Ian Kershaw, Hitler’s biographer: ‘There are differences in the nature of terror’
The British historian, known for his monumental biographies of the Nazi dictator, has written a new book about leaders who changed history
Ian Kershaw is one of the greatest European historians. He is best known for his biography of Adolf Hitler – considered the canonical work on the Nazi dictator – but he is also the author of a two-volume history of Europe: Descent into Hell and Rise and Crisis, documenting the outbreak of World War I until 2017.
Kershaw’s latest book – Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe (2022) – will be released later this year. It delves into the lives of 12 authoritarian and democratic leaders who marked the history of the continent, including Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Mikhail Gorbachev, Francisco Franco, Stalin and Benito Mussolini. In this work, Kershaw tries to answer the complicated question of whether these individuals indeed changed history, or if the circumstances surrounding them were essential to their rise and influence.
The conversation between EL PAÍS and the 79-year-old British historian took place in Madrid, shortly before far-right leader Giorgia Meloni triumphed in the Italian general elections.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question. It’s difficult to draw parallels with the past, but in your latest book – when you describe the chaos in which fascism was born – you speak of instability, inflation and violence. We’ve recently seen the storming of the US Capitol… and now the rise of a neo-fascist leader in Italy. Are you worried? Are we living in a new version of the 1920s?
Answer. I’m concerned, but I’m reassured that the differences between now and the 1920s are very considerable. Now, you have to remember that all fascists are populists, but not all populists are fascists. What we have now are populist movements… such as the one which may succeed in bringing Meloni to power in Italy this coming weekend. But that will be within a context of democratic structures, which are now much more firmly established. The violence that you have now is minuscule compared to the 1920s and 30s.
Q. And does that also apply to the US?
A. The scenario there is very worrying, I agree. But even the assault on the Capitol was an extreme episode… that kind of violence is not widespread. Therefore, I’m confident that even in the US, the constitutional structures will be able to hold, as they did under the Trump administration. And in Europe, I’m also confident that the democracies will withstand the challenges they face, not only in Italy, but also in Hungary and Poland.
Q. Is your new book a reflection on whether individuals transform history, or the other way around?
A. I’d say it’s both. I ask: do they make history? Are they made by history? And obviously, in each case, these individuals were made by history, by particular circumstances, which they didn’t control… but then they were able to influence the course of history to a degree, through their own actions.
Q. A very interesting character in your book is Helmut Kohl – the chancellor of Germany from 1982 until 1998.
A. Kohl played an essential role in German unification and in what would later become the European Union. He came to power in a very conventional way… during his early years, he wasn’t a particularly distinguished chancellor. If he had been replaced in 1988 – before the fall of the Berlin Wall – no one would remember him. He’s a good example of politicians who are the products of certain circumstances.
Q. A characteristic shared by all the figures analyzed in your book is that they seem quite unbearable! Is this the case with all famous politicians?
A. They’re not likeable... but that’s part of being a major political figure. You wouldn’t want to spend a holiday with any of them. Some of them are obviously repulsive as individuals… but in certain circumstances, we can find repulsive characteristics very attractive.
Q. Given what has happened in Russia with Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine, do you think that Gorbachev’s reforms were a failure?
A. What Gorbachev’s legacy brought was the destruction of his own country [the Soviet Union], as well as a dramatic restructuring of Europe as a whole. His legacy was also the chaos of the Yeltsin years [1991-99] that produced Putin’s authoritarianism.
Q. Only one woman appears in your book: Margaret Thatcher. You explain that this reflects the dominance of the patriarchy in 20th-century politics. Do you think things have changed in the 21st century?
A. Yes. There are now women in power in many countries… and soon Italy will have its first female prime minister. Also, in the UK, we have another woman PM. Women have entered politics in a resounding way. In the vast majority of democratic parliaments, there is broad female representation. This was not at all the case in the Thatcher era.
Q. Are there other commonalities between 20th-century dictators beyond their appetite for violence and mass murder?
A. They were all very driven individuals. It’s not a normal characteristic. I could never be a political leader: I don’t have any particular driving force to change history. These people saw themselves often as men of destiny… they thought they were going to change the history of their countries. They were all narcissistic – they had a lust for power, which isn’t characteristic of most normal human beings, I would say.
Q. Is ego a characteristic among politicians who marked history?
A. Without a doubt. Churchill was a tremendously self-centered person. And Eisenhower. And Charles de Gaulle, who I define as a democrat, although he was a leader with a very authoritarian style. I believe that ego is a characteristic shared by all the politicians I describe.
Q. You argue that Hitler – of whom you have written a biography that is now a classic – is the 20th century leader who caused the most pain and disaster.
A. I don’t like to compare the numbers of victims… Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, all of their regimes had enormous human cost. I singled Hitler out in the sense that Germany attempted to conquer much of Europe and inflicted horrific occupational policies… Stalin’s terror was largely directed at his own country. There are differences in the nature of terror.
Q. Out of all the leaders who are currently in power – and therefore do not appear in your book – who do you think can change history?
A. Putin is obviously changing the history of Europe with the war in Ukraine. Trump can have a major impact too, although I think we still have to wait and see. But in the case of Putin we can say that he has changed the policies of the EU and Ukraine. What will be the impact of Trump? Or the rivalry between China and the US? We still can’t see the end of the story.
Q. Your book ends with Gorbachev, at a time when it seemed that liberal democracy was going to triumph in the world. How do you see the present now?
A. We’re seeing the negative impacts of globalization and the neoliberal polices that were widely introduced in the 1990s… the widening divide of wealth within nearly every country. And that unequal division of wealth is creating unrest, which is leading to populist movements that are challenging the elites. You see countries like India, with enormous poverty, governed by people like Modi… how do you rule a country like that, which is moving into the modern era without any [equitable] division of wealth? We’ve had a long-term economic crisis that began in 2008… the migration crisis of 2015. Brexit, Covid, Ukraine. We’re going to have to deal with all of this.
Q. What characteristics do you think a good leader should have? How would you define leadership?
A. If we’re talking about a liberal democracy, a good leader has to be able to work in a team, not in an authoritarian way. And carry out policies that address issues that affect a very important part of the population, not just the elites. For me, a good leader is someone who improves the distribution of wealth and who knows how to work for the community… who seeks to transform society, rather than trying to introduce drastic changes in a short period of time. For me, a good leader is someone who cares about the majority of the population and who does not carry out policies that seek to divide rather than unite.