‘What brings strong personalities to power?’ asks the historian Ian Kershaw. ‘And what promotes or limits their use of that power?’ Those two questions are at the centre of this book, a study of some of the 20th century’s most important leaders. The result is partly an analysis of character, but also an attempt to gauge how much history’s main players directed world events, and how much events directed them.
Kershaw begins with Lenin, whose rise was punctuated by huge strokes of luck. For one thing, his mother was willing to support him financially for his entire life. She must have had a very forgiving nature as, in Kershaw’s arrow-sharp description, Lenin was an exceptionally tedious, unpleasant man. He was ‘punctiliously insistent on pedantic forms of order. Even disturbing his neatly arrayed pencils could provoke an outburst of temper.’
When revolution broke out, Lenin was in Switzerland and little more than a bystander. The great moment of luck came when, remarkably, the Germans helped him to return to Russia, along with 30 of his associates. ‘To be on the spot,’ says Kershaw, ‘depended, by a bizarre irony, on the German imperialists he so much detested.’
As for Mussolini, ‘intensely serious-minded, with little sense of humour’, he too was lucky to get into power. The critical moment came when the head of the army asked Victor Emmanuel III to sign an order to round up Mussolini’s fascist thugs. The king agreed, but then changed his mind. The fascists entered Rome; and Mussolini, arriving at the palace in a bowler hat, was made prime minister. The army could easily have destroyed Mussolini, but royal equivocation saved him.
‘When Hitler began to rise, Mussolini assumed that he, as the original fascist, would be the “senior dictator”.’