by Margaret MacMillan
Whether history is shaped principally by personalities or impersonal forces is a debate that has occupied historians for centuries. As Margaret MacMillan, author of Nixon in China and Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919, asserts from the outset, it is clearly a combination of the two.
But, MacMillan says, some individuals have created history more conspicuously than others. Hence History’s People both reflects on the lives of some of the “greats” of the past – Bismarck, Stalin, Roosevelt, Thatcher – and some of those we are less familiar with. These include a number of Canadians, notably Samuel de Champlain – “the Father of New France” – and many women visionaries and explorers. Among the latter is Gertrude Bell, “The Desert Queen”, who travelled through modern Syria and Iraq before World War I, and Fanny Parkes, who roamed around India in the 19th century, where she was “much disgusted, but greatly fascinated”.
One of the finest eccentrics featured here is Edith Durham, whose thirst for the exotic took her to the Balkans in the early part of the 20th century. Witnessing the persecution of the region’s people, she became a great expert on and champion of the Albanians. She made several ethnographic studies and helped to ensure that Albania was admitted to the League of Nations. Her name still appears on the country’s streets today.
MacMillan’s ostensible intention is to illuminate not only how men and women have shaped the course of history, but also how those of various magnitude have done so. The result can feel unbalanced – not least given the inclusion of an inordinate number of her Canadian countrymen.
Still, History’s People is a humane, reflexive and entertaining meander, free from agenda or polemic. It’s a calm reminder that there is constant interplay between the underlying shifts in society and those people who spring up and act upon them.
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