- - Sunday, May 1, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

HISTORY’S PEOPLE: PERSONALITIES AND THE PAST

By Margaret MacMillan

House of Anansi, $24.95, 389 pages

Margaret MacMillan, professor of history at the University of Toronto and Oxford University, is the author of “The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914,” “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” and “Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed The World,” all international bestsellers, all written in elegant, lucid prose, with fine balanced portraits of the men and women involved in shaping the history of their times — and often our own.

In “History’s People,” a collection of her 2015 Massey Lectures, she gives us biographical sketches of men and women who left their mark on history, and in some cases diverted its course, among them Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Otto von Bismarck and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

When Bismarck set out to create Germany, Ms. MacMillan writes, repeating what she tells us is an old joke among historians, “Prussia was not a country that happened to have an army, but an army that happened to have a country.”

Not for long, however. “Thanks to Bismarck, Europe ever since 1871 has had in one form or another, a German Question.” However, she adds, “The world has not had a Canadian Question . In Canadian history, though, William Lyon Mackenzie King is as important as Bismarck is for Germany.”

Much like a good manners novelist, Ms. MacMillan uses the quirks and idiosyncrasies of her subjects to bring them alive. Mackenzie King, for instance, was a persnickety bachelor and perfectionist, both a Presbyterian and a spiritualist, who regularly sought advice from the spirit world. Nevertheless, despite some embarrassingly wrongheaded early judgments of figures like Hitler, he guided his country as a stalwart ally of Britain and the United States through World War II, and is credited with preserving the Canadian Federation.

In the case of each of these leaders, “the course of history gave them their opportunity and they took it.” Ms. McMillan treats Hitler and Stalin, as leaders who misread history and mistook opportunity for license with tragic consequences for their own people and much of the world.

She deals with Margaret Thatcher as a brilliant national leader who succumbed to hubris and celebrates what she calls “risk takers,” among them Samuel de Champlain, the great explorer who established the first permanent French settlement in Canada; and Richard Nixon, who at great political risk, the intensity of which is hard to imagine today, traveled to China, met with our arch-enemies Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and by so doing recalibrated the entire international balance of power.

Her splendid first-hand account of that trip, rendered in “Nixon and Mao,” featured descriptions of such occasions as the banquet at the Great Hall of the People, where the People’s Liberation Army band played “Turkey in the Straw” and “Oh! Susanna” (tunes perceived by Chinese officials to be typical American favorites), with a flushed and triumphant Mr. Nixon toasting individual Communist functionaries with some potent Chinese brew.

It was by any measure a triumphant trip. But she brings her treatment here to a somewhat melancholy close. “Without Nixon, I believe, we would not have seen a thaw for years, even right up to the present. Nixon went to his grave thinking his opening to China was his greatest achievement, even though it was overshadowed .by Watergate, ‘that silly, silly thing.’”

She concludes her studies with sketches of several adventurous women who defied the conventions and attitudes of their times; the observations of Bahur, the first Mughal emperor of India; and Victor Klemperer, a concentration camp survivor, who in notes and diaries recorded the process of the systematic Nazi attempts to deprive Jews of their humanity.

Once again, with “History’s People,” Ms. MacMillan proves that in fact there are academics who can write clear and luminous prose. Moreover, she understands that history is at least as much about the lives of real men and women as it is about the workings of abstract forces.

It may not be academically fashionable to say so, but history, if written to be read, cannot be separated from biography. And of that, Ms. MacMillan, in her highly readable but scholarly studies, provides ample proof.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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