Margaret Olwen MacMillan, historian, author (born 23 December 1943 in Toronto, Ontario). Margaret MacMillan is professor emerita of history at the University of Toronto and international history at the University of Oxford. Her bestselling 2001 book, Paris 1919, examines the lasting impact of the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War. She continues to write about the role of war and peacemaking on human society.
Early Life and Family
MacMillan grew up in Toronto, the eldest of five children. In her essay “My Mother’s House” for the book Lives of Houses, edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermoine Lee, MacMillan wrote, “We were middle class, perhaps even upper-middle class, although Canadian society did not like to reflect on such gradations.” MacMillan’s father, Robert Laidlaw MacMillan, was a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and cofounder of the world’s first coronary care unit at Toronto General Hospital. Her mother, Eluned Carey Evans, the granddaughter of former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was in Canada at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and unable to return home. Margaret MacMillan’s sister Ann MacMillan was a journalist and the managing editor of CBC’s London bureau, and her nephew Dan Snow is a British popular historian.
MacMillan enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1962, earning a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in history at Trinity College. She later wrote, “We were taught very well, encouraged to read widely, and shown how to assess and follow the evidence, jettisoning if necessary neat theories. We also wrote lots and our professors rated style and clarity highly.” MacMillan then attended St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and earned a two-year Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) in Politics.
MacMillan received her Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) degree from St. Antony’s College, Oxford in 1974. Her doctoral dissertation concerned “Social and political attitudes of British expatriates in India, 1880–1920.” Her first book, Women of the Raj, examined the lives and attitudes of British women in India prior to independence and partition in 1947.
From 1975 to 2002, MacMillan was a professor of History at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University), serving as department chair for five years. She was the provost of Trinity College, University of Toronto from 2002 to 2007. From 1995 to 2003, MacMillan was the co-editor of International Journal, published by the Canadian Institute of International Affairs. From 2007 to 2017, she was Warden of St. Antony’s College Oxford and professor of International History at Oxford University.
Macmillan is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the Royal Society of Canada and the Royal Geographical Society of Canada and is an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy and of the Learned Society of Wales; she is also a trustee of the Imperial War Museum.
MacMillan’s best-selling book, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World, was released in 2001 in the United Kingdom and 2002 in North America. Paris 1919 received glowing reviews around the world. A book review by Policy Options declared, “Paris 1919 reads like a novel, except that no novelist would be allowed so many wild characters or such dense, intertwined and fascinating plots.”
MacMillan had long wanted to write a book about the Paris Peace Conference but initially had difficulty securing a publisher. Changing geopolitical circumstances in the 1990s, however, renewed interest in the 1919–20 meeting. Macmillan later reflected,
Timing played a huge part in its success. The euphoria that marked the end of the Cold War had gone as the 1990s and early 2000s brought the disintegration of states such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, the re-emergence of old rivalries frozen by the Cold War, renewed conflict in the Middle East, and terrorist attacks by Islamists on Western targets. People were asking why and the Paris Peace Conference helped to provide context and greater understanding.
Paris 1919 received numerous awards and accolades, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Duff Cooper Prize for an outstanding literary work in the field of history, biography or politics and the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History. MacMillan became the first woman to earn the Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize) for the best work of nonfiction published in the United Kingdom.
The Writing of History
MacMillan has cited historian Barbara Tuchman, author of The Guns of August, as “a huge influence” on her approach to history. In her books and public lectures, MacMillan advocates for accessible works of history written by professional historians. In her 2008 book, The Uses and Abuses of History, MacMillan discussed the importance of political history, writing “If we do not, as historians, write the history of great events as well as the small stories that make up the past, others will, and they will not necessarily do it well.” Her 2015 book History’s People: Personalities and the Past argued that historians must consider individual decision making and both short-term and long-term change, writing “We cannot dismiss the short term… Ideas and sudden shifts in politics, intellectual fashions, or in ideology or religion matter too… Nor can we dismiss the role of individuals, whether thinkers, artists, entrepreneurs, or political leaders.”
MacMillan has also emphasized the importance of history in the context of international relations, writing in The Uses and Abuses of History “If you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes or how they are likely to react to something you do.”
War and Peace
MacMillan’s recent books have explored the roles of war and peacemaking, examining the broader social impact of these phenomena. The War That Ended Peace examined the circumstances that precipitated the First World War and why peacemaking efforts were unsuccessful in 1914. MacMillan’s latest book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us explores the influence of war on human society from classical times to the present day. Both books received widespread critical praise. Former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin wrote about The War That Ended Peace, “I am only halfway through the book and I don't want to put it down… On the other hand, when I finish it, I will regret having done so because what I will really want to do is read it again for the first time." Times Higher Education book reviewer A.W. Perdue was “impressed by the dazzling analysis of the human capacity for violence and how it’s moulded our lives.”.
MacMillan became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005 and a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2015. In 2018, Queen Elizabeth II appointed MacMillan a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour. In 2022, King Charles III appointed Macmillan to the Order of Merit, which is bestowed by the monarch to individuals of exceptional distinction in the armed forces, science, arts, literature or for the promotion of culture. Only 24 people may belong to the Order of Merit at any one time.
On 6 May 2023, MacMillan attended the coronation of Charles III at Westminster Abbey in London as part of the Canadian delegation, representing the Order of Canada.
- Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives and Daughters of the British Empire in India (1988)
- Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2001)
- Nixon in China: The Week That Changed the World (2006)
- The Uses and Abuses of History (2008)
- Stephen Leacock (2009)
- The War That Ended Peace (2013)
- History’s People: Personalities and the Past (2015)
- War: How Conflict Shaped Us (2020)