How people make the past

The great currents of history are important, but it's the individuals whose stories fascinate us most, says Margaret MacMillan...

A portrait of Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty which ruled over much of India from 1526 to 1858. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Let me start with two very different stories in two very different parts of the past. In the 1790s, a young woman called Elizabeth Simcoe walked in the twilight through a forest in Upper Canada, a scarcely settled part of the British empire. A fire had recently swept through and its smoke still lingered.  Every so often, one of the smouldering trees shot out a tongue of flame. It was, she reported, “a little like Tasso’s enchanted wood”. In her copious journals, written for those she had left behind in England, we share her surprise and delight at the new world in which she found herself. Some three centuries earlier, Babur, a prince from central Asia, also decided to set down his thoughts and experiences in a journal, which somehow survived his turbulent and adventurous life. And so we can read about Babur’s complicated feelings when he first fell in love but was tongue-tied every time he encountered his adored one. We can sympathise as he gets discouraged in his quest for a kingdom of his own and muses on whether he should simply give up and go and wander around China.

Babur is famous in history as the founder of the Mughal dynasty which ruled over much of India from 1526 to 1858. Mrs Simcoe has been known only to a few specialists in Canadian history. Yet they are both history’s people, part of that long cavalcade of the renowned and the obscure, whose separate stories feed into and enrich history. I was drawn to them, as I have been to other individuals, partly because they wrote such vivid memoirs, but also because they each in their own way were part of great historical trends. He was part of that restless movement of peoples out of central Asia which helped to create new empires from Persia to China, while she was a part of the imperial edifices that the European powers were building around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The past is a far-off country, but voices such as theirs bring it closer to us. Their lives, like ours, were shaped by the great currents that run through history: economic and social changes, the spread of new ideas or technologies. Yet they were also individuals like us, with loves and hates, fears and hopes, biases and beliefs. And some of them, like Babur, changed the course of events. I must confess, as an inveterate gossip, I love their stories. They are also the stuff of the history I write. As a historian I need to know about both individuals and their times and how they interacted. I have found that the best way to draw students and readers into an understanding and enthusiasm for history is to tell them about people. I can explain the strategies and tactics of the First World War, for example, but it is when I describe the experiences of a young man who went into the army, or of the woman he left behind, that I help my listeners and readers see what that war meant for millions of lives.

The letters, diaries and memoirs which the past has bequeathed the present are an unending source of entertainment, enlightenment and edification. They can take us into worlds unlike our own and make us acquainted with people who may have very different values and attitudes. Today, for example, we tend to look at politicians with suspicion and wonder why anyone would choose to enter such a suspect profession. For young men of good families in ancient Rome, however, politics was the noblest of careers, but personal ambition for its own sake was despised. For inhabitants of the Byzantine world, what was seen was only part of reality. The invisible world, with its gods and spirits, was equally important and the Byzantines spent much thought and energy on placating or tricking the denizens of that other world. The Prussian Junker class, made up of sober country squires who believed in serving God and their king, has vanished, but we can learn something of its values when we read the memoirs of Countess Marion Dönhoff or Libussa Fritz-Krockow, people who grew up just as a way of life that had lasted for centuries was about to be swept away by the Nazis and the Second World War.

Yet we also have moments when we recognise that here is another human being sounding very like we might sound ourselves. We know what Samuel Pepys in 17th-century London is feeling when he complains about his wife’s boring friends who always seem to be hanging about just when he wants a quiet evening at home. When the 17th-century wit and woman of letters Madame de Sevigné writes to her beloved daughter about how much she misses her, we can share her pain. In the essays of Michel de Montaigne, the nobleman who retired to his estates in France’s troubled 16th century, we encounter his search to understand human nature. The questions he poses are ones we might well ask ourselves. Why is it that our minds wander? Why do we find certain people beautiful and not others? What, if anything, happens to our souls when we die?

We all love stories, and I think I first became interested in history through the ones my parents and grandparents told me about their own lives. And then there were books for children: historical novels by Geoffrey Trease or Rosemary Sutcliffe and carefully sanitised versions of The Arabian Nights or King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. As I grew older, I learned that history is more than a collection of stories about individuals. It is about economic, social or ideological forces and the great changes they bring, such as the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, or the spread of liberal democracy and the rise of its totalitarian opponents.

So we need to ask how did Mrs Simcoe, an heiress from England, find herself quoting an Italian Renaissance poet in one of the British empire’s newer colonies? Or why was Babur drawn to conquer India and what made him succeed? What were the currents that swept them along? Without the great expansion of European empires there would have been no Upper Canada for Mrs Simcoe’s husband to rule. Babur could not have taken India if its rulers had not been pitted against each other. We are all products of our own societies: we take on their values and assumptions, often without realising it. If we have opportunities, those come because the times allow for them. Think of all the women in history who did not get the same educations or chances in life as their brothers. Napoleon was a man of many and extraordinary talents. Yet, as someone from a modest family in the backwater of Corsica, he would not have been able to exercise those if the French Revolution had not swept away much of the old order.

Napoleon did not just fall through an open door into a position of power. He stormed through it and made himself the master of France and then Europe. We have to ask if there was anyone else in France who could have done it, which is not the same as going back to what EH Carr, the distinguished British historian, called the ‘Bad King John’ approach to history – the view, as he put it, “that what matters in history is the character and behaviour of individuals”.

It does, however, seem legitimate to ask what would have happened if certain individuals had never lived. Would socialist thinking in the 19th century have been the same without Karl Marx? There were many variants of socialism, but through his work and his powerful intellect he created a theory so all-encompassing that it influenced politics for the next century. Or what road would Germany have followed if Hitler had been killed, as he nearly was, in the First World War? Other radical nationalist leaders shared his racism and his ambition to dominate Europe, but it is hard to imagine that Goebbels or Goering could have mesmerised the German people as Hitler did, or would have been prepared to see the German nation perish rather than surrender. In Soviet Russia, the Bolshevik leadership believed that collectivisation of the farms was the necessary first step towards industrialisation, yet it took Stalin to force it. If Winston Churchill had died when he was knocked down by a car on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1931, he could not have become prime minister in the spring of 1940, the darkest days of the Second World War. Would any other leading British politician – Neville Chamberlain, for example – have determined that Britain must not attempt to make peace with Hitler’s Germany, that it must fight on, even in the face of likely defeat? It is hard to imagine anyone other than Churchill taking that stand.

Sometimes the character of the man or woman in power really does matter. As the crisis of 1914 reached its culmination in late July, two men could have stopped the slide to war: Nicholas II of Russia and Wilhelm II of Germany. Each had to sign the order for his country’s general mobilisation; each hesitated in the hopes of maintaining the peace; and each gave way to pressure from his advisers (both were afraid of appearing weak).

President John F Kennedy faced similar pressures in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Many of his top military advisers told him that he had to get tough with the Soviets and demand the removal of their forces from Cuba, even at the risk of nuclear war. Kennedy opted for a combination of blockade and negotiation. Perhaps it helped that he had just read Barbara Tuchman’s history of how Europe blundered into the First World War. Individuals are swept along for the most part by the currents of history, but we need to be aware that sometimes there are those who ride and steer those currents and, occasionally, turn them in another direction altogether.

In every society there are some who are more daring, ambitious or simply more restless than the rest of us. Such people will go up in balloons, climb unconquered peaks just because they are there, or go into space even though they know that they are risking their lives. In the great age of exploration, they set off in tiny ships across uncharted waters or walked across unmapped continents. Entrepreneurs and inventors, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, will persist in the face of failure. Martin Luther defied the might of the Catholic church and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn the Soviet government.

Richard Nixon’s time as president will always be marked by Watergate, the scandal that destroyed him, when he used the powers of his office against his opponents. Yet he was also a statesman who took a risk in re-establishing American relations with China. At a time when anti-communist feeling still ran deep in the United States and memories of American troops fighting Chinese ones in the Korean War were still vivid, he took a considerable political gamble when he went to Beijing. His trip paid off, not right away perhaps, but in the longer run. Not only did Nixon’s opening of relations with China put the United States back in the centre of world affairs, but it made possible a more stable Asia. It helped that, on the Chinese side, Mao Zedong had also decided that China needed the United States as a friend. The two countries had strong reasons for coming together, but it took Nixon and Mao to make it happen.

Still other personalities in history stand out for me simply because of who they were. They might be witty and amusing like the Duc of Saint-Simon at the court of Louis XIV, who noted down all the court gossip and the damning details about the king, whom he greatly disliked. Perhaps, like Madame de la Tour du Pin in the French Revolution, they encountered adversity bravely. She went from being a privileged member of the French court to living on a farm in New York state. Others still set out on improbable adventures, stepping out boldly in the face of obstacles and minefields. Edith Durham, from a prosperous upper-middle-class family in London before the First World War, was miserable looking after an invalid mother. When the doctor advised that she take some holidays every summer, Durham chose to explore the wilder parts of the Balkans, often on her own. In time she became a leading authority on Albania.

What all such people have in common is curiosity, about the peoples and places they encounter. When Babur conquered India, he wrote copiously about the land (which he found flat and ugly compared to his beloved mountains), its flora and fauna. He liked the hibiscus and oleanders, and what to him were the strange and different customs of its people. Mrs Simcoe sketched and described everything she came across, from Niagara Falls to Native Americans.

Without such acute observers history would be much the poorer. We know a great deal about Nazi Germany, thanks in part to the records the Nazis themselves kept, but without Victor Klemperer we would not know first-hand what it was like to be a Jew there. Because he was married to what the Nazis classified as an ‘Aryan’, he was spared deportation and death in the camps to the east. He kept a diary, a brave act in itself, which shows, hideous detail by detail, how the regime tightened its grip and systematically excluded German Jews from society throughout the 1930s. Klemperer and his wife chose not to emigrate and when war came they no longer had the choice. We see through the diaries Klemperer’s gradual realisation that Europe’s Jews are being exterminated and we wait with him for the war to end.

History is always changing. We find new documents and artefacts. We bring in new insights from other fields such as biology, anthropology or archeology. And we ask new questions because of what preoccupies us. Climate history, for example, is a new and exciting field. Yet we should not ignore those individual voices from the past. They remind us both of our common humanity and of the differences among us. Above all, they bring history to life and help us to understand why it is important – and show us that it can be fun too.

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Margaret MacMillan is a professor of international history at the University of Oxford. She is the author of numerous award-winning books, including the acclaimed The War That Ended Peace (Profile, 2013), and is a frequent contributor to TV and radio programmes.