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What difference do individuals make to history? Are we all swept up in the great forces like industrialisation or globalisation, or is the world we inhabit shaped just as much by real people - leaders for example - and the decisions that they make? For better or for worse, the personalities of the powerful can affect millions of people and the future of countries: it matters who is in the driving seat, and who is making plans. Equally important: how is history itself made by those who keep the records?
In History's People Margaret Macmillan explores the lives of the great and lesser-known figures of the past: men, women, explorers, rulers, dreamers, politicians, observers, campaigners. She looks at the concept of leadership, from Bismarck to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but also at the role of observers such as Babur, first Mughal emperor of India, and asks how explorers and visionaries such as Fanny Parkes and Elizabeth Simcoe managed to defy or ignore the constraints of their own societies. And, in doing so, she uncovers the important and complex relationship between biography and history, and between individuals and their times.
Like all the best history, this book will change the way you see the past, as well as your own times - and perhaps introduce you to some people you didn't know.
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.