Tag Archives: Margaret MacMillan

History in Policy

‘Public history’ is something of a misnomer. The degree to which history which can influence policy is ‘public’ is a difficult question. E. H. Carr writes in his What Is History? that, when he was working in a junior capacity at the Paris peace conference in 1919, all the diplomats and their staffs took extra care to empty their wastepaper baskets. They were thinking of the discussions surrounding the peace treaty after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, and the history they used to inform their actions was a titbit of information about that time: that nefarious negotiators spied on their opposite numbers’ plans by going through their waste paper. Carr uses this to illustrate the fallacy of thinking one can ultimately ‘learn from history’ in a way which is total and all-encompassing. Each moment in time presents new and unique challenges. One cannot rely simply on knowing the past to know the present, or indeed to predict the future. Continue reading

Notions of Nationalism

The formation of nations is not a concept which is too far from public consciousness in the West today; we are certainly aware of the challenges and opportunities associated with ‘nation building’, both in the immediate post-war situation in the 20th century and in the current century. In addition, the question of colonial powers creating nations – all too often portrayed as simply drawing lines on the map in the final rapid dash towards decolonisation – is something that cannot be avoided. Continue reading

Europe Before the First World War: What Were They Thinking?

Review – The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan

Amid a rash of volumes attempting to detail and explain the origins of the First World War, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace stand out. Both represent holistic, almost global attempts to analyse the various causes of the war; and both contain very thorough and very acute investigations into the character of the time before the continental conflagration broke out. MacMillan assessed European society before the war which nearly brought about its collapse, whereas Clark focuses on an analysis which takes in nation-states, alliances, diplomacy and the ever-present prospect of force (but these forces were not impersonal; as will be elucidated, much of European diplomacy in those days was built and conducted on the basis of personality and thoroughly personal reactions). Continue reading

The Historian as a Public Intellectual

Recently I had the great pleasure of reading Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War. My review of that book – which takes a rather holistic approach – can be read on this blog. It has given me cause to think about the nature both of historical writing and how historians are perceived in the public sphere: whether, in other words, they can be ‘public intellectuals’ – that much overused phrase which somewhat lazy journalists use to denote academics who, in this view of the world, have apparently descended from the ivory tower to commune to the masses. Continue reading

Review – The Uses and Abuses of History (2008) by Margaret MacMillan

History is more than a collection of dates and facts, kings and queens, battles and wars. It is also a guide for how we see the world, a shaping influence in the construction of our own worldview. Added to that, and increasingly seen in places like Russia, where media and writing of all kinds – everything that constitutes the nation’s intellectual life – can be conscripted into the creation of sinister political machinery, it can be a powerful tool. Even a weapon. Continue reading