History's People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan

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History's People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Historian Margaret McMillan acknowledges that there is a long-standing debate in history over whether events are moved either by individuals or by economic and social changes or technological and scientific advances, and suggests that there is no right or wrong answer. In this excellent read she reinforces that verdict by assessing the importance of various famous and not-so famous individuals – political leaders, explorers, adventurers and observers – and their impact on the history of their times.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781781255124

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According to the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle, 'the history of the world is but the biography of great men'. Margaret McMillan acknowledges in her introduction to this volume, based on a series of recent lectures, that there is a long-standing debate in history over whether events are moved either by individuals or by economic and social changes or technological and scientific advances, and suggests that there is no right or wrong answer.

The rest of the book goes a long way towards illustrating her wisdom in that fence-sitting verdict. In five chapters she assesses the importance of various individuals who for better or worse have left their mark indelibly on the world around them. Some were political leaders, some were explorers and adventurers, some were observers and campaigners. Several, but by no means all of them, were household names.

The opening chapter, which examines the concept of leadership through the careers of three men, shows conclusively how the destiny of a nation could be moulded by a national figure. Otto von Bismarck, founder of the second German empire and imperial chancellor, William Lyon Mackenzie King, long-serving Prime Minister of Canada, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the latter's contemporary and President of the United States, were all effective leaders, who were fortunate in being 'favoured by time and circumstance', who knew when to seize the opportunities presented to them, and 'had the talent, skills and determination to persist and bring their countries with them'.

In a similar class were the four personalities examined in the second chapter. President Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were all leaders who had an inestimable impact on the countries which they led for a while, but in each case hubris, or an excess of pride and self-confidence, led to a belief in self-infallibility and defeat. As the ancient Greeks believed, hubris was generally punished by a dramatic reversal of fortune.

President Richard Nixon might have come loosely into the same category. Instead he is examined as a case study of one who took great risks. While he is remembered above all for the Watergate scandal which prematurely ended his term in office, it is noted that he should perhaps be remembered equally for opening up a dialogue with China without which she would have been left as an international pariah. Bracketed with him are the 17th-century French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who who crossed the Atlantic several times in his efforts to explore the North American coast and the St Lawrence River and successfully laid the foundations of the French presence in Canada, and Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, the tycoon and newspaper proprietor who became something of a kingmaker behind the scenes in British political circles during the time of the First World War.

The remainder of the book examines a diverse group of dreamers, adventurers and observers. Notable among them were Fanny Parkes, who travelled to India in the early 19th century and left behind a vivid journal of what she saw, and Edith Durham, who a century later visited Albania, where she became a tireless champion of the country's independence from Serbia. Perhaps the most moving pages of the book are those concerning Victor Klemperer, cousin of the more famous conductor Otto, who was a Professor of Languages in Germany and one of the most distinguished survivors of the holocaust. His diary of the sufferings of his fellow Jews during the ascendancy of Hitler remains a remarkable testament to those terrible times.

As what might be called a tangential study in biography although not a biography itself, this makes a thoughtful read. In the case of the well-known personalities Ms McMillan is judiciously impartial, giving full recognition to their successes and failures. When it comes to the less famous and often overlooked, she shines new light into dark corners and suggesting that some at least would repay further study, to which a path is provided via the very full bibliography.

The best related biographical studies of subjects who are dealt with in depth in the book include Hitler's Last Witness: The Memoirs of Hitler's Bodyguard by Rochus Misch; Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Below the Parapet by Carol Thatcher, and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein.

Buy History's People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy History's People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan at Amazon.co.uk


Buy History's People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy History's People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan at Amazon.com.

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