Rewriting history (literally)
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 October 2005)

This fall, Britain's Prospect and America's Foreign Policy magazines are asking readers to pick their favourite "Public intellectual" from a list of 100 world-renowned thinkers. The winner will be announced next month. Starting today, the National Post is conducting a companion search to find Canada's most important public intellectual. As with the global contest, our Beautiful Minds competition defines a public intellectual as someone who has shown distinction in his or her own field, and can communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it. All candidates must be living, have a strong connection to Canada, and be active in public life. Post employees and columnists are ineligible. Selected candidates will be championed by Post contributors, with one profiled daily. As profiles are published, they will appear on the contest site, www.

In early November, the site will be open for voting, and readers will be invited to pick their favourite public intellectual. Write-in candidates will be welcomed.

The most valuable public work of an intellectual often turns out to be negative, the scraping away of congealed misconceptions that limit our understanding of reality. Playing this role, Margaret MacMillan has established herself as the shining star among Canadian public intellectuals of the early 21st century.

In her major book, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, published three years ago, she unpacked, dissected and pretty well discarded one of the central beliefs of modern geopolitics: The Treaty of Versailles so badly swindled the Germans that it drove them to despair, Hitler, war, even the death camps. Until MacMillan came on the scene, it was widely accepted (though there were some doubters) that the most ambitious peace conference of modern times pointed Europe straight toward war.

While MacMillan writes with grace and generosity, she doesn't shy away from conflict. To make her point she had to take on John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), the most influential economist of modern times. It was Keynes who wrote the first book on the peace conference and managed to make Germany look like the pathetic victim of the Allies' post-war lust for revenge.

In 1919, after serving as a Treasury official with the British delegation at the six-months-long Paris peace conference, Keynes wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, arguing that the peace treaty imposed impossible conditions on Germany. His book was a best seller, particularly in Germany, where his views became Holy Writ. In 1936, on another subject entirely, Keynes would explain how politicians and dictators unthinkingly repeat the wrong-headed ideas of faded academics: "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." He didn't understand that he was already the most significant scribbler of his day, the inspiration of madmen.

Keynes undermined the authority of Allied governments in their later dealings with Germany and encouraged both pre-Hitler governments and the Nazis to defy, again and again, the restraints that Versailles had placed on them, notably disarmament. Others have since argued with the views of Keynes, but MacMillan in her quiet way demolished them. In future, everyone who writes about The Economic Consequences of the Peace will have to deal with her measured, fact-based analysis.

The real problem, she showed, was that the Germans did not acknowledge their guilt for the First World War and didn't even believe they were defeated -- though their generals told the Kaiser it was all over and he had to sue for peace. MacMillan believes it would have been better, in the end, if the Allied armies had marched straight to Berlin, so that the Germans could have understood precisely what had happened to them. Instead, the German army was welcomed home by a president who said "We greet you undefeated."

That began a propaganda campaign that convinced Germans they had been stabbed in the back by disloyal politicians and forced to accept peace terms that lacked legitimacy. Understanding how this worked will alter permanently many common ideas about the course of the last century. The folklore of betrayal turned into a lie that spread mass paranoia, made every German feel wronged, and eventually brought Hitler to power. Nationalists argued that financial reparations imposed at Versailles emasculated Germany and caused both inflation and unemployment. They continued to believe this even after they became, in a mere 20 years (1919-1939), capable of making war on the rest of Europe. MacMillan, introducing a little realism into a hysteria-driven argument, showed that reparations were far, far lower than most of the world imagined.

Not every competent historian can be called an intellectual, still less a public intellectual. Many historians plough such thin furrows that they spend their lives compiling details without context and answering questions of interest to no one but other historians. Margaret Olwen MacMillan, Oxford D.Phil. in history, provost of Trinity College and professor of history at the University of Toronto, warden-designate of St Antony's College, Oxford (a job she'll take up in 2007), falls into another category entirely.

She works in the tradition developed by Edward Gibbon in the 18th century and Thomas Babington Macaulay in the 19th, carried into the 20th century by writers like Donald Creighton in Canada and Barbara Tuchman in the U.S. She believes in assembling the facts but believes just as much in the uses of storytelling, the enlivening charm of gossip, and above all the importance of the ideas that motivate governments and populations. Making the connections among all these elements is the art she practices at a high level, the art of the intellectual who is also a chronicler.

She admires the great characters in her story but lets us know their faults as well: Self-righteous Woodrow Wilson, rash Georges Clemenceau, and the rather ignorant David Lloyd George (as it happens, MacMillan's great-grandfather), who had trouble remembering such details as why he should be interested in Syria.

There are times, in Paris 1919, when she makes us feel we are reading the story of modernity as told by Jane Austen, a delightful prospect. Certainly she has a novelist's eye for the evocative detail. She describes a glamorous American divorcee who hurried to Paris during the conference (in company with Elsa Maxwell, not yet America's most famous hostess) because she wanted a new husband -- and went home with the future conqueror of Japan, Douglas MacArthur. She notes that Queen Marie of Romania came to protect her country's interests while pursuing her own hobbies, shopping and adultery. "You often find historians start out as gossips," she told an interviewer. "We want to know what people are doing and why they are doing it."

MacMillan writes with a cool sense of proportion and a profound commitment to her subject. Now she's working on a book about Richard Nixon's visit to China, which sounds as ambitious and promising as her study of the peace conference. When academic duties finally allow that book to emerge it will almost certainly surprise those of us who think we already know the meaning of Nixon's trip. That's what Margaret MacMillan does.

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