Writers & Company

100 years after the Treaty of Versailles, Niall Ferguson and Margaret MacMillan on the lasting impact of WW I

In this 2003 conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the two historians discuss how the First World War destroyed empires and changed the course of history.
Toronto-born Margaret MacMillan and Niall Ferguson from Scotland are historians and experts on the First World War. (Greg Smolonkis, Dewald Aukema, Basic Books, Penguin Random House Canada)
Listen to the full episode52:52

Signed in Paris in June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles formally ended hostilities between Germany and the Allies and addressed the repercussions of the First World War. This week, to mark the treaty's 100th anniversary, Writers & Company revisits Eleanor Wachtel's conversation with two historians about the origins of the war — and its far-reaching aftermath.

Niall Ferguson is a bestselling author, economic historian and political commentator. His 1998 book, The Pity of War, is an iconoclastic study of the First World War, which puts forth a compelling and controversial argument about the events that led to the start of the conflict.

Margaret MacMillan was catapulted to international success in 2002 when she became the first woman to win England's biggest nonfiction award, the Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize). Her award-winning book, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, is an ambitious and highly readable account of the peace process.

The allure of history

Niall Ferguson: "I was writing about history from early on, if you include economic history which has been central to my work, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford. I had all kinds of literary pretension, but I discovered that I had no great talent for writing fiction. As a journalist, I was mediocre. As I experimented by trial and error, I discovered the only thing I was any good at was writing history.

"I loved studying literature, and immersing myself in Hamlet was one of the great educational experiences of my life. The play lives with me to this day. But then something funny happened, which didn't tend to happen with the study of literature at school — in looking into the Thirty Years' War it occurred to me that there were quite a few books on the subject, over and above the ones that we were reading in class. I went to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and I discovered, in translation, Friedrich Schiller's history of the Thirty Years' War, a wonderful book which included detail about the war's origins which simply wasn't in the books we were using at school.

"There was this sense that there were infinite possibilities to the study of the past. There is no limit on how much information you can draw upon, whereas there are only so many ways that you can read Hamlet. It's the product of one man's mind, whereas history is the product of an infinite number of minds."

Margaret MacMillan: "What drew me to history were the same things that drew Niall to it. At one point I realized, as I grew to be almost six feet, I couldn't be a ballet dancer or a figure skater so those career options were out. But I loved history. We grew up in Canada on something called Our Island Story, which was all about the British Isles. It had pictures of Boudica looking like a Pre-Raphaelite heroine and wonderful stories about Boudica and King Alfred and the cakes. I loved the stories.

"I developed a sense that the past was interesting and with infinite stories. I began to realize as I got older that I would always ask different questions. Although I liked English, I never quite believed in what I was doing. I never quite thought it made sense. I never thought it was as real as history — and maybe that's just because I have a more prosaic mind than that. I found historians I liked and loved reading it. And I've never stopped liking it."

The spectre of WW I

Ferguson: "The effect on the European psyche in relation to the more than nine million soldiers who died fighting on both sides varied enormously from country to country. The mortality rates were quite divergent. I think the question you have to ask yourself is why did the shock of mass death have such different outcomes politically. You couldn't get two societies more different in their mental state by 1939 than France —  defeatist, willing to do almost anything to avoid another war — and Germany — resolved, resurgent and apparently ready to rerun the whole thing.

"The real question was whether the mortality was seen to have been worthwhile. And paradoxically the French, having won the war, came to the conclusion that it hadn't been worth it. And the Germans, having lost, came to the conclusion that it would be well worth trying again in the hope of obtaining victory."

MacMillan: "The First World War does mark an end, I think, of a certain type of civilization. The Europeans in particular not only see the destruction of cities and towns, they incur an appalling loss of young men, far more than in the Second World War. Civilians died in the Second World War, but young men did not die on the scale they did in the First World War.

"Europeans lost in confidence. There was a sense, that a lot of people shared before 1914, that Europe was on the forefront of civilization, that things were getting better, that progress actually meant something, not just material progress but also moral progress. And after 1919, Europeans couldn't say that. They lost some of the certainty they'd had."

Niall Ferguson's and Margaret MacMillian's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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