From recounting the intricate details and controversies behind the peace treaty that ended the First World War, Margaret MacMillan, the award-winning historian and author of the international bestseller Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, has moved back in time to consider the origins of “the war to end wars.” Her new book, The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, will be out this fall – in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the war next August.Meanwhile, the Toronto-born historian is briefly back in Canada from her post as warden of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.
Besides visiting family and friends, and picking up an honorary degree from Huron College (an affiliate of the University of Western Ontario), she is delivering a lecture next week on “How Wars Start: The Outbreak of the First World War.”
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Globe and Mail, Dr. MacMillan talks about her love of narrative history, her compulsion to bring characters from the past alive through anecdotes, her insistence on sticking to the facts and her very real worry that the tensions in Syria today echo conflicts in the Balkans a century ago – a time when, as Winston Churchill later wrote, the “terrible ifs accumulate[d],” and the world was engulfed in a devastating and total war.
Why are we still haunted by the First World War?
Because we still don’t know what to make of it. We’re still horrified by the loss, by the sense that it may have all been a mistake, by the sheer waste, and by what happened afterward. Nothing much was settled, it helped to brutalize European society, to breed ideologies like fascism and Bolshevism, to prepare the way for the horrors that came in the 1920s and 1930s and the Second World War. It’s also a war that created the modern world. It had its greatest impact on Europe, of course, but it shaped Canada and Australia, helped to speed the rise of the United States to superpower status, and redrew the map of much of the world. It was a watershed that remains one of the greatest historical puzzles.
You talk about the loss and the waste, but the war also prompted a huge and poignant outpouring of writing, painting and memorial art. Is that part of its pull?
That adds to it. People wrote memoirs, letters, poems and created wonderful art – dreadful, terrifying, but amazing paintings.
I’m thinking of John Singer Sargent’s painting Gassed of stumbling soldiers, each with a hand on the shoulder of the man ahead of him in line.
And the incredible blighted landscapes by Paul Nash, and of course, the Group of Seven, many of whom were war artists.
The war is now on the outer reaches of living memory for people whose ancestors came here as immigrants, seeking a better life, and yet who went back across the ocean to fight for the country they’d left. Is that another resonance?
A lot of my father’s family in Canada volunteered in the First World War because they saw it as a war that was defending the mother country. We all now remember the horror, but what seems extraordinary to me is how people kept on slogging through that horror for so long. The Russian armies finally began to collapse in 1917, but they survived for three years and discipline more or less held. The same is true of the French, and the British armies, the Canadian forces, the Germans, basically held until the end. That’s something I find absolutely extraordinary. I can’t imagine our societies going through something like what they went through for four years.
What is your take on the origins of the First World War?
I’m interested in the balance between big currents in history – the economies, the ideologies, social structures and so on – and the decisions that people have to make. At the heart of all these great decisions to go to war, there are human beings who have to say, “Yes, let’s do it,” or “No, we won’t do it.”