In This Review
Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe

Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe

By Ian Kershaw

Penguin Press, 2022, 512 pp.

In this book, a veteran biographical historian revisits a question that has attracted the attention of famous thinkers as varied as Thomas Carlyle, Leo Tolstoy, and Karl Marx: What role do prominent individuals play in world history? The book’s core lies in 11 breezy vignettes about dead white male European politicians (plus Margaret Thatcher). Experts may object to the thinness of the chapter-length pocket histories, each of which draws on a handful of well-known secondary sources, yet generalist readers may find them entertaining. More troubling is the ambivalence of Kershaw’s conclusions: Adolf Hitler and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev seem to have had more of an individual impact than the others, yet he does not really account for their significance. Nor does he seem curious about more puzzling findings, for example, that even the most successful leaders fail as often as they succeed. In the end, his explicit conclusions—crises, concentrated power, and broad popular support create leadership opportunities, which require tenacity and skill to exploit—still beg the question with which he began.