“What if?” history books normally annoy me – but History’s People is an exception

Margaret MacMillan’s selection of neglected voices in History’s People reminds us how individual choices and actions come to shape our world.

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Counterfactual history – also known as “What if?” history – bores me. Too often, the questions asked are predictable. What if the Spanish Armada had landed successfully in England? Would modern history have been different if Otto von Bismarck had died in infancy? What would have happened if Adolf Hitler had been killed in the trenches during the First World War? I much prefer explaining real historical causes and effects. They are puzzling enough. Asking “What if something different had occurred?” seems self-indulgent in comparison. It’s a fun parlour game, perhaps, but not serious history.

So it was with trepidation that I started to read Margaret MacMillan’s new book, History’s People. She asks a great many “What if?” questions. She reminds us that our world would be a very different place if certain people had never lived, had possessed different personality traits, or had made slightly different decisions. Luck also plays an important role in her story.

To my surprise, I was captivated. MacMillan sets out a sensible argument for the importance of individual choices and actions if we want to understand the past. She probably won’t be pleased to read me write this, but her counterfactuals are little more than a rhetorical tool to help us think about what did happen. In this book, she yet again shows that she is not only a consummate storyteller; she is also a brilliant historian.

Personality is all-important for MacMillan. She focuses on four character traits. The first is leadership ability. Effective and persuasive leaders have a vision; they seize every opportunity; they learn from their mistakes. Individuals as different as the 16th-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne and the Canadian politician William Lyon Mackenzie are in this category.

Then there are those who are effective leaders but whose staggering arrogance becomes their downfall. MacMillan claims that this was the fatal flaw in the lives of Margaret Thatcher, Woodrow Wilson, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. MacMillan is not arguing that these people were similar. She defends her provocative grouping by observing that all four politicians were driven by ambition, came to power in turbulent times and had an unwavering conviction that they were right, whatever the cost of their actions.

There are people of great daring, too: the risk-takers. It is hard to imagine the courage of early explorers who set forth into uncharted oceans, worried about falling off the edge of the world. The first men who climbed Mount Everest possessed comparable bravery and nerve. When George Mallory was asked why he was so determined to climb Everest, his answer was unequivocal: “Because it’s there.”

MacMillan also considers those who are motivated by curiosity. It is only at this stage in her book that women take a more prominent role. This is not, she insists, because women are more curious than men. Rather, it is because there have been so many more barriers to their achievements. She focuses on extraordinary women such as the travel writer Fanny Parkes, Edith Durham (who championed Albania in the early 20th century) and the pioneer anthropologist and Second World War guerrilla fighter Ursula Graham Bower.

One woman – not mentioned by MacMillan but who exemplifies her arguments – is the painter Elizabeth Thompson (later Lady Butler), who became an overnight sensation when her painting Calling the Roll After an Engagement, Crimea was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874. The painting shows a company of exhausted, wounded and dead soldiers from the Grenadier Guards after an engagement during the Crimean War (1853-56). Butler’s curiosity about the experiences of ordinary soldiers led her to home in on their suffering, rather than their heroism. Her picture changed the way that artists represented war and taught people about its realities. Like many women, however, she struggled to maintain her renown after her marriage. Her husband’s peripatetic life as an army officer and her responsibility for caring for their six children limited her career. While she constantly ­referred to her husband’s achievements in her autobiography, he never once mentioned her in all 455 pages of his. Curiosity and talent may not be enough to make you one of “history’s people”.

MacMillan’s book concludes by praising history’s “observers” – those who kept the records that today enable us to understand what life was like in the past. Samuel Pepys is one such character. From 1660, when he started his diary, this English civil servant recorded the everyday aspects of his life – illnesses, infidelities and intoxication, as well as court gossip and high politics. Pepys has shed more light on the world of Charles II than any other writer.

Another diarist, Victor Klemperer, fulfilled a parallel function in wartime Germany from 1933 through the Holocaust years. Although it was a crime punishable by death for a Jew to keep a diary, Klemperer meticulously recorded the relentless prohibitions and restrictions that Jews endured. His diaries also show his growing realisation that deported Jews were not simply being exploited in the Nazis’ labour camps but were being murdered.

The bombing of Dresden proved to be Klemperer’s salvation. In the chaos, he ripped off his yellow star and, with his non-Jewish wife, wandered the countryside begging for food and lodgings and pondering whether, if he survived the pain and humiliation, he could ever be “transformed back into a human being”. He survived the war.

As in her discussion of Pepys and Klemperer, MacMillan brings individuals alive. She has a keen appreciation for detail, from the gigantic size of Bismarck’s chamber pot to the tiger-like intensity of Stalin’s amber eyes. Her book is also lush with metaphors. History, she ruminates, is a house that has been rebuilt repeatedly. Although its “foundations are buried in . . . the mists of time”, historians are its appointed caretakers. And history is a “feast”: to enjoy its flavour, we need to engage in a conversation with the others around the table. Through such attention to detail, we can learn to understand people in the past and empathise with them. Their eccentricities, passions and ambitions are mesmerising. Historians don’t need to ask “What if?” because “Why?” is so much more fascinating.

Joanna Bourke is the author of The Story of Pain (Oxford University Press)

History’s People: Personalities and the Past by Margaret MacMillan is published by Profile Books (269pp, £14.99)

This article appears in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho