them very directly to it. That is what I am understanding by these "authoritarian leanings." The goal of course we have spoken about already, but of all the democratic leaders he was the most authoritarian of all, so semi-democratic in a way.

I think the key criterion for democratic leaders is: Are they prepared to leave power peacefully when they are defeated? That is the case—though we have one exception of course in your own country there where it didn't apply—with Churchill, Adenauer, and de Gaulle. They all left office peacefully and there was a natural transition, and that is different from any dictator.

TATIANA SERAFIN: You alluded to this, and I want to talk about the people that these leaders had to work with. You refer to it as a "power cartel" or a "charismatic community." Can you discuss that a little bit more? I really like the terms.

IAN KERSHAW: The "charismatic community" is a term I have taken directly from the German sociologist Max Weber, and I use "charisma" only in his sense, which is that it is not necessarily a set of attributes that an individual has, but they are attributes that are projected onto that individual by his surroundings, by his entourage, and by what Weber called his "charismatic community." They project onto an individual their own fears, their own wishes, their hopes, and so on, and they see in a given individual then heroic qualities. That is then the charismatic individual, a figure who is seen to have charisma.

Of course, once these individuals gain power, as in the case of Hitler, Mussolini, and so on, then they are able to construct that charisma artificially and manufacture it through their monopoly control of mass media. It is not in any sense a natural characteristic of someone, but it is a projection which then is massively emblazoned through the use of the monopoly-controlled mass media.

What was the other concept I used?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Power cartel.

IAN KERSHAW: Yes. I try to use that term to suggest that, although we focus quite naturally on individuals—this is a book about individuals—the individuals are not isolated. We talk now about this war in Ukraine as "Putin's war." Everything is totally Putin, Putin, Putin. There is no consideration ever given to what lies behind Putin.

I am no expert on Putin, and I don't know the answer to that question of how strong these individuals are in the military, intelligence services, and so on, the oligarchs who are behind Putin, but in the cases I am dealing with here there is a group of individuals always in powerful positions themselves with the ability then to influence in certain ways the leader of that society. At certain times if that leader is able to stay in power for long enough and if that leader has benefited from a mega crisis that the conventional structures of power have disintegrated or been corroded, then what usually happens is that individual can extend his own power over time at the expense of the individuals in the power cartel.

By "power cartel" I don't mean that everybody has an equal decision-making prowess. No, because in each of these cases the individual concerned does take the key decisions—and I am sure we are seeing that with Putin now—but that does not mean to say that there are not substantial groupings behind these individuals who themselves play an essential role in the underpinning of that power and the exercise of that power.

I use the term most explicitly in the book with regard to Franco and his long rule in Spain, where he is supported in that rule by leaders of business, by the agrarians, by the Catholic Church, as well as by the Falange Party and most of all by the military leadership, but it could also apply to others. You only have to think for a second about Nazi Germany and think of the importance of an organization like the SS and the leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, who then is a key element in the support for Hitler and the exercise of that power. That power then itself is able to become more elaborated and more extensive without Hitler necessarily having to give instructions or dictates all the time from above. That is what I am talking about with the power cartel.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just to jump in here, I think power cartel is a great concept. It does help explain the dynamics in the Kremlin because Putin is one individual, but we talk often about "Kremlin clans," power groupings. He obviously can imprint some of his policy preferences, but at the same time he is also negotiating with people who have power in their own right, so I think it is a useful concept for discussing current events.

When you were talking about charisma, the creation and sustenance of charisma, you noted that with the great totalitarian dictators of the 20th century control of media proved to be absolutely essential in doing that. This is something we won't know in the 21st century, but certainly the fragmentation of media in the 21st century, the rise of social media—I am just thinking, what happens if Lenin in the middle of 1917 had to monitor a Bolshevik Twitter feed with people saying: "Is it time to do the revolution yet? No, the conditions aren't great," and so on. That certainly might have changed history.

Tatiana, you mentioned President Zelenskyy, and you just wrote for Orbis a great piece on Zelenskyy's use of new media, digital media, and social media. I don't know if that is something you wanted to bring in when you alluded to Zelenskyy before as a leader in crisis.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I do think that communication is certainly an important part when looking at how these leaders have dealt with their crises. The way I want to frame that is looking at what we talk a lot about here at The Doorstep, which is how leaders have to respond to the everyday concerns of the population.

To the extent we can connect Personality and Power and these 12 leaders that we are looking at today to how much they dealt with domestic concerns and had to shape the will of the people is something that I would like to get at and then move over to the communications angle. Here our goal is to always look at how the world impacts your everyday decisions and everyday life.

Certainly in Europe in the 20th century it was important. The British were looking at what was happening in Germany when they were making their decisions. There were important trade ties then and today. How important was that, and how was that managed? Maybe give some examples of leaders who better managed taking the doorstep concerns of the population into how they became stronger leaders.

IAN KERSHAW: Let me give one example that comes to mind straightaway, taken from my longstanding research many years ago on Nazi Germany. In 1936 Germany was facing problems internally about essentially whether financial allocation should be given to food shortages at the time or to armaments. This was an issue which was causing, if you look at the police reports at the time, quite a lot of unrest about the social conditions in 1935 and 1936. The unrest did feed through to the top. The people at the top of that regime, including Hitler, were aware of what was going on down below.

I am not talking about cause and effect now, but in March of 1936 Hitler's troops crossed over and entered the Demilitarized Zone in the Rhineland. It was a massive triumph. They took back control over the Demilitarized Zone. It was fully incorporated into Germany. A very short time afterward, in late March, Hitler had a plebiscite, which brought a 99 percent result of support for his action. Of course 99 percent is completely ridiculous, but nonetheless if you look at the reports from the underground left-wing organizations, they all say that people on the left as well were impressed by this move.

In other words, what I am saying is that that foreign policy move deflated immediately the unrest that was there beforehand, and Hitler won a major triumph which then had domestic repercussions even on left-wing opponents, who were then able to say: "Well, we don't like this regime, but Hitler, what a guy. He has pulled it off yet again." That is an explicit linkage between foreign and domestic policy. Of course the monopoly control of propaganda plays its part there because there was no counter agency that could say, "Well, hang on," because this is dangerous for whatever reasons.

If we look at today's Russia—of course we have social media as you quite rightly point out, and social media can be a double-edged sword in some sense—the control of the mass media is undoubtedly shaping much opinion there as to the support for Putin and for the war in Ukraine. Whatever the unrest is, whatever the discontent is, we cannot measure it, we cannot know it, and there is no way in which that can be expressed in the way it would be in the United States or in Britain, so we have to go for snippets of information about it but accept the fact that much of the information that people are getting internally there is actually shaped by the regime itself.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that's true, but I think the difference in the 21st century that we are going to find, if I might posit a hypothesis if we are talking 100 years from now, is that access to the Internet through virtual private networks (VPNs) is creating connections that may not have been available if you were only listening to radio or getting fliers thrown down at you from airplanes if we are talking World War II or if you are doing gossip. My grandfather was a partisan in Ukraine, and they shared information through gossip lines.

But today we are getting information from Iran. Protests in Iran are happening. They have galvanized tremendous youth involvement here in the United States. You can think about Iran as a closed society—we are not getting much information, state controlled—and yet access to these VPNs is allowing images to flow, information to flow, connections that I think are not even understood today in 2022 that I think are going to be important.

We see some of this already, to go back to the Ukraine war, in the success of the Ukrainian military campaign, which is—my hypothesis—very much driven by social media and the connections that have been made globally by President Zelenskyy himself, a very strong personality with all your personality traits and with war creating that crisis that he is responding to. If he didn't have the war, I don't think we would have Zelenskyy.

What are your reactions or responses to some of that?

IAN KERSHAW: First of all, I entirely agree with the point you just made about the use of the Internet and social media as something which is a tool to provide different messages to those which are those of the regimes in question. Of course one thing that comes to mind still is that, if you are looking at Tehran, as you have just been saying, and the messages that are coming through from there and the unrest which is patently present in Iran, you still see the strength and power of that regime in holding it down. It is not showing signs so far anyway of crumbling.

On the question of Zelenskyy, again I fully agree. He is an amazing war leader. Of the people I deal with in this book the one he reminds me of in a sense is Churchill because Churchill before 1940 had been a relative failure in political terms. Then he is the right man in the right place at the right time. You could say of Zelenskyy too that he was not exactly a massive success as a peacetime leader of Ukraine, and then this invasion takes place and all at once Zelenskyy is establishing himself as an outstanding war leader. Whatever happens afterwards he will always be remembered for the part that he has played in this extraordinary defensive war that Ukraine is fighting against the invaders.

In that sense too you can see parallels, but I think the major point that you are making is actually the use of social media and of the Internet in general to provide an avenue which undermines dictatorships. I agree with that, but at the same time we can also see how—just going back to President Trump for a second—the Internet and social media can be used in the opposite way, to bolster the power that already exists. Of course it is an intriguing counterfactual of what would these dictators have made of social media at the time, Twitter and the rest of it. How would Goebbels have operated with that? Who knows, but I think your general point is absolutely well-made.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to remind our audience to send in questions. Thank you to Giuseppe Mazzini for your comment. He is interested in your book, Sir Ian, so that is great, but we want other questions and other comments. I am monitoring the chat, so please do send in your questions.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I did want to take from Giuseppe Mazzini's comment about the development and strength of autocratic regimes and then maybe tie it to one of the leaders I am happy you covered because he does not get a lot of attention and we don't see him as having relevant lessons, Francisco Franco.

So often we talk in our modern discourse about someone being fascist and we immediately default to the person as the "next Hitler" and Giuseppe's point about Mussolini as well. In some ways when we look at leaders like Putin, we look at potential people starting to edge toward that part of the spectrum in Erdoğan of Turkey, Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary, and Bolsonaro in Brazil it often seems that Franco is a leader we should be thinking more of in terms of coming to power, how he maintained power, how he navigated the international system and went from being a beneficiary of Hitler's and Mussolini's assistance to becoming certainly a de facto partner of the Western Alliance after the war. Are there things from Franco's experience and the fact that you selected him for the book that you think we ought to be paying more attention to, and perhaps the next time someone wants to say this person is the next Hitler to be able to say, "No, but he may be the next Franco"?

IAN KERSHAW: Yes, thank you. That is a very interesting question.

I included Franco because we tend to think of Spain as being a bit of an outsider. It does not play a central part in Europe. Franco is obviously a key figure in Spanish history, but is he a key figure in European history? After all, there were 30,000 non-Spaniard Europeans who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and Franco played his part in the Second World War. He also played a part in the Cold War. In a way there was an element there where Franco was a European figure.

Going back to your central point, yes, I think Franco is actually more typical of dictators than Hitler or Mussolini in the sense that Franco came to power solely through his prowess as the victor in the civil war. Going back to charisma for a second, he had an image built up around him which was even more absurd than the charismatic images built up around Hitler or Mussolini. But he stayed in power from 1939 until his death in 1975.

Whereas Hitler and Mussolini in different ways took on the conservative establishments in their countries and challenged them through taking their countries into world war and in so doing ruined their countries and in many ways ruined the conservative elites—that were able to survive in other ways—that helped them get to power, in Franco's case he didn't enter the Second World War, not because he didn't want to but because Spain was too poor and too ill-equipped militarily to do so. But he stayed in power because of this power cartel, his relations with the other major power groups there. He didn't challenge them in the same way that Hitler and Mussolini did. His ideology was a very limited and restrictive one, which basically meant staying in power, building up Spain, and destroying the left, but apart from that he stays in power because he is not massively ambitious in that time other than in keeping power.

That is a very different sort of dictator. You can see that operating in other countries and in other systems in the 21st century as well as in the 20th century. That is in a way a more typical form of dictatorial autocratic rule than that of the key dictators we always seize upon in the 20th century.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Could you speak a little bit more to ideology? That was one of the categories that you looked at. Did these leaders have a strong ideology? Did they shift with the winds? It seemed that some leaders were more willing to say what they needed to say to stay in power, which I think we may see more of today as leaders try to get constituencies. To go after them they will say what is current in the moment just to get power, but they don't really have ideologies. Was there a waning over time of the strength of ideology in keeping people in power?

IAN KERSHAW: No, I don't think you can generalize in that way. In the case of say Hitler or Mussolini I think the ideology becomes even more pronounced over the length of time they are in power. If you look at Hitler for a second, during the rise to power between 1929 and 1933, when the Nazi Party is soaring to massive popular support to power, Hitler speaks less about the Jews than he had done in the early 1920s, when he was a relative failure. Of course everybody knew it was an anti-Semitic party, but it was not so much the anti-Semitism which was the fore of the message there but actually just two things: 1) Destroy this democracy, this system of government we have; and 2) Build up an entirely new type of society, a people's community. Those were two very bare messages that Hitler was conveying over and over again.

The two central parts of Hitler's own ideology, the destruction of the Jews—whatever that meant; it meant different things to different people at different times—and the quest for living space at the expense of Eastern Europe and Russia were not at the forefront of people's minds when Hitler was coming to power. They were central to Hitler's own thinking, and of course in the following few years they became more central to that regime, so Hitler's own ideology conveyed itself to the regime more widely. You could say the same about other dictators too, that similar things happened.

In general I think we tend to underestimate the role of ideology and we presume that people are just grabbing power for its own sake. If we look at Putin today, without ideology I think we don't understand Putin. Just to repeat, I am no Putin expert, but it seems to me that the role of Russian nationalism is a crucial factor for Putin's thinking about his own country and about the role of Ukraine in his view as part of that "Russian Empire" which he is seeking in a way to recreate.

I think we have to consider what it is that is driving these individuals. They are not just there for power for its own sake by and large, but these makers and shapers of the 20th century were individuals for whom these ideas mattered, and they utilized power to get the way to implement their ideas rather than used ideology to get to power, if I can put it that way round.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I would be remiss if I didn't say—and you address this as well—there are 11 men and one woman in this book. As you say, they are all white as well, and you say that is a reflection of 20th-century leadership, but I do want to ask you: Is it also a reflection of the fact that we did not have universal suffrage in many of these countries? In Italy full suffrage was not available until 1945, so you don't have huge portions of the electorate—women and young people—voting, participating, and sharing their voices.

These are the two things I see as hugely different in our two centuries, if we are going to separate it into a look at the centuries. Even if women did get the vote in 1918 in Germany or in the United Kingdom in 1928, still there is this feeling that you only have small portions of the electorate shaping history. What could have been different if you had had broader participation?

IAN KERSHAW: I think that is a very good and important point. The restricted franchise eminently played its part in hindering women to gain their position politically, but it goes way beyond the franchise as it does in every country. We look at the role that women played, and right down to the end of the Second World War and beyond it was seen as a subordinate role in many ways—"A woman's place is in the home," and all the rest of the clichés.

It only starts to change drastically I think as late as the 1960s and 1970s with the movements that first of all emanated in good measure from the United States in the late 1960s but also in European countries as well, and the way in which those changes then gradually fed through over time meant that the role of women was seen differently in society. Incidentally you mentioned that these were all white leaders that I deal with, and that has changed dramatically too, and quite rightly so. The role of women then becomes much more extensive in every walk of life practically from the late 1970s and 1980s onward without ever really coming to completely equal terms.

Of course if I were writing this book about 21st-century leaders, women would figure much more obviously in it, people of color would figure much more prominently in it, and so on. The case of Thatcher that I single out there is one almost to make the point that politics in particular was a man's world still, and there were no people of color of significance in any European country who were making their way to the top in politics.

Mrs. Thatcher herself used her feminine charms from time to time but also was very masculine in certain respects in the way that she ran politics, so it was changing then, but the role of gender in politics was then a reflection in part of these changes of voting and the rest of it but in part a wider reflection of the changes that were taking place in society itself. Those changes are making their point in the 21st century, so we are seeing a different type of leadership in certain respects in the 21st century.

One last point on that. We did of course—if I had been writing the book globally rather than European-wise, Golda Meir in Israel and Indira Gandhi in India immediately come to mind—have two women who played a prominent part in politics in the 20th century but not in Europe.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Certainly people's backgrounds were important. I think you found that there was no one trend among the leaders that you studied. They came from different socioeconomic and different educational backgrounds, which I thought was fascinating because oftentimes your preconceived notion or your bias might be, "Oh, they're coming from wealthy families, they are supported by wealth, and that's how they become leaders." In your look at these 20th-century leaders that is not the case, but I wonder if you did see any other trends or any other threads among the backgrounds of these leaders, things that we might be able to look for as we study the next generation of leaders in the 21st century?

IAN KERSHAW: That is a very provoking question. I suppose that each of these individuals from very different backgrounds and in very different contexts came to adulthood, to maturity anyway, with thoughts about what was seriously wrong about their societies. In nearly every one of the cases that I mentioned—not in the case of Helmut Kohl I think—they thought there were things that were seriously wrong and that they had the answer to it. This notion of self-confidence and even egocentrism and sometimes narcissism are also elements of the individuals who find their way to the top in the end. They see something that normal people don't see, or anyway they have a drive to put something right or change things radically that most normal people don't have, and they seek to put that into operation. In certain conditions they have the potential then to come to power and do that very thing.

I think, rather than looking back at some psychological factor in their childhood or whatever which takes them that way, those are the things which seem to me in each of the cases are relatively similar. There is something about them that they think: This society is wrong, and I am going to put it right.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am looking at the chat here. We have a question: "Why not Willy Brandt?"

IAN KERSHAW: That is a good question that my German friends have put to me quite frequently: "Why have you chosen Helmut Kohl and not Willy Brandt?" Just to confess, I was a fan of Willy Brandt. I am not a fan of Helmut Kohl at all. Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik in the 1970s was important in the bridge—as the question there says—"between Adenauer and Kohl" but also the bridge in terms of bringing about better relations with East Germany and Eastern Europe more generally.

What Brandt did not do was bring about German unification and radically change the nature of politics in much of Central Europe. Helmut Kohl, because he had a power instinct unquestionably, was the person who inherited that set of issues that Mikhail Gorbachev produced where the conditions were ripe for German unification. In those conditions Helmut Kohl personally did a number of things that I try to point out in the book which then helped to bring about unification. If you ask me who was the superior politician or the better chancellor, I would say Willy Brandt every time, but if you ask me who was the one who achieved most, whose impact was the greater of the two, I would say it was Helmut Kohl, and that's why I chose Helmut Kohl and not Willy Brandt.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Final question. You mention it in your book, but I want you to say it in your own words other than what I read and repeated, that of historically significant leaders there were only a few who top your list of these 20th-century leaders. I think that is a good wrap-up question to leave us with.

IAN KERSHAW: Let me single out two then because I do at the very end of the book single out two, and I say in the first terrible half of the 20th century in Europe I would say Hitler was the most significant one. It is arguable. You could say Lenin. You could say Stalin. I would say Hitler because other leaders such as Stalin and Churchill were reacting to Hitler, who then after all was the chief author of the Second World War in Europe and the chief author of the Holocaust. I actually say in the book, "No Hitler, no Holocaust." Arguable maybe, but I would stick by that. In the two most crucial episodes from the 20th century, the Second World War and the Holocaust, Hitler was central to them.

In the second half of the 20th century, different in so many ways in Europe as elsewhere, I would single out Gorbachev. We have not spoken about Gorbachev, but I think he was the outstanding figure bar none in the second half of the 20th century, and he personally reshaped Europe. Of course, he was an ambivalent figure, and I try to do justice to the ambivalence. He destroyed his own country while bringing freedom to millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe. In other ways too—reducing the armaments race for a time; at least we thought he was going to—he offered a more peaceful Europe.

Gorbachev was the key figure there, but we are still living with the legacy of Gorbachev, and you could say that Putin is indirectly part of the legacy of Gorbachev, that after him came the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and after Yeltsin came the stabilizing impact—at least it was thought to be that initially—of Putin, which has led into greater crisis for Europe and brought war back to Europe, which we all thought had been done with long ago. Those two figures are for me the crucial ones of the 12.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much, Sir Ian. This was such a wonderful conversation. It is a wonderful book, Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe. You heard snippets today, but it is worth the purchase. Go to your local bookstore. Talk to us @DoorstepPodcast on Twitter. We will answer some of the questions we were unable to get to. Thank you again so much.

IAN KERSHAW: Thank you. It has been lovely to be with you, and I have enjoyed the conversation very much indeed. Thank you ever so much.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

También te puede gustar

13 DE JULIO DE 2022 - Podcast

La puerta: El reajuste de Biden en Oriente Medio con la Dra. Carolyn Kissane de la NYU

Los copresentadores del podcast Doorstep, Tatiana Serafin y Nick Gvosdev, se unen a la Dra. Carolyn Kissane, de la Universidad de Nueva York, para hablar del "restablecimiento de Oriente Medio" de Biden y de su viaje a Arabia Saudí ...

Detalle de la portada del libro.

18 DE NOVIEMBRE DE 2021 - Podcast

Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai, con Saumya Roy

Los residuos, desde los alimentos hasta los plásticos, no sólo influyen en el cambio climático, sino que también afectan a la vida de las personas de formas que no siempre tenemos en cuenta. Saumya Roy trae...

5 DE NOVIEMBRE DE 2020 - Podcast

El umbral: El mundo espera al próximo presidente de Estados Unidos, con el profesor Tom Nichols

Mientras Estados Unidos espera que lleguen los recuentos del último puñado de estados indecisos y la campaña de Trump presenta demandas, los líderes de todo el mundo...