There are always choices
A conversation with Professor Margaret MacMillan
Margaret MacMillan is one of our greatest living historians. She is emeritus Profesor of history at the Univerities of Toronto and Oxford. Her most notable books include “Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War” which won numerous awards including the Samuel Johnson and Duff Cooper prizes; and “The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War” which won International Affairs Book of the Year at the Political Book Awards. She has recieved many honours and is a member of both the Order of the Companions of Honour and the Order of Merit.
Margaret spoke to Lawrence about her work on the First World War, the importance of individuals in deciding the course of history, whether we can learn “lessons” from the past, how history is abused and misused in culture wars, and her upcoming book on World War II.
Lawrence Freedman: I think the final sentence of your World War One book is: “There are always choices.” That seems to me a theme of your work: you're interested in the choices that people face and why they make them the way they do. And that their choices are going to be followed by other choices, which I also took to be the lesson of the Versailles book. It wasn't just one set of fateful decisions. So it's the structure/agency question. It's true that there are always choices. But how much are they shaped and understood by big, impersonal forces?
Margaret MacMillan: Yes, that's always the difficulty I find: trying to get the balance right and I'm not sure I ever really do, but we know of course that we are confined by the worlds in which we live in certain ways. Demography matters, sociology matters, resources, geography. All this matters and those in positions of power also have constraints on what they can do. If Hitler had been President of Albania, he couldn't have done as much damage as he did as head of Germany.
All these things matter, but at certain points, moments of crisis, perhaps it matters more. Who is in a position of power and authority, able to make a choice? And I think we have to understand what the possible choices are before them, not give them an impossible range of choices, because that isn't reasonable. I've always been impressed by the philosopher of history, RG Collingwood, who said that you have to understand what the possibilities before Julius Caesar where when he decided to cross the Rubicon. The choices have to be within a possible range.
But if you look at the history of the 20th century, and now the 21st century, the role of individuals making choices at particular times is huge. If Hitler had not got into power, Germany might well have gone down a nationalist revisionist path. But I don't think it would have done what it did in starting a Second World War and persisting till the end. I don't think the Bolsheviks would have pushed collectivization and inaugurated the Great Terror if it hadn't been for Stalin. And today we talk about “Putin's war” in Ukraine, and with reason. Everyone is deeply worried, at least I am, about what happens if Trump gets back into office in the United States because he will have the capacity to make choices. So it really does matter. There are choices, but sometimes those choices are pretty limited.
LF: When you and I were growing up the “great man” theory of history was derided as missing out on so much that was important. Yet what you're saying is that in these moments of great crisis it does actually matter who's there and how they exercise power.
MM: Yes. It mattered that Kennedy was in the White House in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it mattered that Khrushchev was in the Kremlin. Two other men, wielding enormous power in their countries with the capacity to start a nuclear war, might have made different choices. I find it very interesting. We have to be careful not to say that history is made entirely by individuals. We know it's not. But I find it very interesting that two of the best biographers of the current day, Ian Kershaw, with his biography of Hitler, and Steven Kotkin with his biography of Stalin, both started out as social historians and both came to the conclusion they couldn't understand the systems they were studying without understanding the men at the apex.
LF And as we do that how judgmental are we allowed to be? As Marx put it “men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” Yet they often make some terrible decisions. Do they fully understand how terrible their decisions are? Is there a difference between the decisions of a clearly bad man like Hitler, say, and those like many of those in power in 1914, who bumbled into a great catastrophe doing what they thought was logical in the circumstances of the moment?
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