Margaret MacMillan on the truths and consequences of history

Margaret MacMillan is kicking off a major conference about the impact of the First World War. Photo courtesy Canadian War Museum

It is always good timing to have a conversation with the well-known Canadian historian and author Margaret MacMillan when something momentous is happening.

The Brexit vote in the British House of Commons earlier this week that handed Theresa May one of the worst defeats in the UK’s long parliamentary history was a chance to reflect on the truths and the consequences of history.

For MacMillan, who will speak in Ottawa Thursday evening in a sold out event at the Canadian War Museum, the Brexit folly “is going to be such a mess. Britain’s laws and regulations since 1975 have been intertwined with the EU. Disentangling all that will be tough,” she said.

It is also proof that events have results and that leadership matters.

Her talk is about the period after the First World War when the great men of the day (and they were only men) settled the fate of the world.

This is something MacMillan knows well. The book that really made her name, Paris 1919, delved deeply into this pivotal six months. It is territory she will revisit in her talk.

“The title (of the talk) is a quip that (French prime minister Georges) Clemenceau made at the time: ‘Making peace is harder than waging war’.”

Then she backed that up with a mention of  Saint Augustine who said, in essence, that when we make peace we should think how to avoid war “and we don’t always do that.

“I don’t think things are ever inevitable. If we think that, then we don’t do anything. It seemed inevitable in 1940 that Britain would come to a deal with Nazi Germany. It came close but it didn’t happen. Churchill really made a difference.

“I’m looking at the end of the (First World) war and the making of the peace. I will say something about what the war meant for Canada but that is really the subject of the conference over the next two days.” The conference is a major two-day gathering of historians and thinkers at the war museum to mark the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference that hammered out the Treaty of Versailles.

But she says there is new thinking about the months and years after Nov. 11, 1918.

“There has been a lot more interest in the 1920s. The old view was that 1919 led in a direct line to 1939 and the Second World War.

“There has been a lot more research on the 1920s. For so long the decade was seen as a prelude to the 1930s and we all know what happened then.

“Historians looking at the 1920s are now concluding that it wasn’t so clear cut as that. There were some hopeful signs and the League of Nations was actually working in a way. Germany, too, was becoming part of the community of nations again.”

In fact it did in the end join the league.

Even the crushing burden of reparation payments imposed on Germany was being brought under control, she said.

“They were negotiated down. It looked as if the world was going to get back on an even keel. I think lot of historians, and I tend to agree with them, now feel there wasn’t enough time for the roots of constitutional and democratic government to be established before the Great Depression came along.”

That calamity turned the nations of the world inward and it crushed trust in governing elites. Germany had been previously battered by a hyper-inflation that, she said, was basically the fault of the German government which in fact had encouraged inflation because it diminished the reparations bill.

It was a stupid move.

“It shook the German public and a lot of them never really accepted the Weimar Republic.”

Still these crises did not make Nazism, war and the Holocaust inevitable.

“If you had been trying to predict where the worst outbreak of anti-Semitism would have occurred in Europe before the Second World War, you might say Russia, or France or even in England where there was a lot of worry about Jews from Eastern Europe arriving in the east end of London in the 1920s.”

Germany, which was not immune to anti-Semitic sentiment, was probably more accepting than most European nations of the day before the rise of Hitler, she said.

“History gives you context and understanding and it gives you some warning signs. It’s not going to repeat but you can say ‘Be careful here’.”

She is reading a book on the appeasement of Hitler by the British government and notes that time as an example to us all today.

“You can see, step by step, the mistakes made. And you can see the idiocy of the German right wingers who thought they could use Hitler if they put him into power.” The lessons of history indeed are writ large in a place like Washington, D.C.

Leaders matter, she means.

“The history of 20th century was very influenced by Marxist thinking and by interest in economic and social history but you can’t write the history of 20th century without writing about Hitler and Stalin and Mao.

“The present situation is making us realize that sometimes it matters who is power. Trump is not doing all this on his own. He has been embraced by Republicans who have betrayed what was a grand old party.”

These days MacMillan divides her time between Toronto and a flat in Oxford. Two of her siblings live in the UK and two in Canada so she is often crossing the Atlantic.

She is pondering the fate of her second home these days and wondering what may emerge.

“I think the vote shows that the British parties may realign themselves. It used to be Labour that split on ideological grounds. Now it’s Tories. They were always the pragmatic party. I think they might split and Labour might split.”

She’s not sure that that would allow the once powerful Liberals, once led by her ancestor David Lloyd George, to rise again.

“But God help Britain if they depend on Boris Johnson.” Her money is on the Environment minister Michael Gove “who is being very statesmanlike at the moment.”

Otherwise she’s been thinking about wars “because I’m writing a little book about it at the moment.”

The book will be based on the BBC Reith Lectures she gave last year called The Mark of Cain.

“I looked at things like war and human society; war and warriors; war and the civilians; war and the arts and so on. I’m expanding that now and thinking more about it.

“I should be writing more than I am (so) I have great guilt feelings at the moment. I know I have got to get going. There are lots of other things to do when you don’t want to get down to it.”

Of Canada, she does see it as a bit of a beacon.

“God knows we have our troubles but compared to other countries we have successfully managed to bring people from many different cultures together and we are managing to get on with each other. We have a tolerance and a kindness towards each other I find admirable.

“When I travel people say I am so lucky to be Canadian, but the lesson is don’t take it for granted. You have to work to maintain societies and political structures. I worry about people like Doug Ford who doesn’t seem to understand how democracies work.

“There is contingency in history. Accidents happen. If Hitler had been killed in trenches, and he came close, would things have turned out differently. I think so.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.