30. July 2021

“Who makes history?” “Who makes history?” The return of the person-centered approach

The return of the person-centered approach

What influence do individual personalities have on political decisions and the course of history? This question lies at the heart of a new publication entitled Der Faktor Persönlichkeit in der internationalen Politik (“The personality factor in international politics”). It is edited by Dr. Hendrik W. Ohnesorge, a research associate at the Chair in International Relations and Managing Director of the Center for Global Studies (CGS), and Professor Dr. Xuewu Gu, current holder of the chair and Director of the CGS. Bernd Frye talked to Hendrik W. Ohnesorge. An article from forsch 2021/01.

Ohnesorge - Dr. Hendrik W. Ohnesorge of the Center for Global Studies (CGS) © Barbara Frommann
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In advertising, in journalism and even in academic communication – everyone at the moment seems to be championing storytelling, a narrative style that is often highly personalized. And, besides, everyone loves a hero. ZDF History has been showing a series whose German title translates as “The superheroes of history: from Odysseus to Mandela.” Seen from that perspective, is your new publication series part of a trend?

I’ve actually watched the program myself, or at least some of the episodes. I find this approach being taken by the media very interesting. And, to a certain extent, you’re right that the publication series can be seen as part of such a trend. However, it sets out to be much more than that. Instead of recounting the tales of heroes and heroines as a piece of popular science, it aims to support and underpin the whole thing, if you like, in an academic sense. In other words, we’re not trying to jump on board a moving train, even one that’s going quite fast at the moment. Rather, we’re attempting to steer it too.

In your edited collection, you write that the person-centered approach generates a lot of vibrancy because it focuses on the individual performing the actions. How does academia take a person-centered view of its subject matter, and what does it hope to spot by doing so that it might otherwise miss?

The person-centered approach in political science and contemporary history is just one of several. Of course, there are other approaches too, which tend to look more at structures, maybe also at systems or processes. The person-centered approach – let me make this clear from the start – does not claim to hold all the answers. Yet it does have certain advantages. One of these is undoubtedly its vivacity or vitality, which naturally goes hand in hand with its focus on human beings made of flesh and blood. Some of these are dramas that could have come from the pen of Shakespeare, which we are then able to follow.

Your approach is underpinned by certain basic assumptions. What are they?

Firstly, there’s the fundamental ontological belief that individuals influence world history and world politics. This is the basic assumption that says it matters who holds a specific office at a specific time. If we share these basic assumptions, we can quickly arrive at a second assumption and say: the individual is responsible for choosing from available options, and their choice is determined by their personality, their character, their socialization and their own political views. These are the two key assumptions, which can then be broken down into more nuanced facets.

To demonstrate the relevance of the person-centered approach, you refer, as it were, to the idea of turning a question on its head, to the counterfactual thought experiment that asks: What if? What would have happened if a person had not (or indeed had) been there at the time?

That’s a very interesting and also contentious tool in the armory of historians and political scientists, this question: What if? There’s a big risk of this drifting off into pseudoscientific musings or even science fiction, of becoming detached from historical facts and evidence. Sometimes, however, you don’t need much imagination to picture a certain person not being in office at all at a certain time, for instance.

Could you give an example?

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, it would have been perfectly conceivable for the US president to not have been John F. Kennedy. His predecessor, Eisenhower, could have had another term if the maximum number hadn’t been limited to two only a few years previously in an amendment to the constitution. Alternatively, his successor, Johnson, could have landed the job earlier, either because he had already been elected – Kennedy had been a highly controversial choice – or if Kennedy had been assassinated before the crisis rather than in November 1963.

And a different person might well have acted differently?

There’s some very good evidence to suggest that Eisenhower, for instance, would have made different decisions. Kennedy talked to him during the crisis, they spoke on the phone. And Eisenhower said: “I don’t follow what you’re saying to me, Mr. President, I’d do it differently. The Soviets tend to do what they want. Don’t be afraid of any retaliatory action against Berlin.” In other words, here we have some good and fairly reliable proof that the individual is important, that someone else who could have found themselves in this position would have made different decisions. And a more aggressive stance could have had fatal consequences, particularly in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, even going as far as nuclear war between the superpowers.

You say in your work that the person-centered approach has languished “in the shadows” for a long time. So what methods had put it there in the first place and why?

The person-centered approach enjoys a very long tradition. In fact, even the very study of history has its roots in a person-centered approach and must be understood from the perspective of this approach. By the time of the world wars at the latest, particularly the Second World War, however, such person-centered, one might even say person-fixated, explanation models had receded into the background. They were superseded by more structural or socio-historical approaches that seemed to do away with the individual. It’s only a short step from a focus on the individual to an “overheated hero cult,” as the Bonn political scientist Hans-Peter Schwarz once put it. In other words, people became highly critical of such leader figures, naturally not least because of their experience of dictatorships, particularly the Fascist ones in Italy and Germany.

One of your key metaphors is the idea of “boundaries on the playing field.”Within these boundaries, the personalities performing the actions can select from various available options. What do you mean by that?

It’s kind of like our attempt to find a synthesis between, on the one hand, everything being explained by actors and individuals and, on the other hand, everything being determined by structures. Rather than adopting one of these two extreme positions, we’d say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But the individual shouldn’t be ignored. Specifically, sticking with the metaphor for the moment, the individual can see themselves as a player on the field or on the international political stage, and the underlying conditions, which we can call the boundaries of this playing field, are important. They can open up possibilities for individual decision-makers to exert an influence. The US political scientist Fred Greenstein came up with this nice analogy taken from the game of pool. How much influence an individual can exert will depend on how the balls lie and how good a player they are. It is down to the skills of the individual player to read the situation and then pot the balls. Not every player is capable of playing the right shot from every position, they may even not spot it in the first place.

Your edited collection focuses on recent and contemporary history and on two individuals in particular, Gorbachev and Genscher. In fact, they’re at the center of many of the articles, whether they’re from the fields of journalism, politics or academia. What makes the pair so relevant to your research?

That’s a really interesting observation. Of course, we didn’t make it a requirement, it just happened – to put it in quotation marks – the authors did it by themselves. Gorbachev and Genscher – and now we’re returning to the assumptions we just spoke about and to the pool analogy – were active at a time in which the political system was very open to the idea of change. In Greek it’s called kairos, a timely moment. The balls lay favorably toward the end of the 1980s. And it was the great achievement of Gorbachev and of Genscher as well to spot how propitious a moment it was. With their personality, with their background, which the authors who write about the pair describe so nicely, they exerted an influence on the events of the late 80s and early 90s. This turning point of 1989/90 was undoubtedly one of the huge watershed moments of the last century.

The authors contributing to your edited collection include journalists like Ulrich Wickert and politicians like Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (FDP) and Rolf Mützenich (SPD). Mützenich also brings Donald Trump into play and seems highly confident that German unification would not have come about had Trump been in power back then. How plausible is this idea?

This is another counterfactual question, in this case about how a politician who we know from our lives today would have acted in the past. What was crucial back then was the fact that Kohl and Bush were able to build up a very longstanding, close relationship. And that leads us onto discussing another dimension of the person-centered approach, specifically the question: What are relationships between individuals like, how are individuals compatible? Then there’s values such as reliability and credibility as well. These were all really important factors that led to reunification actually happening very quickly, something that – and I’d agree with Mützenich here – I couldn’t see playing out in that way under Trump.

You see the collected edition and the publication series as part of a long tradition of Bonn-based academia and research in the fields of politics and contemporary history. What does this tradition consist of and how are you continuing it?

This tradition is also associated with the name of the “Bonn School.” Many of its prominent members accorded the personality factor a major role, particularly Professor Hans-Peter Schwarz. From 1987 to 1999, Hans-Peter Schwarz held the chair now held by Professor Xuewu Gu, my fellow editor on the series. As his disciples, we want to make it clear that this fertile tradition is being continued, albeit under changed conditions. And Schwarz, perhaps more so than anyone else, is someone who has always hovered close to the world of biography for decades, who has actually written a great many biographies, very influential ones, on Konrad Adenauer, on Helmut Kohl, but who’s always done so in connection with the question of the political impact. This Bonn tradition is worth continuing and also developing further. After all, this is the approach we’re taking with our publication series: we want to inject it with new life, with new interdisciplinary ideas, including modern, innovative research methods, and thus sustain the explanatory power of this approach.


Ohnesorge Book
Ohnesorge Book - Hendrik W. Ohnesorge, Xuewu Gu (Hrsg.): Der Faktor Persönlichkeit in der internationalen Politik: Perspektiven aus Wissenschaft, Politik und Journalismus; Springer VS, 316 S., Softcover 37,99 Euro, eBook 29,99 Euro, Link: https://www.springer.com/de/book/9783658323479 © Springer

Hendrik W. Ohnesorge, Xuewu Gu (Hrsg.): Der Faktor Persönlichkeit in der internationalen Politik: Perspektiven aus Wissenschaft, Politik und Journalismus; Springer VS, 316 S., Softcover 37,99 Euro, eBook 29,99 Euro, Link: https://www.springer.com/de/book/9783658323479

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