Personalities matter

At Cal, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand that I was being taught the Marxist version of history.  All I knew is that my love for history was predicated on the power of personalities, while the history they taught at Cal ignored individuals and focused on mass movements that were described in terms of a Marxist economic narrative.

Would England have had a schism from the Catholic Church without Henry VIII’s lust for Anne Boleyn and his belief that she would give him a son?  I doubt it.  Anne Boleyn’s personality played a part in it too.  Things would have turned out differently if she’d just yielded, as her sister had, and become his mistress.

And how about Elizabeth I’s refusal to marry?  Whether she just didn’t want to share power or had a deeper psychological fear of marriage (death by beheading or childbirth), the fact remains that her single status made for an interesting balance of power during her reign — and handed the monarchy over to the Stuart line.  The Stuart line, of course, led to a stubborn Charles I who refused to yield on his royal prerogatives, triggering a revolution — which could be said to have paved the way for our own Revolution.

My examples are from the era of absolute monarchs.  Modern times are no different, though.  Germany was not a totalitarian dictatorship when Hitler entered politics.  His personality and beliefs transformed it into one, and his paranoia and sheer evil made it one of the worst places on earth.

Speaking of paranoia and evil, would a tyrant other than Stalin have murdered 20 million of his own people?  Do mass movements and Marxist economics create killers (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot), or is there a horrible alchemy that brings such individuals to the fore?  I don’t know.  But I do know that different tyrants would have resulted in different tyrannies, with different targets, and different MOs.

I mention all of this because of the Petraeus affair.  Up until six weeks ago, most of the nation, Left and Right, viewed him as a military visionary and a strong, noble hand at the helm of the CIA.  Now, it turns out that his personal failings, his libido and his arrogance, may have contributed to a web of deceit, as well as systemic corruption and antagonism.  Had he been less egotistical, events before, during, and after the Benghazi affair might have played out quite differently.  That is, if he hadn’t had a Sword of Damocles hanging over his head — one he placed there himself through his unethical conduct — and if he’d had better relations with his own people, he might have had more flexibility in dealing with Benghazi, and more incentive to be honest.

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  • David Foster

    I agree that personalities of individual leaders matter, but also believe there is much value in social history. Sebastian Haffner, who grew up in Germany between the wars, put the importance of this field very well in his memoir:

    If you read ordinary history books…you get the impression that no more than a few dozen people have are involved…According to this view, the history of the present decade is a kind of chess game between Hitler, Mussolini, Chiang Kai-Shek, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Daladier, and a number of other men whose names are on everybody’s lips. We anonymous others seem at best to be the objects of history, pawns in the chess game…It may seem a paradox, but it is none the less a simple truth, to say that on the contrary, the decisive historical events take place among us, the anonymous masses. The most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large…Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals.
    This is not an airy abstract construction, but indisputably real and tangible. For instance, what was it that caused Germany to lose the Great War of 1918 and the Allies to win it? An advance in the leadership of Foch and Haig, or a decline in Ludendorff’s? Not at all. It was the fact that the ‘German soldier’, that is the majority of an anonymous mass of ten million individuals, was no longer willing, as he had been until then, to risk his life in any attack, or hold his position to the last man.
    Turning to his own subject–the question of why the Germans allowed Naziism to happen–Haffner continues:
    Indeed, behind these questions are some very peculiar, very revealing, mental processes and experiences, whose historical significance cannot yet be fully gauged These are what I want to write about. You cannot get to grips with them if you do not track them down to the place where they happen: the private lives, emotions, and thoughts of individual Germans…There, in private, the fight is taking place in Germany. You will search for it in vain in the political landscape, even with the most powerful telescope. Today the political struggle is expressed by the choice of what a person eats and drinks, whom he loves, what he does in his spare time, whose company he seeks, whether he smiles or frowns, what pictures he hangs on his walls. It is here that the battles of the next world war are being decided in advance. That may sound grotesque, but it is the truth.
    That is why I think that by telling my seemingly private, insignificant story I am writing real history, perhaps even the history of the future. It actually makes me happy that in my own person I do not have a particularly important, outstanding subject to describe. 

  • Tonestaple

    Clearly history is made by individuals, not masses as masses are simply made up of individuals.  It does take a Pol Pot or Stalin or Mao to kill so many millions, but they would not get their power without plenty of fertile soil in which to plant and grow.  The fault lies with each of us who hates his pet scapegoat because when you fall for that, you spread a little fertilizer for the next Big Bad to come along. 

    If Stalin came along in a free society where people don’t blame their troubles on innocent bystanders, the best he could manage would be con man or rapist or psycho killer.  But when he tunes in to the lust for blaming others that so many people carry around, he can use that to accumulate power and eventually ruin everyone’s lives.

  • Earl

    I’m not willing to let Petraeus off the hook. 
    If what we know at this point is correct, the man allowed Americans to die (and it could have been ALL of those in the buildings – only the heroism of the two former SEALs allowed their escape) because he was afraid his affair would be disclosed. 
    I’m hearing that there is a letter from a retired officer that classifies our military leadership as (I’m paraphrasing) either “political” or “warriors”, and Petraeus is solidly in the first group – it gives chapter and verse to support that characterization, and carries it all the way back to West Point.
    I’ll honor him for the good things he has done, including the Iraqi Surge….but he was serving a warrior President at that time.  When it came time to serve a political President, Petraeus did not “stand for the truth though the heavens (more importantly, his career) fall”….instead, he went along in order to save his own hide, even at the price of allowing Americans to die. 
    Of course, he forgot that the Bible tells us: “…ye have sinned against the Lord: and be sure your sin will find you out.”  Imagine trusting the “Chicago crowd” to keep his secrets, if it would serve their purposes to rat him out!!  What a maroon!!

  • Danny Lemieux

    Hubris forgets that it is shadowed by Nemesis.

    And that is why all great people need someone by their side, as in Roman times, constantly whispering, “remember, you are but a human”. 

  • Michael Adams

    There were Protestants in England before the “King’s great matter” ever entered his gray matter.  One of them was Anne Bolyn, who became a Protestant in France, where they were known as Huguenots. In Britain, a hundred or so years later, they were known as Puritans. That may have something to do with her refusal to be a mistress, not a wife. OTOH, if the Pope had done his job, and not sided with his cousin the Emperor, Henry would have gotten his annulment and stayed linked to the Catholic Church, and continued to persecute Protestants. However, the rise of Protestantism runs pretty close to the rise of the bourgeoisie. That would be a historical tide, and not one man’s mania.  Discuss?

  • Caedmon

    The Pope had little choice but to go along with the Emperor, because the Emperor’s army was in Rome at the time. The Emperor was against annulment because Katharine of Aragon was his aunt. So there’s an example of personality and personal loyalties driving history. 
    Perhaps the most decisive moment of the English Reformation (so-called) was the seizure and distribution  of monastic lands. English King’s had broken with Rome before. Henry intended to create a new class of landed gentry which would be loyal to the Crown because it owed its wealth to it. In Parliament the newly enriched Commons would keep the Lords in check, and the Tudor Revolution which established the King as Monarch rather than chief baron  was cemented into place. 
    The unintended consequence was that a century later the gentry felt their wealth was theirs by established right and asserted themselves in the Commons against the Crown. So there’s history driven by the economic interests of a class, but this is not necessarily a Marxist interpretation – it was not one domino tumbling into the next in an inevitable chain.  

  • Ymarsakar

    The only new things about Petraeus I have heard from Leftist propaganda sources only. Everybody else is just mirroring what everyone else has heard from the Left. I don’t make key judgments based upon Leftist propaganda, one way or another. Then again, given the recent state of affairs in the US, that might be a very special case just for me alone.