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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Interview: Professor Margaret Macmillan

What are the parallels between 2016 and 1914? Professor Margaret MacMillan talks to Juncture about the rise of nationalist populism.

Professor Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford. Her books include Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, for which she was the first woman to win the Samuel Johnson Prize; Nixon in China: Six Days that Changed the WorldThe Uses and Abuses of History; and The War that Ended Peace. Juncture met her at St Anthony’s College to discuss whether today’s political convulsions have any historical parallels and what we can learn from the past to meet the challenges of the present.

Juncture: The last year has been tumultuous: you were recently asked to liken 2016 to another year in history and chose 1914. Can you explain why?

Professor Margaret MacMillan: There are never exact parallels, and I always resist saying that history repeats itself. The times are different, the chronology is different, the political actors are different. In fact, history can’t repeat itself because we know what happened before, so in a way that affects the decisions we make now.

But there are certainly parallels with 1914. There were concerns then about the way society was going, and there were tensions in society, with a sense that some people were far too rich; these tensions were very acute in places like Russia and parts of Europe. There were concerns about divisions within society, some of which were very similar to what we are witnessing today. There was a rise of radical anti-democratic politics, whether it was on the right or the left. This was worrying some people, although of course it wasn’t what it was going to become in the late 1920s or 1930s.

There was also a rise of aggressive nationalism (or nationalisms) across Europe and elsewhere; you could see it beginning to happen in the Americas and the Middle East. These were nationalisms that were hostile to other nationalisms. So often, nationalism – and particularly ethno-nationalism – is based on the predication that, ‘We are somehow superior’, ‘We’ve been done badly by them’, or ‘We should triumph against them but we haven’t yet, and they are out to get us’. There was talk of ‘hereditary enemies’; the French and the Germans were each other’s hereditary enemies, or the Germans and the Slavs were each other’s hereditary enemies.

In some ways, this reminds me of what we’re getting today. Of course, what we’re seeing now is not just nationalisms; we’re also getting talk of the ‘clash of civilisations’. But I do think there were currents that were disturbing Europe in 1914 that have parallels today.

J: Do you think there is a similar complacency today to that which some say existed on the eve of the First World War?

MM: There was certainly complacency in 1914. There was a feeling that our structures were strong and ‘we’ll deal with this’. Even in Russia there was hope that after the revolution of 1905 – when the Tsar reluctantly granted a constitution – the country was beginning to move down a better path. You had, in some cases, quite effective local governments, a growing middle class, a growing working class, and increasing political expression, so it looked as though Russia, which was developing fast, was going to transform itself into something closer to its neighbours in the West.

But there was a sort of complacency, though, throughout Europe. There was a sense that, ‘We have these strains in society, we’re concerned about them, and there have been these conflicts, but we have come through it all and dealt with it. After all, we’ve extended the franchise, we’ve extended social benefits, we’ve dealt with some of the sources of political and social unrest and we’re dealing better with our economies. What’s more, it’s very unlikely that we’ll go to war because our economies are so intertwined it doesn’t make sense. We’re a rational civilisation.’ People talked like that then.

There was complacency also in the belief that if there was an international crisis, the system could deal with it. They had had a series of crises from about 1904 onwards, including in 1911, 1912 and 1913 in the Balkans, and they dealt with them. There was a sense by 1914 that, ‘Yes, we have problems. Yes, we should worry about the arms race, national rivalries, economic rivalries. But our structures are strong enough and after all, we’ve dealt with it before’.

So, when the crisis of 1914 began to happen – and it happened very quickly, it was only five weeks from the assassination (of Archduke Franz Ferdinand) to a general European war – a lot of people said, ‘Well, here we go again. There will be a lot of huffing and puffing. But it will be okay.’ People got used to the idea that you mobilised troops or you sent threatening signals. But they also thought there would then be a conference of ambassadors to sort it all out.

That is what worries me about the present. We have got used to what for many – though of course not all – has been a long period of peace. Europe has not had a major conflict since 1945. Neither has Asia, although there were certainly very desperate conflicts in Indochina, for example. Latin America has been largely peaceful. Africa has had fearful conflicts, and still has some, but seems to be mostly fairly stable. We have become used to the idea that peace is the normal state of human affairs and to the idea that nations will sort out their differences some way or another, even if they are antagonistic.

This worries me, because I think that the international system is fraying. Any system works only as long as enough powers and people buy into it, and at the moment we have too many who are not buying into it. Putin is ignoring it. It is not at all clear how China is going to act. You have a president of the US who seems to be antipathetic to an international system that might in some way constrain his country. And there are governments behaving with impunity against their own people, like in Syria.

How much can we take of this, and at what point do people begin to say: ‘There’s no point in co-operating, we’d better just look out for ourselves’?

That seems too dangerous to me. What will happen when national rivalries are magnified by governments that play to public opinion? If an incident were to happen in the East China or South China seas, say involving a Japanese ship, or where a Chinese ship gets sunk or a plane gets shot down, what would happen then? Is there enough goodwill to try and sort it out, or will you get governments being pushed by nationalist opinion?

J: How would you situate the growth of right wing populism in this broader context?

MM: What we seem to be seeing internationally is the breaking down of a common ground, a sense that it is worth our while having some sort of international order. There was that recognition after the second world war: that we all lose if we have major wars. Now, if we were to have a major conflict, perhaps involving biological or chemical weapons, we would all lose again. We are all already losing because of climate change. That sense that in fact we share something, even if it’s a common threat, is very important, but is being lost.

This tendency to say, ‘Oh to hell with the rest of the world’ is what we’re seeing in domestic politics as well. There is an erosion of a sense that there is a middle ground – a common good where we all accept the rules. That is the way democracies work. The Soviet Union had some five different constitutions – all wonderful creations – but it’s the will to make them work that matters. At the most basic level, it’s an agreement that you will do certain things and not others. You won’t stuff ballot boxes, you won’t shoot your opponents, you won’t accuse your opponents of being evil and you won’t ignore the institutions that make it all work. That is what it seems to me that we are losing.

What is so dangerous about populist politics (to call them ‘right wing’ sometimes gives them more political coherence than they have; they can sometimes sound quite left-wing) is that they claim to speak for something called ‘the people’. They never define ‘the people’, but they are quick to point out that, if you disagree with them, you’re an enemy of the people. That is dangerous, because it’s not the old common acceptance of party politics in a democracy, where we accept that you and I can disagree firmly – or vehemently, or maybe even bitterly – on political issues, but we still accept the basic ground rules.

Look at the Law and Justice party government in Poland, for example. They have used existing institutions to get into power and now they are busily dismantling them. They are undermining the law courts, working to curb and suppress a free press. This pattern is what I think is so dangerous. The cynical use of democratic institutions is similar to that of people like Beppe Grillo, who says, ‘They’re all crooks, they’re all liars’. And you get the same kind of thing with Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and UKIP. They actually have contempt for the processes of democracy and are breaking down the common ground.

J: It’s interesting that you argue today’s populists are anti-democratic. One argument we hear today is that current right wing populists are anti-liberal, but unlike 1930s fascists, they are still democrats. Do you recognise that distinction?

MM: Well, many of them are already challenging democratic norms and institutions. I’ve already mentioned Poland. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán is attacking the institutions that make democracy possible, and he is using a similar language of exclusion. Whenever people talk about ‘Christian civilisation’, I tend to think we’re in trouble – because what they really mean is ‘them and us’. We can fall too easily into saying, ‘They’re all fascists’. The fascists had very particular priorities and goals. But on attitudes towards democracy I certainly see parallels. The fascists were profoundly anti-democratic and used democratic institutions very successfully to get into power. I’m not saying that those events are definitely going to repeat themselves, but the parallels are clear.

J: Can we probe the comparisons with the ‘30s a bit more? Do you think we’re now in a better place because, for example, we haven’t had a cataclysmic event like the First World War?

MM: Let us hope that we are better placed to withstand the dangers today. We escaped a real catastrophe in 2008. We are only now beginning to realise just how close we came to real financial meltdown. The Great Depression clearly had a more catastrophic effect on certain, but not all, societies. It hit Germany, Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States very hard and had a real impact on their politics. But what 2008 did do was crystallise the feelings of a lot of people that the economy was not working for everyone. It crystallised feelings about the growing gap between a very visible mega rich and the majority who are feeling economically insecure.

J: How much do you think the rise of populism can be attributed to economics? And how much do you think it is more about culture – for example, a marginalisation of some parts of society?

MM: I think it is both. The economic argument is really about fairness. We have been telling people for the last 15 years. ‘You’re okay, look at the figures, you are actually better off’. But people don’t feel this. The problem is that we are not good at measuring feelings, and there is a deep sense of unfairness that is felt by many at the moment.

But cultural explanations are important too. Mark Lilla recently wrote a controversial essay in the New York Times.[2] He said: ‘The trouble with identity politics is it served to divide us up. It’s all very well to say that this identity needs to be protected, but again, what it has not done is stress the things where we’re connected.’ Today many middle-aged white men, and maybe middle-aged white women too, feel marginalised. A lot of them, whether they are quite prosperous or from lower socioeconomic groups, voted for Trump. There is a sense of, ‘We’re under attack’. Now, that may not be right, but that’s the feeling. We have been so dominated by the economists’ model that says people are all rational, but they are not: we are bundles of feelings. We’re biologically complex organisms and we don’t always even understand what motivates us.

There are parallels from history, of both economic and cultural factors mixing together. In the run-up to 1914, there were huge economic changes. There had been a real slump in the 1890s that had thrown a lot of people out of work. The opening up of all the great grain fields in the American midwest and the Canadian west was undercutting the price of wheat across Europe, so land was less valuable. Those who depended on land were feeling it, whether they owned a lot of land or not. At the same time, mass production was taking away the livelihoods of artisans. The big stores, like Selfridges, and the grand magasins in Paris, were undercutting the small shopkeepers, and so was mail order.

There was also a lot of worry in wider culture before the first world war, which I think we also have now. ‘What is happening to human nature? Things are moving too fast. Things are out of our control. We don’t quite know what’s happening. What’s happening to the human race?’ Like now, there were people thinking that things were better ‘back then’ in a golden past. It wasn’t necessarily true, but when people feel uneasy they dream of a past in which things were simpler, men were men and women were women and if you did an honest day’s work you got an honest day’s pay.

J: Are there any historical lessons in which fascism, or populism, was defeated before any disastrous consequences followed?

MM: It is important to remember that even in the 1930s not all democracies caved in. It didn’t happen in Britain. In France, after the crisis of 1934 when the far right orchestrated anti-parliamentary street protests, you got a Popular Front where all the democratic parties came together to preserve democracy and did so successfully until the Second World War.

In the US, instead of fascism there was the New Deal. The fascist threat was never as serious. Americans, until recently at least, have always basically had a very strong middle ground. Socialism has never got in, and communism never got many adherents in the US. But in the late ‘20s and ‘30s there were worrying signs. Huey Long was a charismatic demagogue who had the potential to be a successful – if not necessarily democratic – leader. Father Coughlin had this massively popular radio programme which had a lot of racist and antisemitic talk. And what Roosevelt did was both build a very successful electoral coalition and get the American economy going again. There is still huge debate over his policies: could he have done it differently? Could he have done it quicker? And probably what really got the American economy going again was the second world war, but he did restore confidence and that was part of it.

In Germany I think the threat was stronger, partly because of the trauma of the First World War. But human agency still mattered, even then. There was a coalition of democratic parties, which could have held, but didn’t. It failed due to poor political leadership and the stupid, short-sighted, idiotic calculations of those around President Hindenburg who thought they could use Hitler. I’m not sure how much Hindenburg was aware of what was going on by 1932 – he was obviously very old and was being advised by his son – but Hindenburg did not have to invite Hitler into the government. There were some in the military who thought: ‘Hitler, we don’t like him. He’s a jumped up corporal, but we can use him. We can use his votes.’ But I don’t think they recognised what they were dealing with. As soon as he got his hands on the levers of power, he used them to destroy the very system that had put him into power. But they didn’t have to invite him in. There was a real lack of leadership.

J: How should the political centre respond to populist forces? If, for example, Geert Wilders wins the up-coming Dutch election, would you bring him into a coalition or try and shut him out?

MM: Well, I think you find your allies among other people who believe in democracy. That may include people whose economic and social ideas you disagree with violently. In the ‘30s, there were coalitions of Catholic centrists with socialists who probably didn’t have much in common. But they all recognised that the crucial question was how to preserve democratic and constitutional institutions. In Britain, there was a cross-party sense that, ‘Oswald Moseley is not for us, he’s gone too far.’ In France, you had a Popular Front, which included radical socialists and communists too, who, at least temporarily, were in favour of democracy and constitutions.

And look at the coalition Roosevelt built in the US: the rationalist, sensible capitalists realised that he’d saved capitalism, but he also built a coalition of the working class, northern blacks and southern whites. It was a strange coalition, but it did preserve the institutions and you don’t always have to like the people you compromise with. That is what politics is about.

If you invite the populists of today in, they won’t co-operate. You won’t marginalise them; you won’t tame them. They invited Hitler in and look what happened.

My own prediction is that if they invite Geert Wilders in he will use it as a platform to say things about ‘Moroccan scum’ – it will only give him more credibility and amplify his megaphone. I think it’s very, very dangerous to even think of it.

J: We’d like to turn to the use and misuse of history. How is history misused by populists and, perhaps more importantly, how can it be used as part of the response to populist arguments?

MM: Well, history is used by populists to create a narrative of, ‘It’s our people. We’ve always been a people. We all belong together.’ It’s often an anti-immigrant or anti-other narrative, and it’s a false history.

It’s also used to create nostalgia for a golden past. It uses the past to project something into the future – a notion that you are going to take people to the promised land and it’s going to be like this golden past. Some of the Islamic fundamentalists do this as well: ‘There was once this golden age when all Muslims lived in harmony, just after the death of the prophet, and we will give you that.’ It’s all based on a mythical view. We also get it with the whole ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative. It’s argues that there has always been a clash between Islam and Christianity, but it’s just not true. That is where I think the misuse of history is very dangerous because it can motivate people and create hostility, anger hatred and fear.

Where history can be useful is in opening our minds to other possibilities. The world is full of examples of societies that aren’t like ours, both in the present and in the past. Our own society also did things in different ways in the past and examining this at least keeps us open to the possibility that what we think is the best way of doing things may in fact not be.

Knowing history also helps to ask some at least halfway intelligent questions about the present and the future. It helps us to get some idea of what might happen if certain decisions are made. For example, how can we understand Russia without knowing what Russia has been through? We need to know the history of the 20th century, a history of terrible invasion, terrible loss, a terrible government, and revolution.? To understand the Russia of today it is essential to know that history, because that is what the Russians are remembering.

So, history can be dangerous, but I think history well used can really stimulate discussion, open our minds, and help us understand ourselves and others in the world better.

J: How much do you think historians should directly counter the misuse of history? For example, how much should they engage with arguments that people like Steve Bannon make? I’m thinking, for example, about the 2014 speech he gave at a conference at the Vatican.

MM: I think it’s absolutely necessary, because people like Bannon seem to be doing is saying, ‘I understand how history works’. In some ways, Bannon is rather like Marx, whom he probably admires. Marx said, ‘I understand history. I understand the mechanism by which it works. It’s all clear. There is no debate about it.’ I think what Bannon is saying is, ‘I’ve got the true picture of how history works’, and he believes it works in cycles. He believes that great catastrophes are bound to happen, that they are moments of great innovation, that it’s actually good to have a catastrophe. He has said the US is going to have a war with China in the next 30 years, which of course makes it more likely, if you say things like that.

But he also believes in the clash of civilisations; he believes that Islam and Christianity are antithetical to each other, which is a very primitive view of what civilisation is. It’s as though different civilisations are two billiard balls, which just bang against each other. But civilisation is much more like a great fuzzy, floating mass of plankton, which mixes with other fuzzy, floating masses. It’s not a very good image, but civilisation is not some solid thing that just moves around; civilisation is constantly changing and being created.

What Christian civilisation is today is very different to what Christian civilisation was in the middle ages or in the Roman empire. Christian civilisation has always mixed and always taken things from other civilisations. Christianity itself came from the Middle East and drew very heavily on middle-eastern traditions. What is more, Christians and Muslims – if you want to take just two civilisations – both have great variety. So, to talk of a singular Christian and a singular Muslim society makes no sense to me whatsoever. This idea that civilisations clash against each other and never learn from each other is just so against what actually happens.

J: Do you think of the US is taking an isolationist turn? And how, if at all, does this relate to policies like the immigration ban?

MM: Well, there have always been isolationist strands in American thinking. It goes right back to the founding of the republic – that whole image of the shining city on the hill and, ‘We don’t need Europe. Europe is full of the dark we’re trying to escape and we’re a different sort of place.’ There were these arguments among the early founding fathers that were asking, ‘Should we engage with the rest of the world or should we try and draw ourselves in on ourselves?’

But in fact, the US has always been engaged in the world. There has always been the other side and those who say, ‘No, we need to engage, and even if we’re a shining city on the hill, we need to spread the message and help others.’ That’s the Wilsonian view. And the US has always engaged with its neighbours. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, which is seen as the heyday of isolationism, the US was very involved. It didn’t join the League of Nations, but there were American observers at all major League assemblies and meetings and conferences. It was always engaged: it was engaged in Asia; it was engaged in the western hemisphere; it helped to settle or tried to settle the reparations issue. So even at a time when people said the Americans were very isolationist, in fact they were engaged much more than one would think.

I think again we’re seeing this old debate being played out. It was there during the cold war, except that the Soviet menace was so omnipresent that even isolationists couldn’t say, ‘We can forget about it’. If the Soviets can send a rocket over with a nuclear bomb on the tip then you cannot say, ‘We can ignore the world’. But now I think we’re seeing the old argument being played out more vocally. Trump is expressing the view that we don’t need these foreigners, and bad things come from the outside.

You can see this with the sudden travel ban on Muslims. It’s very similar to what happened in the 19th century with fear of Roman Catholics. (‘The Catholics are a fifth column. We don’t want the Irish. We know that the Pope is plotting the overthrow of the US.’) They’ve changed the labels but this kind of world view comes back periodically in American politics. I recently reread Richard Hofstadter’s essay, ‘The paranoid style in American politics’.[3] It’s well worth reading because this paranoid style just comes out again, every so often. The US was founded in an act of rebellion against an outside power, but it was also civil war, so there is this combination of fear of an outside power and traitors at home. You had it during the cold war. ‘The communists are traitors here at home and there is a power out there who is supporting them and is our enemy.’ Now you’re getting, ‘The Muslims are traitors here at home and there is ISIS out there'. So, it’s a recurring theme.

One final point is that even as there are those who say, ‘We don’t need the rest of the world,’ the US does need the rest of the world, more than it ever has. It’s much more of a trading nation than it used to be, and the world just is much smaller. You might have been able to ignore the world in the 18th century – or even the first half of the 19th century – but you can’t do it now. You can’t do it because the rest of the world can get to the US in various ways, and what the rest of the world does is going to affect you.

J: In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, how much potential is there for Britain to look to the ‘Anglosphere’ for meaningful alliances?

MM: In Canada we would say, ‘You’re dreaming in Technicolor’. It was one of those false narratives during the referendum campaign, which I just thought was ridiculous. It just isn’t going to happen. The special relationship has always been a pipedream: it’s special for the British, not for the US. The idea that Canada, Australia and New Zealand are waiting to be embraced by Britain again just isn’t credible. Time has moved on. When I grew up in Canada, it still had a very British feel. But it’s not like that anymore. Canada is different, and we’re looking across the Pacific and we look south to the US. We may have some sort of nostalgic feeling for Britain, but you turned your backs on us a long time ago. The idea that you can suddenly pick up and say, ‘Oh by the way, we didn’t mean it’ – I don’t think it’s going to happen.

J: What holds the EU together now that collective memory of the Second World War has receded?

MM: I can just remember the end of the second world war, and I remember coming to England as a child and seeing the bomb damage. You just saw great holes in the fabric. A lot of people used to remember what the second world war had done to Europe because they had seen it or they had actually lived through it.

But of course, that generation has gone. My generation will soon be gone. And so the feeling that made the European Union seem so important, the feeling that we cannot do this again, because Europe has nearly been destroyed in two world wars, will go to. There is also the fact that Europe has had peace for so long, and younger generations have got used to this. It’s what we were talking about earlier, the complacency.


[1] This Juncture interview was conducted in partnership with the Jo Cox Foundation, which was established to take forward causes close to the murdered MP’s heart. It is a contribution to helping to understand the rise of right-wing populism.

[2] Lilla M (2016) ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’, New York Times, 18 November 2016.

[3] See The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Harper’s Magazine November 1964