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New Books in History
What is the role of personality in shaping history? Shortly before the beginning of the First World War, the German sociologist Max Weber puzzled over this question. He was sure that there was a kind of authority that drew strength from character itself. He called this authority "charismatic," a type of legitimate political power that rested "on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him." The charismatic leader is not like us. In fact, he is not like anyone. He is sui generis, a mysterious force of nature, a sort of political demiurge.
According to Jonathan Steinberg, Weber may well have had Otto von Bismarck in mind when he defined charismatic authority. In his wonderful Bismarck: A Life (Oxford UP, 2011), Steinberg argues that Bismarck's successes (and some of his failures) can be largely attributed to the awesome force of his personality. Not "social structures." Not "historical patterns." Not "underlying forces." But charisma pure and simple. Time and again Steinberg finds those around Bismarck attesting to the fact that he just wasn't like everyone else. He was smarter, wittier, stronger, more willful, more cunning, more temperamental, and in most ways larger than life. And this was the nearly uniform (though not always positive) assessment of the some of the most impressive figures of his day. It's a compelling case.
And it provokes a question about German political culture, for Bismarck was not the first or the last "genius" to rule some or all of the Reich. Fredrick the Great preceded him, and Hitler followed. What are we to make of that? I'll leave it to you to decide.
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