A few weeks ago I attended Margaret Macmillan’s talk at the Vancouver Public Library. I came across Macmillan because my professor recommended her book, The War That Ended Peace , to the class. It hadn’t hit me that this is the centennial year of the start of WW1 so it is apt that Macmillan’s book is becoming more talked about now.
It was really a novel experience to be around people who liked history as much as I did although I was disappointed that there were very few people in my age group there. It was an even better experience to listen to someone speak who has a connection to history herself ( Macmillan is the great granddaughter of David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for the first couple of years of WW1).
I found the event absolutely engaging. If I’d taken any History courses during my undergrad, I’d have loved to have had a professor like Macmillan. It’s so clear when someone is passionate about their work as she is. Macmillan said she loves “moments in history where issues become clear even when they are not settled.” She gave a lot of food for thought.
I found it interesting that Macmillan said there were a lot of parallels between the time pre-1914 and our present time, namely, we have become used to peace like our forebears did. She also made very interesting observations about Europe in those days. Europeans were overly-confident about their progress and about how powerful their continent was. They believed any war that would take place would be short-lived. They also believed that it was only a matter of time before China and the Ottoman Empire were divided up among them. They believed in the evolution of the human race and that Europeans were too civilized and advanced to go to war. Macmillan referenced the 1909 book entitled “The Great Illusion” where the author believed that war was unlikely as it profited nobody.
Interesting fact: When WW1 broke out, 30,000 works in England were published to discuss the cause of the war, whose fault it was. It was more than just the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. This is of course worrying because if we’re not sure of the cause how are we going to deal with similar situations today?
In history there are a lot of “what if’s”: What if there had been no WW1? Would there have been a Russian Revolution, and by extension, a Stalin, communism, or a Cold War? If the Ottoman Empire had still been intact, how would the Middle East have turned out? Is it possible that the British and French empires would still be in existence today, and that the USA would not have been as powerful as it is today if WW1 hadn’t broken out?
Was WW1 inevitable? Macmillan doesn’t think so. She believes that a couple of main factors were the reason. Globalization was one; this made people more suspicious of each other as they became intimately linked, Germany and Great Britain in particular. There was an 1896 pamphlet entitled “Made in Germany” that contained protectionism against Germany, who was seen as a threat economically.
The second reason was the growth in nationalism as the public became more literate and informed. Mythical histories formed, the popularity of social Darwinism which helped propagate the idea that struggle is good was also an issue, and the fact that military was seen as noble was not to be questioned all lent a hand here.
During the very short Q&A section, the first question from the audience, and I could see this one coming, was to ask Macmillan her thoughts on the crisis in the Ukraine. What I’d like to say here is that I’ve heard a lot of people question the value of humanities degrees (and I have one so this is speaking from experience), yet at this time where Russia and the Ukraine are making the news, people see the need of turning to a public intellectual, a humanities scholar (historian), for assurance and clarity.
In response to the question about the Ukraine, Macmillan stated that it all depends on Putin, which makes sense. The Ukraine can’t respond with force but the crisis has the potential to bring in other powers.
Another interesting question was about social media. Macmillan stated that although it’s good that we get messages a lot quicker, it does put a lot of pressure on the government to make quick decisions in times when they really should be taking their time to think things carefully.
And I loved this line from Margaret Macmillan, it sums up my approach to social justice and advocacy: “We keep trying and I think we have to keep trying.”
Slightly off-topic, I met a very interesting lady at the event. She writes lyrics for The Raging Grannies. She talked to me about her life, how she stopped working as a fashion designer to do activism work. I’m not sure how old she is, only that she shares a birthday with Nelson Mandela, but the fact that she’s still going strong, writing, and going to protests really inspired me.
Here is one of the songs that she wrote:
BE A THORN OR BE A SPANNER (to the tune of The Rose by Bette Midler)
“Be a thorn or be a spanner…
Be a sharp stick in the spokes,
Be a challenge…be persistent…
Be a poke…or several pokes!
Be a voice of new direction,
Be a satire! Be your age!
And remember…all you Grannies…
It’s up to us to rage!
Be a rose…or be a bouquet,
Be gently firm…or tough.
Come on, y’know it’s OK
To rebel!…Enough’s enough!
Just remember that we’re called on
To be thorns in the side…
Or a spanner in the old works…
From which a new world will arise!
– Barbara Calvert Seifred