8 April 2016

History’s People: Powerless people made history too

By David Chadwick

What did Margaret Thatcher, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Woodrow Wilson share in common?

Hubris. Continued success fortified their convictions and made them islands. Thatcher always remembered how naysayers had advised her against ordering the military to retake the Falkland Islands. The mission’s success convinced Thatcher of her own decision-making prowess.

MacMillan argues that Thatcher learned a terrible lesson – that all would be well if she refused to yield. Afterwards her advisors continuously failed to alert her when she really was wrong, such as with the poll-tax debacle. Likewise, Hitler took no advice from his generals, while Stalin cleansed the top ranks of the USSR’s military.

In History’s People, Margaret MacMillan clusters together the past’s people in five categories: persuasion and leadership; hubris; daring; curiosity; and observers. Far from suggesting they belong together, putting Thatcher alongside Hitler and Stalin makes clear her relative benignity.

Being a historian, MacMillan first has to address the age-old debate on what drives history; structural conditions or individual agency? Rather than coming down on one side, the author accedes that the answer lies somewhere betwixt the two.

The turmoil of the French Revolution magnified Napoleon’s capacity for influence. Without it he would probably have remained in Corsica and become a man of limited influence. But it did happen, and if Napoleon hadn’t emerged, would another man have taken forth the mantle? No.

Some individuals shape their times, but only ever from within the prism of their worldview, constrained by technological realities and societal norms. This interpretation is not a cop-out, it permits the author to get on with her topic matter: people in history.

The greatest moments in History’s People stem from the inclusion of lesser-known figures (in comparison to Hitler, Stalin, and Thatcher), such as the Canadian Prime Minister William King, whose pacifying genius David Cameron could do with right now. Snippets from Jewish Germans and Albanian travellers delight, intrigue, and appal too.

The author uses all-but-forgotten sources to demonstrate how an individual’s era poses limits. One section is dedicated to the written experiences of British women dotted around the British Empire. Curious and determined, but lacking the testicles their time required of them, they observed rather than governed. With their inclusion, MacMillan makes women part of her message without making them the message. She thus avoid a tone of smug self-righteousness—to her book’s great benefit.

In the introduction, Macmillan comments that with the current surplus of books on leadership available, it is surprising that there is anybody around to be led. It is to our great benefit that authors like MacMillan are around to lead us to history’s most treasured tales.

History’s People: Personalities and the Past, Profile Books Ltd, Hardcover is on sale at £11.99 RRP

David Chadwick is a CapX contributor