Margaret MacMillan, one of Canada’s best-known historians, returned to Toronto this week to promote her new book The War That Ended Peace. A Toronto native and University of Toronto graduate, MacMillan was provost of Trinity College and has taught at both U of T and Ryerson. Now warden of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, MacMillan is also a public intellectual and award-winning author.
Her latest book, which addresses the causes of the First World War, is the historical prequel to her famous book on the conclusion of that war, Paris 1919. While 600 pages on international relations may not be your idea of fun, The War That Ended Peace is shockingly readable and contains broadly interesting themes. The Varsity caught up with MacMillan at Trinity College to talk about that troubled, pivotal, and ultimately calamitous moment in world history, and the lessons it can offer about the world today and the role of history.
The Varsity: So, the book is 600 pages. I think for most undergraduates, even reading a 600 page book is pretty daunting. Where do you start when writing a book of this length and complexity?
Margaret MacMillan: I never start thinking I’m going to write a 600-page book. I start trying to get an idea of what I want to say. Then, what I usually find is that you have to go back a bit to explain it, and then you have to go back a bit more. So what’s very difficult is to stop myself from going all the way back. I decided for various reasons that I had to start in the 1890s… I couldn’t understand, and I thought others couldn’t understand, why Europe went down particular paths.
TV: You draw parallels between that period, 1890–1914, and President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, which you’ve also written about. Then you draw further parallels to the present day. What do you think those major parallels are?
MM: I think part of the reason I draw parallels is that it helps people to think about the past if they can relate it to what’s happening in the present. But I also find the parallels interesting. I think there is a real parallel between the world of the pre-1914 period and the world today.
I mean, we’re living in a period where you have one power that has been dominant that is no longer as dominant as it was: i.e., the British Empire before the First World War and the United States now. So it’s a period of transition. You have other powers that are beginning to develop, and develop military power. For example, before the First World War it was Germany or the United States and today it’s China, Brazil, or India.
We also have social unrest, we have international ideologies — both of which you also had before the First World War. I obviously don’t think the times are exactly the same, but I do think there are interesting parallels.
TV: It’s interesting, of course, that the events of 1914 led to war and the events of 1972 strengthened peace. Can you identify critical differences there?
MM: In 1972 the Americans and the Chinese, for their own very different reasons, decided they should talk to each other. What you had on both sides was a good will and a willingness to talk to each other. With a recognition that both had something to benefit from that improved relationship.
Before 1914, you had, for example, the British and the Germans talking to each other. Though on both sides, there were some people who recognized that they had something to gain for a better relationship, there weren’t enough people.
TV: You talk about the importance of colonies and how colonial tension contributed to hostilities that built up toward the war. The narrative around World War I has always focused on Europe. The only story we hear is that European powers competed for colonies and that when the war broke out the empires said, “jump” and the colonies jumped. Did you see any ways in which the actual people in colonies, like Canada, were contributing to the process that led to war?
MM: No, I don’t think the people in the colonies were contributing to the process that led to war, or only as much as they were supporting the colonial power. You did have people who shared the fears of the British toward Germany, and so shared in the concern about German naval building.
But I don’t think that was pressuring Britain to do anything. I think it’s really the British that are making the policy. If anything, the British felt that the colonies were not contributing to naval defense, and felt they were getting a free ride.
TV: So it really was “Europe out?”
MM: It was “Europe out,” I think. It was beginning to change, but it hadn’t changed as much as it was going to do in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Of course, what the empires were beginning to face, in different parts before 1914, were nationalist movements. But not everywhere — in a lot of the old European empires, the local people had not yet begun to organize themselves into national movements. There were certainly revolts based on religious grounds and particularist grounds in particular regions.
But I think the period before 1914 was one in which it was relatively easy to have an empire, because those being ruled hadn’t yet, in most cases, begun to really become a mobilized political force.
TV: And then all that changed.
MM: Oh, it was changing anyway. You can see those roots already being laid down in the period before the First World War. And the war was going to give it a great stimulus. It wasn’t the same throughout the empires. There were some bits where the local people were only beginning to realize what had happened to them.
They suddenly found themselves as part of the Belgian Empire, or the French Empire, or the British Empire. They hadn’t really taken it in. And they were being treated, often, as a political unit, where they hadn’t been a political unit before. Certainly, there was a lot happening at the grass roots, but a lot of it was going to really play out later on.
TV: A review of your book in the London Review of Books (LRB) argued that The War that ended Peace is implicitly structured around a narrative where Germany acts and other European powers react, and that in this way it portrays Germany provoking the war. Do you agree with that characterization?
MM: There’s something in it. It was written by Christopher Clarke, who is a very good German historian, and who I think feels that Germany is being treated unfairly. My sense is that he goes too far in that direction, that Germany did do some things which other powers did react to. But it wasn’t just powers reacting to what Germany was doing, it was also Germany reacting to what other powers were doing.
TV: The question of responsibility is, of course, the question when it comes to First World War history. It’s almost expected that you take a position on it. And you don’t spend a lot of a time on that question. But do you think you can assign responsibility, and what are the people or factors or nations that you would assign it to?
MM: I think Germany, because it’s at the centre of Europe, is very important to European stability. Bismarck, when he was in charge of Germany, managed to build a system where Germany — through a series of very skillful maneuverings and alliances — really dominated Europe. The trouble with Bismarck is that he builds a system that only a genius like Bismarck can run.
The trouble with Germany is it’s at the heart of Europe; it’s very strong, it’s getting stronger. It already has the strongest army, and from the point of view of Germany’s neighbours, this is a worry and a menace. Of course, from the point of view of Germany, it’s surrounded.
So you have a very bad situation where both sides see things in their own way and they’re not seeing how the other side would feel. But I do think German policy was reckless in some cases. Letting the reinsurance treaty with Russia lapse was a mistake. And it shouldn’t have been that difficult. I mean, the two countries had a lot of synergy.
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TV: Something you seem to be very aware of writing the book is walking the line between ascribing too much importance to individuals and ignoring them completely, and saying they’re caught up in great trend of history that no one could possibly have done anything to change.
And then you leave, with the very last sentence in the book, with, “There are always choices.” You also say, “context is crucial.” So my question here is, do you see there being real choices, or is there the illusion of choice in a context that makes one path inevitable or almost inevitable?
MM: I think circumstances make certain choices more likely than others. I think you can’t expect people to make choices where they don’t have a clear choice. I think people work within a framework. So there are certain givens within that framework, but even then I think there are choices, particularly war. If you choose to go to war with someone else, there is a clear element of choice. It’s one of the great choices that is made in human history.
So I don’t think things are inevitable. I think people are confined within certain parameters as to the choices they can make. If you’re Germany, you can say we will either dominate our neighbours through our undoubted military supremacy and through our economy, or we will dominate them in a peaceful way, and that was a very clear choice before Germany in the period before 1914.
There’s a German industrialist who says in 1914, we just need to wait and sooner or later we will be economically dominant, which would bring with it political influence and so on. And that’s what Germany has chosen to do since 1945. Germany has very consciously chosen not to be a military power.
TV: A distinction has been drawn between three strands in history right now. First, you have what’s called “political history,” that’s kings, presidents, wars, treaties. Then there’s “social history, ” which is the history of how people lived in the past. And third — and this category sometimes overlaps with social history — there’s a history that’s written in opposition to the traditional account of how things happened, which was written by the people who were in power. First, do you agree with those rough distinctions?
MM: I don’t think I would ever make as clear distinctions as those. I don’t think they even exist in the past. I mean political history cannot be separated from political sociology, which means it can’t be separated from the nature of society. And the sorts of things that people argue about, the sorts of things that are called political divisions, very much reflect what’s going on in society.
I don’t like, and it does happen in history, people who think exclusively in one term or another. I think the whole thing about history is that it’s eclectic. We don’t look narrowly at one particular subject. I mean, if you’re doing a history of technology, you can’t separate that history from a history of society, values, and power structures. Why are certain things invented and other things aren’t? Why are certain types of science pursued and others not? Those choices reflect the nature of the society and power structures.
TV: In light of that, there’s been some discussion on this campus that there is a dominance of social history in the course offerings. You’ve taught here. Do you see that happening? How do you fit the different piece of that eclectic picture together in that way that you teach history?
MM: You can teach courses with different emphases. If you looked at history, for example, of the changing position of women in Canadian society, you’d presumably not be able to do such a history without the economic history of Canada, without looking at the political structures, because changes in society often are a result of political pressures, or political decisions, or changes in the law.
I suppose the sort of history I like is one in which we don’t compartmentalize it too much. I think there’s a tendency among people who do one kind of history to caricature the other. I think we do ourselves no service by that. I think we learn from each other and come at it with different emphases, but I think if you start ignoring a whole big chunk of what makes societies tick, you’re not going to get a whole picture.
TV: In your 2013 Hagey lecture you mention that public opinion was becoming increasingly important before World War I. Of course, public opinion is even more important now. You spoke recently to the CBC about what Canada’s government is doing to the history of the War of 1812. What do you see as the most troubling uses of history going on around us right now?
MM: The creation of very partial or even false narratives, which then give justification to behaving in certain ways
TV: But specifically?
MM: You get claims being made. I mean, the Chinese are now claiming islands in the South China Sea, or they claim Tibet, on very dubious historical grounds. So I think that’s where history can be dangerous.
Or you get history called into the use of various ideological movements. You can see it with Islamist movements, where you get a vision of an Islamic past which was absolutely blissfully happy and everyone lived in harmony, and then the crusaders came along and ruined it all, and we need to recover that past.
I think this can be extremely dangerous. Because it doesn’t just unite people around a grievance, it also gives them justification for attacking people who aren’t like them. History can be a very powerful and dangerous tool.
TV: Anything closer to home?
MM: You’ve got, of course, the Canadian government trying to portray or promote a view of the War of 1812 as a struggle of Canadians against Americans — when it wasn’t. It’s anachronistic to say that there was a fully-fledged Canadian identity and consciousness in those days.
These were people who lived in Canada, some of whom were of British descent, some of whom were of French descent, very recently American, or Aboriginals. I mean, the recent commemoration of the War of 1812, at least at the official level, seems to have left out the Aboriginal contribution. It was much more complex, and I think we could recognize that.
There’s also been talk, and again it seems to come from the Conservative sections of Canadian society, that Canada is a nation made in war. I suspect this will come out again in the commemoration of the First World War. Vimy ridge is clearly going to be a big thing. Yes, war has been an important part of Canadian history, but I don’t think we’re a nation made by war. I think, on the whole, we’re a very peaceful nation, and we’re made more by peace and peaceful evolution than by war.
TV: You’ve also said history shouldn’t be left to amateurs. Are students amateurs?
MM: No, I don’t think students are amateurs, and if I were doing it again, I wouldn’t put it like that. Because a lot of people took me to mean that only people who have professional history degrees count as professionals, which is not what I meant at all.
What I meant was that history has to be done by people who respect the use of evidence, who are prepared to deal with uncomfortable evidence, not just ignore it. What I mean by amateurs is people who write about the past in a lazy sort of way, without really informing themselves about it. And if there’s evidence that doesn’t fit whatever thesis they have, they ignore it or explain it away.
So no, I don’t think students are amateurs. If you write bad essays then I’d say you’re an amateur, if you write good essays then I’d say you’re doing it as a professional.
TV: In your Hagey Lecture, you said that 32,000 works have been written in English about the First World War. What’s your reaction to people who assume that there’s no more to say on this topic?
MM: My reaction is that there’s always something else to be said. Because history changes as we change.
TV: In the LRB review, which was generally very positive, the critic described your book as “magisterial.” How does it feel to be a historical authority?
MM: Well, you don’t feel it. You don’t feel like a historical authority. I’m always aware of how much I don’t know. But I suppose I know more than I used to. And I know more about certain subjects than other people. But magisterial sounds terrifying, it sounds like someone with a long grey beard, looking like a Michelangelo painting of God, saying: “This is the past.” I know he meant it kindly, but you always feel you never know it all. Although I know more than I used to, I suppose. Then I’m also forgetting more.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.