Margaret MacMillan: ‘Sometimes it matters who is in power’

For the fourth and final talk in the Weinrebe lecture series, world-renowned historian Margaret MacMillan joined us to share her reflections on the topic of moments when it matters who is in power.

Professor MacMillan began by talking about what drew her to history: a sense of curiosity about the past which extends to people and personalities, emotions and values. She suggested that biographers and historians tend to ask different questions of their subjects and this can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.

She argued that there was a time when history, misinterpreting Carlyle, wasn’t interested in people: the logical extreme of this is cliometrics, where the focus is on numbers not individuals. But the rise of social history – recovering the lost voices of the past – and then cultural history – exploring meanings – has brought the focus back to people. Biography is relevant in this context, she suggested, because you cannot understand the history of the twentieth century without understanding Hitler, Stalin or Mao. These people may not ‘make’ history in the way that expression is commonly used, but they do ‘catch the currents of history,’ in Professor MacMillan’s phrase, and come to ’embody’ history.

Historians of the twentieth century have often turned to biography to express their ideas.  They start as social historians of a particular time and place but end up focusing on the individuals at the apex of that regime. These people bring up counterfactual questions for historians: if this particular individual was not there, what difference would it have made? Professor MacMillan argued that history would have been very different if, say, Hitler had died in World War One, Churchill had died in an accident in New York, or Stalin had died while having his appendix out.

She also suggested that there are moments in history when it matters who is is holding a particular office and decides whether or not to go to war: examples include not only the Kaiser, considering war in 1914, but more recently George Bush and Tony Blair in 2001. Those choices could have been made very differently by another person in power at that moment: there was nothing inevitable about them. As such, we cannot get away from the significance of these key individuals, though they also need context, and a careful consideration of the relationship between the person and their times. These means reflecting on the ‘unspoken assumptions of any time’ such as what is taught in schools, the prevailing beliefs and values, and contemporary conceptions of ideals such as manliness and honour.

Nevertheless, there are individuals who not just products of their time but actually transcend and shape those times. Bismarck is the class example of this phenomenon: modern Germany would not exist in the same form without his unique combination of brilliance and ambition – though of course, Prussian nationalism, growing economy and military strength also played a crucial role. But there are drawbacks to this model of leadership: Bismarck created a system which perhaps only he could run.

There are a number of leaders who might fairly, perhaps, be described as the only individual who could have done what they did. Nixon is a good example: with his staunch anti-communist background, he was perhaps the only person who could achieve a rapprochement with China. Margaret Thatcher is also relevant here: she was lucky in that the time was right for her brand of politics; but she did not just ride the tide but rather pushed British politics in a particular direction. FDR is another example: would there have been another US president who could persuade the public of the need for an internationalist outlook and to support Britain in its greatest hour of need? At the other extreme are Hitler and Stalin: other German and Soviet leaders might not have been so utterly ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Biographers of these figures generally agree that without their presence, history would have been very different. Having focused on key decisions at critical moment, Professor MacMillan paused to ask how much history is shaped by indecisiveness: for example, Gordon Brown’s failure to call an election early in his term.

Professor MacMillan concluded by suggesting that there are huge personalities who are able to seize power by capturing the mood of their time. But there have to be forces at work within society that allow that person to operate. This balance between the personal and the political seems the ideal thought with which to conclude this fascinating lecture series.


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