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Pivotal moments

Books | April 2016

Ferdinand Mount reviews Margaret MacMillan's History's People: Personalities and the Past

History's People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan

Profile £14.99

If only Al Gore had scooped a few more of those hanging chads in Florida or had hired better lawyers, he would have become President instead of George W Bush, and the United States would not have invaded Iraq again. If the Emperor Frederick III had not died in his fifties after ruling for only 99 days, he would have guided Germany onto a more liberal, peaceable path and there would have been no First World War. If Woodrow Wilson had not suffered a stroke before the crucial Senate vote on the League of Nations, America would have joined the League and there would have been no Second World War.

These are all plausible what-ifs. They show, as Margaret MacMillan argues, that ‘counterfactuals are useful tools of history because they help us to understand how consequences can flow from a single action or decision’, and they ‘help to remind us that contingency and accidents matter in history’. In this engaging series of talks delivered to a radio audience in her native Canada, MacMillan, a fine historian of the First World War, now Warden of St Antony’s, Oxford, throws out an alluring spray of anecdote and analogy as she explores that old conundrum: which is decisive, the individual or the force of history, the crucial moment or the longue durée?

Sometimes she convinces, sometimes not. Though it’s often given as the supreme instance of a lucky shot changing history, the young anarchists who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand were controlled by the Serbian secret service. The reality is that the Serbs were desperate for war with Austria and would have got it sooner or later. Nor am I persuaded that, as MacMillan claims, Helmut Kohl is to be praised for seeing ‘a brief window at the end of the Cold War in which he could reunite the two Germanys’. One way or another, the Germans were going to be reunited as soon the Russian hegemony in Central Europe collapsed. And was Nixon’s visit to China really such an indispensable stroke of genius? Sooner or later, two such great nations were going to have to do business.

MacMillan doesn’t mention Pascal’s classic counterfactual: ‘If the nose of Cleopatra had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed.’ I’m not even sure about that one. Plutarch tells us that, though Cleopatra had a pretty wit and a sweet voice, ‘her beauty, as we are told, was in itself nothing incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her’. What she did undoubtedly possess was the inner beauty of being queen of Egypt, and thus the key for first Julius Caesar and then Antony to control the southern empire. Politics before profile, I fancy.

What MacMillan does very well is to describe those great political operators who deploy the patience and ingenuity to nudge history along. Mackenzie King was an unprepossessing fellow, with bad breath and a slimy manner. Yet he governed Canada for 22 years with exquisite tact and an unfailing sense of what Canadians would tolerate, keeping always an ear out for the sensibilities of French Canadians, a poorer and more traditional society full of exploitable resentment.

Roosevelt is MacMillan’s real hero. Elected for a third time on a platform of neutrality – ‘your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars’ – he gently manoeuvred American public opinion into a readiness for conflict. But even then, could he have dragged them the last yard if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor? By contrast, MacMillan places Woodrow Wilson in a rum bunch of leaders who she claims were brought down by their hubris, along with Thatcher, Hitler and Stalin. But surely Wilson brought off much the same trick as FDR, elected on a platform of neutrality and then nudging public opinion towards war. As for Stalin, was he brought down at all? When he died in power and in his bed, he left the USSR a mighty power which intellectuals everywhere expected to dominate the world for the foreseeable future.

MacMillan pays cheerful tribute to the role of low cunning in successful political leadership. She quotes FDR saying unashamedly: ‘I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.’ But low cunning is only as effective as the cause it is deployed in. As she herself records, another of her Canadians, that relentlessly duplicitous goblin, Lord Beaverbrook, ultimately failed in all his crusades – Empire Free Trade, preventing the Second World War, keeping Britain out of the Common Market.

The best bits in these charming and provocative discourses come at the end, when MacMillan celebrates the role of curiosity, in particular the curiosity of women such as Gertrude Bell in Arabia, Fanny Parkes in India and Edith Durham in Albania, who, reckless of their own safety, tell us what life is actually like on the other side of the mountains. To me, the most fascinating because least known are the pioneers of the Canadian outback, Samuel de Champlain and Elizabeth Simcoe. If you want to know why Canada turned out so different from her raucous neighbour to the south, there is no better place to start than in their letters and journals. These witnesses are the crucial scouts of history.


This story was from April 2016 issue. Subscribe Now