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Historian Margaret MacMillan on what the ‘war to end wars’ can teach us

‘We can become quite complacent if we haven’t had a war for a while,’ says the author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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?

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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."

It's the intersection of the great forces in society and the individuals who have to define whether to draw back.

Or "walk over the cliff," as you have said.

Yes. The trouble with the First World War, for example, is that people think war was inevitable, but I don't agree. If you look at the Cold War, you could argue that a war was bound to happen between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies, but it didn't. That's an interesting comparison – why did it happen in one case when all the pressures were building up, and in the second case it didn't? Even in peace time, there is always a potential for war, and of course during war, we're always thinking about what peace might look like. Maintaining peace can be as strenuous as winning a war. It doesn't just happen. It takes statesmen and public opinion to push for settling disputes peacefully.

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In the Cold War, there were two countervailing forces – the U.S. and the USSR – and there were deterrent programs.

You didn't go to war because you might end up finished yourself. In the Cold War, the two sides learned to maintain the peace by negotiating with each other, by limiting their arms, by confidence-building measures, such as warning each other when they were conducting large-scale military exercises so that war didn't break out accidentally.

Your lecture is very timely, considering we may be on the brink of an international conflagration over Syria.

One of the interesting parallels with Syria – and they're never exact – is the situation in the Balkans before the First World War. There was a local conflict which had the potential to become a general conflict because several great powers intersected within a very turbulent area and began picking fights. So you had Russia supporting Serbia, and Austria and Hungary, which also had a strong interest in the Balkans, determined to destroy Serbia. The Germans and the British, which still had considerable territories in the Middle East, were vying for influence in the Ottoman Empire.

In the Middle East now, you have a disintegrating Syria, you have Israel, which is very, very worried about what might happen and, according to news reports, is putting real pressure on the U.S. to do something. The Russians have resented their loss of power since the end of the Cold War, and are digging in their heels because Syria is one of their last remaining allies in the Middle East. Then there is Turkey and Iran on the periphery.

The Syrian situation offers the potential to draw in outside powers in a very worrying way, which is what happened in the Balkans in the 1900s. And, of course, a Balkan conflict is what sparked the First World War.

One of the differences between then and now, though, is the existence of international organizations such as the United Nations and the G20, which ironically was meeting in Russia this week.

It's not the best atmosphere for a rational, calm discussion behind the scenes, is it? And, of course, the UN Security Council is deadlocked, with the Chinese and the Russians blocking any concerted action. The danger is that the Syrians will be encouraged by the stalemate. As for the Americans, they are rethinking their role in the world. As easily as being the world's policeman, American exceptionalism can translate into isolationism by saying, "A plague on all their houses, let's just stay out of it." Most countries went into the First World War thinking they were fighting for a cause. The Germans thought they were fighting the Slavic menace, the British thought they were defending the rights of small nations, and so on. There's a degree of cynicism about government now because of the revelations that have come out about the actual invasion and occupation of Iraq. That wasn't there in 1914, although it was certainly there by 1919.

What strikes me about your new book is that you're using Europe before 1914 as an illustration of chaos theory. So many factors and events occur in a swirl and then something happens to shift the direction or outcome.

Yes, sometimes I am, actually. What really matters in history is the order in which things happen and coincidence. Europe had gone through a number of crises before 1914 and survived them. That matters. If 1914 was the first crisis, they might have really been more on edge and more alert to what could go wrong. We can become quite complacent if we haven't had a war for a while.

Isn't part of the problem in Syria that we aren't so willing to sacrifice lives as we were before the First World War? We can remember the invasion of Iraq, the illusory talk about weapons of mass destruction and the consequences of boots on the ground.

When people talk about the lessons of history, they're usually using that to justify something they want to do, like George Bush Jr. saying history has taught us that you shouldn't appease dictators; that was simply because he wanted to go in and get rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime. You can find any lesson you want in history.

But what history can do more usefully is offer you warnings, give you ways of thinking about the present and help you formulate skeptical questions so you can say, "Wait a minute, let's think of examples where that action didn't turn out well." People are looking at the mess in Afghanistan, the mess in Iraq where so many people are being killed and we're collectively paying so little attention. It's appalling. And you look at Libya where it appears that the two bits, which perhaps never should have been put together, may break apart.

Outside intervention hasn't had a very good track record lately, has it?

Margaret MacMillan's talk, part of a year-long series on the First World War organized by the Bill Graham Centre: Contemporary International History and Munk School of Global Affairs, will be in Toronto on Monday.

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