Makers of modern history

Leadership is all the fashion. There are academic institutes devoted to research and teaching it. How to be a leader, whether in politics, business, bureaucracy or welfare, can be learned and applied. There are no longer natural leaders, but leaders with diplomas. Job application forms will commonly ask for evidence of leadership qualities. Failure in leadership reflects a lack of adequate training, not defects of personality. Preparing the leaders of tomorrow is regarded as a viable ambition and a social necessity.

A swift glance at the two books under review will make it clear that leaders are born, not made. They will certainly be affected by the circumstances and environment they confront, but nobody trained a Hitler or a Mao Zedong. They trained themselves. Indeed, what is clear about all the leaders Henry Kissinger and Ian Kershaw have chosen that most rose to high office through the school of hard knocks, from modest origins to a top job. For this task, Kissinger argues, leaders require courage and character to navigate successfully between the burden of the past to the challenge of the future. Not surprisingly in his case, he also thinks leaders need an effective entourage of advisers. Their leadership can be magnified or diminished “by the qualities of those around them”. As security and strategy adviser to presidents and presidential candidates over many years, this is something he has experienced at first hand.

Both authors have chosen personalities whom they regard as the makers and shakers of the twentieth century, whose impact had a real historical significance on world strategy, in Kissinger’s case, or on the history of twentieth-century Europe, in Kershaw’s. To avoid awkward issues about how to accommodate the nastier leaders in a moral account of the virtues of strong leadership, Kissinger has confined his discussion to six leaders from the second half of the twentieth century, coping in many cases with the fallout from the long thirty years’ war that ended, more or less, in 1945. Adenauer, de Gaulle, Nixon, Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Thatcher comprise his cast. They all have in common, in his view, success in having the moral courage to rescue their country from a complex crisis and set it on a new course. They were also all leaders that Kissinger, now ninety-nine years old, met personally in formal and informal settings. That insight gives him the edge on conventional historians. What brings these brief biographies to life is his recollection of what they were like, or at least how they seemed to him. This makes Leadership in some ways a historical document in its own right, to be used profitably, but useful nonetheless.

Talking with Konrad Adenauer late in the German chancellor’s life, Kissinger found himself the messenger, trying to convince Adenauer that the United States really would honor its commitment to protect Europe, a message difficult to convey with real conviction. His first conversation with Charles de Gaulle, a towering and melancholy figure, began with a brusque question from the President: “Why don’t you leave Vietnam?” When Kissinger asked him how France would stop Germany ever becoming the greater power in Europe, he replied “par la guerre”, a disingenuous answer that Kissinger confesses he found difficult to grasp. As Richard Nixon’s fixer, he met Anwar Sadat in 1973, at the height of the American effort to broker some kind of settlement in the Middle East. His work for Nixon as his national security adviser perhaps explains why the pen portrait of the president is the longest in the book. Kissinger found him to be a calm, thoughtful politician, at once realistic and creative, a successful geostrategist who faced a daunting range of issues and rose to the occasion to help remodel the geopolitical order. It need hardly be said that this view is at odds with the popular view of Nixon, then as now, as “tricky Dicky”. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kissinger does not dwell on the bombing of Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam, which not only failed to prevent the later triumph of the North, but created the conditions that made possible the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Estimates suggest 250,000 deaths from the bombing campaign.

The two figures Kissinger regards with especial warmth are Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom, in his view, achieved a remarkable turnaround in their country’s fortunes by force of character and strategic imagination. Lee has a remarkable biography, entirely identified with the small city-state of Singapore, where he was nearly murdered by the Japanese when they captured the city in 1942, then became an ambitious local politician as the British withdrew and finally, in 1965, when the city was separated from the new state of Malaysia, leader of the tiny state. Kissinger knew Lee as a friend for forty years and observed the phenomenal transformation of a small island state with a complicated ethnic composition, a declining economy and no real allies into the commercial powerhouse of Southeast Asia. The practice of “democracy” was limited, though here too Kissinger passes no judgments, perhaps because to him leadership means making choices that are not always conventionally moral. Thatcher, like Lee, Kissinger recalls with real sympathy, from the breakfast at Claridge’s where they first met and she explained her desire to roll back the state, to the final years, when she was forced into an unhappy retirement. Her characteristics of leadership, he recalls, were “indomitable willpower”, which everyone will recognize, and “ample reserves of charm”, which most will not.

By comparison, Kershaw’s portraits are less vivid. His choice of subjects (only Hitler was a real destroyer) reflects, like Kissinger, personalities who in his view made a real historical difference. There are few surprises here: Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Churchill, Gorbachev; two who overlap with Kissinger, Adenauer and Thatcher; and two whose claim to be included is surely open to debate, Tito and Helmut Kohl. Throughout these brief and conventional portraits there runs a constant tension between Kershaw’s view that prevailing circumstances and historical conditions dictate how his personalities operated, and his simultaneous assertion that they rose above these constraints to impose their own unique mark on the past. No one would dispute that these are names familiar to any history of the twentieth century, but to extract them from the wider history and emphasize their role as “makers of history” returns in many ways to the old-fashioned history of Great Men (and the occasional Great Woman). Although Kershaw protests in his introduction that this is far from his intention, the net result for anyone reading these potted biographies is to see history once again via the big figures who stride it.

He justifies this approach by asking rhetorically what would have happened if Great Person X had not been there. This is to invite an ahistorical response. His argument that if Churchill had lost the alleged debate with Lord Halifax in late May 1940 on whether to continue the war or seek a peace, Britain would have been like occupying France, Oswald Mosley would have become prime minister and the British might have sent a division off to fight alongside the Germans in Operation Barbarossa is, with due respect, nonsense. Britain was not defeated and had the world’s largest navy, a powerful air force, the support and resources of a vast empire. Moreover, Halifax was only interested in an agreement that respected Britain’s interests, which Hitler would never have offered; had he temporarily won the debate (which is most unlikely), that would not have been the end of it. There was wide popular support for continuing the war, while the Germans in summer 1940 had no way to impose their military will as they could in France, and so on. This “what if?” An argument rests, perhaps, on the desire to show in this case above all how vital Churchill was. Kershaw sees his highest achievement as being the defender of liberty and democracy, but the accolade might have looked odd to the 60,000 Indians languishing in jail during the war, hoping for a share of both.

These issues highlight how, in both books, the focus on the significant political personality raises awkward questions about the relationship between individual and circumstances. Most of Kissinger’s leaders ended up losing touch, pushed from office or, in Sadat’s case, assassinated. Ian Kershaw’s cast were, he insists, in the right place at the right time, but, apart from Hitler, can we be certain that the outcome would have been radically different without them? The answer is at most a keen yes. Henry Kissinger concludes that our current (presumably western) world is “unmoored”, lacking a strategic and moral vision. What it needs, he claims, are new leaders like the ones he analyzes. Not, presumably, the Trumps and Johnsons, but not more Putins either.

Richard Overy‘s most recent book is Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War, 1931-1945published last year

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