Among the experts there’s a perennial debate – sometimes called the hero in history debate – about whether the times make the leader or the leader the times. In general, it’s agreed it’s an amalgam, so that, for example, while Barack Obama bears some responsibility for the state of the nation, he is not solely to be credited with what goes right or solely to be faulted for what goes wrong.

To most rules, however, there are exceptions, including this one. There are cases in which the passage of time confirms that a single individual changed the course of history. This is not to exempt even in these cases the importance of other actors, or to minimize the significance of context. But it is to say that leaders can be and sometimes are the dominant explicators.

In a recent essay in the New York Review (11/6/14) titled “If Stalin Had Died…,” Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin makes the case for Stalin. He argues persuasively that had Stalin died decades earlier (death came in 1953) the history of the Soviet Union would have been dramatically different. It would have been dramatically less deadly.

When Americans think of leaders who are villains they tend to think first of Adolph Hitler, not of his World War II contemporary, Joseph Stalin. But years before Hitler even came to power (1933), Stalin was already culpable in the deaths and deprivations of millions. Kotkin: “Countrywide, nearly 40 million people would suffer severe hunger or starvation and between five and seven million people would die in the horrible famine, whose existence the regime denied.”

The numbers are not new. What is new – or, more accurately, freshly argued – is the vigor of Kotkin’s argument that had it not been for Stalin, many of these deaths not only could have been avoided, they would have been avoided. Other countries – including fascist ones such as Italy – modernized differently. Fast-paced industrialization did not require that people be brutalized.

Stalin though was different, as fiercely determined and ferocious as ultimately impactful. Kotkin: “If Stalin had died, the likelihood of coerced wholesale collectivization… would have been near zero…. Stalin made history, rearranging the entire socioeconomic landscape of one sixth of the earth. Right through mass rebellion, mass starvation, cannibalism, the destruction of the country’s livestock, and the unprecedented political destabilization, Stalin did not flinch.”

Does this settle the “hero in history” debate? No. The argument about when exactly individuals matter more than does anything or anyone else will continue. But Kotkin makes a strong case: some of the time some leaders are all-powerful.


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