History’s People: Personalities and the Past, by Margaret MacMillan

A. W. Purdue on a perceptive look at those who shaped, and were shaped by, their times

April 7, 2016
Man speaking to large crowd of people

Margaret MacMillan, a distinguished historian of international relations and author of definitive studies of the outbreak of the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference, is in relaxed mode here as she considers some inhabitants of “the rambling messy and eccentric house” of history. Fittingly, the book is itself something of a ramble, led by an expert, idiosyncratic and fascinating guide.

Her particular house of history is full of the great statesmen, the movers, heroes and villains who figured in her major works, and she poses the perennial question of how much great leaders, their personalities and characters, matter. Her brief introduction is a splendid compression of the essential arguments in the debate between those who see the impact of individuals and their decisions as important and those who discount their significance and see history as moved by ineluctable social, technological and economic forces. Sensibly, MacMillan takes the middle road, but she leaves little doubt that to her, leaders, their lives, beliefs and decisions mattered. This comes as no surprise, as one of the hallmarks of her work has been the way she sees the personalities of the players as swept by the currents of history, but often decisively altering their direction.

An essential quality for leadership is the ability to persuade followers, masses or electorates, but to be successful a leader must make the right decisions. Thus the title of the chapter “Persuasion and the art of leadership”, with those that follow titled “Hubris” and “Daring”. These latter terms, however, could be seen as two sides of the same coin. A successful venture tends to be seen as daring, while those that fail are often attributed to headstrong overconfidence – and it may well be that, as Enoch Powell remarked, all political careers end in failure. Whether MacMillan was wise to group Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Hitler and Stalin as examples of hubris is debatable. Steaming ahead with the poll tax was a mistake, but not in the same league as launching Barbarossa, and if Stalin went from extreme to extreme in his search for power, he did, unlike Hitler, manage to die in his bed, still in power, even if he may have been helped on his way.

The far from charismatic William Lyon MacKenzie King, Canada’s longest serving prime minister, was clearly gripped by neither hubris nor daring, for his first inclination when faced with the need for a decision was to put it off. He was, the Canadian author admits, boring but successful: he maintained loyal links with Britain along with reasonable relations with a powerful, sometimes predatory neighbour, the US; held together a country threatened by Quebec separatism; and led Canada throughout the Second World War. His view that the art of government was “to reconcile, rather than exaggerate differences” had much to do with what MacMillan terms Canada’s “success story”.

Leaders are not the only historical figures discussed in this entertaining and perceptive book, but whether MacMillan is writing on statesmen, explorers, British women in the Empire or a Mogul emperor, the emphasis is on the relationship between biography and history. The result is a conversation not just with history’s people, but with history.

A. W. Purdue is visiting professor in history, Northumbria University.

History’s People: Personalities and the Past
By Margaret MacMillan
Profile Books, 288pp, £14.99 and £10.99
ISBN 9781781255124 and 9781782831891 (e-book)
Published 18 February 2016

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