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September 2011: Margaret MacMillan

1.    Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

It is hard to say. There was no one moment but rather different influences, some of which I was scarcely aware of, which gave me an interest in history in general and also in British history.  I was brought up mainly in Canada so of course we studied Canadian history—lots of explorers and the fur trade as well as the emergence of an independent Canada. In the 1950s and early 1960s when I was at school we were still very much part of the British empire so it was also natural for us to learn English poetry and sing your folk songs and study British history.  So we learned about 1066 and the Wars of the Roses and Queen Victoria.  I also read a lot of historical fiction—Rosemary Sutcliffe, G. A. Henty, even Walter Scott although I don’t think I could do him now.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

There was no one person but I would pick several. First Miss MacLeod, a wonderful teacher I had in my primary school in Canada. When she noticed that I was reading a book under my desk she told me to put it on top and read as much as I liked.  Then a negative influence—these can often be as important—in the shape of a history teacher when I was at high school in England for a couple of years who said I could never do history.  So of course I thought I would try and show her. And finally the History Department at the University of Toronto where I was an undergraduate in the 1960s. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was lucky in being taught by an outstanding group of historians.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

I thought seriously about law and in some ways, it seems to me, historians and lawyers are similar. We both treat evidence very seriously and we are in the business of picking apart the
arguments of others and making our own cases as strongly as we can.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

The most fulfilling was my book on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. I became fascinated by it—some might say obsessed—at some point in the 1980s.  I thought it was an extraordinary event, and still do, where big issues came up and where a wonderful range of characters assembled in Paris.  I had a lot of trouble in finding anyone who was interested in publishing it. As one publisher said, No one wants to read about a bunch of dead white men sitting around a table discussing peace treaties. I have always been glad that I persisted. I enjoyed the research
which took me from Ottawa to Paris to Washington and I mostly enjoyed the writing.  Of course there are always the moments when your head aches and you cannot see how to wrestle a complicated subject into any coherent shape.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

It seems to me to be moving in several interesting directions.  Perhaps because the British Empire is safely in the past, there is a renewed interest in how it came to be and what it was like both for those who ran it and those who were at the receiving end.  I also think political history is enjoying a revival possibly because the past few years have shown that politics matters, that who is in power matters, and that the choices societies make through politics matter.  If the Scottish nationalists get their wish and Scotland becomes independent I expect to see historians examining how the union came about and why it eventually ended.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

My first piece of advice is be sure that you like your topic when you start because if you don’t you most certainly will hate it by the time you finish.  My second is to try and choose a manageable topic but one which raises some interesting questions and issues.  I have a student doing a thesis on the American occupation of Greenland in 1940 during World War Two.  You might say it is an insignificant episode but in fact it sheds light on the changing nature of the relations between the United States, Britain and Canada, on the importance of
strategic locations and strategic materials in war, and on the way in which Roosevelt gradually moved the American people to recognizing that they might have to defend themselves. As far as publishing goes, it depends whether you want to publish a monograph with an academic press or try and publish in the trade press.  Both have their own requirements but my own feeling is that, whatever the type of press, academics should try and communicate as best they can to their readers.

To read more about Margaret MacMillan please visit her website at:

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