Margaret MacMillan is a professor of history at the University of Toronto and an emeritus professor of international history at the University of Oxford, where she was also the fifth Warden of St. Antony’s College. She is the author of more 10 books, most recently War: How Confict Shaped Us. Before joining the second event in the Zócalo/University of Toronto The World We Want series, “What Would a New Cold War Mean for the World?,” MacMillan spoke in the green room about reorganizing her (many) books in quarantine, the high school teacher who told her not to study history, and the treasure troves she’s found while working in archives.
What is your favorite kind of research to do?
I quite like going to archives. I remember the first time I saw something written by Winston Churchill. It was really quite exciting. You just have this feeling that he had actually touched this bit of paper. I also like reading the things we're not meant to in real life: You read people's private letters, you read their private diaries, and you often get tremendous insights that way.
Do you ever find really wacky things in archives?
You do sometimes because archives are collections of people's papers and government papers, and sometimes they're quite well-catalogued, but sometimes this is just a whole lot of stuff in a box.
I remember ordering a box once in the National Archives in Canada that simply said, "Miscellaneous materials from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919." I found two giant posters from Hungary, warning about the perils of Bolshevism. And in another box, I found an extraordinary little booklet that had been given to all members of the British delegation in Paris, telling them what they could do and not do in their hotel rooms. It was wonderful. It said, "No cooking meals in the hotels, you mustn't cook in your rooms." And then it said, "Be very careful what you say on the telephone, because we suspect that others will be listening." What they meant, in fact, was their ally France. So it gave me a real insight into the way the British were thinking. But I loved the detail about not cooking in your bedrooms.
What's the best thing you've done in quarantine?
Something I should have done ages ago: I've started to reorganize my books.
Are you organizing them alphabetically or by topic? What's your process?
It's a mess. There's no perfect way. I've tended to organize them by period because I'm a historian, but then you get the question of biographies: Do you put the biography of someone in the period in which they lived, or do you put it in a separate section called biography? What you do with books on general subjects? I once did quite a lot of work on nationalism, so I have a separate section for that. So it keeps on shifting around. What I'm worried about now is I'm so busy reorganizing that I'm never going to find anything again!
What failure in your life did you learn the most from?
I didn't do very well in my first year at university as an undergraduate. I was having a wonderful time: I was going to lots of parties; I wasn't going to classes. I remember we had an exam—I think in Canadian history. In those days, we had notebooks, and I picked up my notebook and thought, ‘I better study my notes for the exam.’ When I opened it, it was completely blank. So I did not do well. I mean, I passed, but it shocked me, and I thought, I can do better than this. And so, the next year, I did, in fact, work, and I did do a bit better.
Did you know that you wanted to study history as a first year at the University of Toronto?
I had a lot of subjects I liked. I was lucky—I was one of those people who could do both humanities and science, and I liked science. I thought of being a doctor, except my father was a doctor and both my grandfathers were doctors. I noticed at some point that every time I saw blood, I felt queasy. So I said, perhaps this is not the career for me.
More and more, I was drawn to either history or English literature. I also quite liked the Classics. I went to a school in England for my last two years of high school, and I did Latin as a major subject. I also did Greek. Then I got to university and found studying English literature wasn't as much fun as studying history. By about my second year, I realized history was my subject.
How did going back and forth between Canada and England for much of your life impact your perspective?
There's something about being something of an outsider, or feeling yourself to be an outsider. My mother's family came from the UK, which is one of the reasons we all, as children, came back quite a bit. When I came to England, I was regarded as a Canadian or—what always infuriated us—as an American. Nothing personal, but Canadians are always getting mistaken for Americans.
It was quite nice, actually, to be slightly detached from English society, which was much more class-ridden in those days. They fussed a lot about your accent and so on. Being a Canadian, I had a certain freedom. Also, when I came back to Canada, I had a slightly different perspective from a lot of people who had grown up there and never traveled very much. So I think it gives you a certain detachment perhaps from your own society, which is not a bad thing. You can look at it both from the inside and the outside.
How did you get into trouble as a kid?
I used to read in class a lot. My parents loved the fact that I read, but when I read, I couldn't hear anything. My mother would say, "It's time for you to lay the table for dinner." And I would apparently say, "Yes, of course I will," and not know that I'd done it. That, of course, was rather irritating to them.
At school, I used to read under my desk. We sat at desks in those days, and I'd have a book on my knees. In grade four or five, I had a wonderful teacher who said, "Look, just read, just put it on your desk. Don't worry about putting it on your knees." She just let me read, and she also suggested books for me to read.
You've been a student, a professor, and a provost at the University of Toronto. Do you have a favorite piece of Toronto-specific history?
Because Toronto is my hometown, it's sort of my history. When I walk through it, even though it's changed a great deal, it's my place, and I know where I'm going, and I have a great many memories. I'm now in my late 70s. So when I walk down the street in Toronto, I think, I remember that restaurant used to be there; that store used to be there. I remember in the ’60s when there were cafes and people playing guitars. I remember going on demonstrations. I remember walking with friends.
If there's one thing I particularly like about Toronto—which is not really a beautiful city, but it has some very nice bits—[it's that] it has the most wonderful ravines running through it. You can walk for miles in them, and you see wildlife, you hear birds and streams running through. It's really a huge asset to the city.
Has there been a teacher or a boss who's changed your life?
Oh, yes. And it's not always those who encourage you. It's sometimes those who discourage you.
When I went to my boarding school in England, there was a formidable history teacher who was a great character. And she didn't like me, putting it mildly. I think it's more because I was Canadian than anything else. She didn't like Americans, and she thought Canadians were the same. She told everyone, including my parents and the head of the school, that I should never think of doing history. I just didn't have the ability for it.
And so I do think I had a feeling of, well, I'll show you.
You've written and edited over 10 books. What is the most difficult step for you in that process?
When you've accumulated quite a lot of material—and I tend to get quite a lot before I start—your ideas are beginning to develop. And then I find that I have this period, often three or four months or even longer, where I just sit there, and I don't know where to go. This period is where you think: I'm not making any progress at all. I'm not doing anything; I'm not writing anything. And then it begins somehow to gel. Once I start writing, I'm fine. I get drawn into it, and then it just goes.
What is your biggest pet peeve about historians?
It's the feeling that a lot of academics have that they don't need to explain what they're doing to anyone else—that they don't take teaching seriously. Perhaps the most important thing we do is teach. In addition to teaching, we ought to be explaining what we do to people who are interested—not necessarily our students, but people who want to know more about the past. So when historians say, "I don't want to teach, I just want to do research," or, "What I'm doing is too complicated, I don't want to bother to explain it to people"—that's wrong.
What is your hidden talent?
I was actually quite a good ice hockey player.
When I grew up in Canada, I wanted to be a figure skater because all little girls did. And then I realized—you can't see on this [Zoom call], but I'm about six feet tall—figure skaters who were six feet tall and don't have good balance aren't going to make it. But we grew up playing hockey because we grew up in Canada. We used to skate in the neighbor's backyard all winter. And so I played hockey for the University of Toronto hockey women's team.