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History’s People: Personalities and the Past

by Margaret MacMillan

History and biography are often treated as two distinct subjects. The former is considered an academic discipline, focused on serious events that are soberly analyzed using statistics and archival sources. By contrast, the latter is seen as simply telling someone’s story, without excluding gossipy innuendo or worrying overmuch about broader historical trends.

51UJKk0lNDL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Governor General’s Literary Award–winning historian Margaret MacMillan seeks to erase that distinction. In her 2015 CBC Massey Lectures, she makes a confession: “I want to gossip.” The renowned author of several serious histories, including Paris 1919, Nixon in China, and The War That Ended Peace, MacMillan here declares that without people, there is no history. No major changes or decisions take place without human intervention. And the more we know about the people, the more we understand about the time in which they lived. While “a single life cannot stand in for a whole era, it can illuminate it and make us want, indeed oblige us, to know more.”

To make her point, MacMillan defines  five personality traits: leadership, hubris, daring, curiosity, and observation. Each chapter follows the same pattern: an introduction that discusses the general impact each trait can have on society’s decision-makers, followed by short biographical sketches of three or more people who exemplify the topic. Freed from the constraints of chronology or place, this results in some of the most unlikely combinations of historical figures ever presented.

In the chapter on leaders, William Lyon Mackenzie King is described alongside Otto von Bismarck and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. MacMillan’s comparison of the three should be eye-opening for any Canadian who does not see King’s contributions as valuable and praiseworthy (notwithstanding our tendency to be embarrassed by his talent for prevaricating). The chapter on hubris groups Woodrow Wilson, Thatcher, Hitler, and Stalin – an unlikely combination in any other context. That being said, her argument that their behaviour was the same despite the very different circumstances in the countries they ruled stands up to scrutiny.

The chapters on daring and curiosity cover much the same ground as one another, which makes sense given that curiosity is often a key trait in those who are daring. However, while the profiles in daring are all men, those examined for their curiosity are exclusively women. MacMillan wonders if this can be explained in part “because so often it has been more difficult for [women] to follow their own path.” MacMillan reminds us that we owe these constrained, curious women (including Elizabeth Simcoe, Fanny Parkes, and Ursula Graham Bower) a significant debt, because “through the legacies of their writings they enable us to write history.”

The last chapter profiles the observers. The people in this chapter often had no great impact on their world at the time, but thanks to their diligent record-keeping, we have more information about their eras than can ever be gleaned from mere data. From Robert de Roquebrune in early 20th-century Quebec, to Victor Klemperer in Germany as it descended into Nazism, MacMillan points to the importance of hearing the voices of people living through various periods of history.

MacMillan returns to a few key themes throughout the book. One is the importance of luck and timing: so many of the people she profiles were in the right place at the right time, and this serves as a good reminder that people cannot be separated from their eras. From King’s great fortune to not be prime minister during the Depression to Margaret Thatcher’s capitalizing on British political dissatisfaction, historical context often dictates whether an individual’s ideas take hold or come to nothing.

The author also loves to explore “what if” scenarios, on the assumption that “counterfactuals are useful tools of history because they help us to understand how consequences can flow from a single action or decision.” History’s People is full of examples of how critical a single person is to the flow of history, from the obvious (Germany without Hitler, the U.S.S.R. without Stalin) to the more subtle (without Nixon, the U.S. may not have seen a thaw with China for years, which would have changed the development of the world economy as we now know it). This is a practice many serious historians shy away from, which is a shame, because rethinking the past can help us rethink the shape of our present: events are never predetermined.

History’s People is a refreshing perspective on history as a discipline and on people both well-known and obscure. This, coupled with MacMillan’s magnificent ability to take the most complex issue and render it clearly, is what makes the book such an engaging read. MacMillan has proven that her love of gossip only adds to her credentials as an historian, and one can only hope that she continues to find further subjects to write about for a long time to come.