Personalities and the Past
Part of the CBC Massey Lectures Series
In History’s People internationally acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan gives her own personal selection of figures of the past, women and men, some famous and some little-known, who stand out for her. Some have changed the course of history and even directed the currents of their times. Others are memorable for being risk-takers, adventurers, or observers. She looks at the concept of leadership through Bismarck and the unification of Germany; William Lyon MacKenzie King and the preservation of the Canadian Federation; Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the bringing of a unified United States into the Second World War. She also notes how leaders can make huge and often destructive mistakes, as in the cases of Hitler, Stalin, and Thatcher. Richard Nixon and Samuel de Champlain are examples of daring risk-takers who stubbornly went their own ways, often in defiance of their own societies. Then there are the dreamers, explorers, and adventurers, individuals like Fanny Parkes and Elizabeth Simcoe who manage to defy or ignore the constraints of their own societies. Finally, there are the observers, such as Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, and Victor Klemperer, a Holocaust survivor, who kept the notes and diaries that bring the past to life.
History’s People is about the important and complex relationship between biography and history, individuals and their times.
In this erudite analysis of major historical figures, MacMillan (Paris 1919) spotlights individuals who have either made history or documented it. Each chapter focuses on one of five qualities: persuasion, hubris, daring, curiosity, and observational power. The first three chapters present those who have "left their mark on history," while the last two showcase history's recorders, who shared a "refreshing freedom from the prejudices and judgments of their own times." MacMillan's more surprising choices are her most interesting. While Hitler and Stalin are obvious examples of political hubris, Woodrow Wilson is an idiosyncratic and more fascinating choice. Nixon, hardly the most the charismatic of American presidents, is convincingly portrayed as a leader of considerable daring in his outreach to Mao's China. MacMillan's fascination with history's more curious observers builds the book's strongest chapters. Through describing the lives of people such as Victor Klemperer, a German Jewish academic who survived and documented life in Nazi Germany, or Count Harry Kessler, one of the great record keepers of European life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, MacMillan deftly and engagingly shows that history is a process of capturing the minutiae of life as much as time's epic strokes.