Should History Carry a Health Warning? 




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Dec 04, 2020
by Louise Hallman
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Should History Carry a Health Warning? 

Renowned historian Margaret MacMillan delivers the annual Palliser Lecture as part of the Designs on the Future initiative 

By looking at our past, we can alert ourselves to what is happening in our present, noted renowned historian Margaret MacMillan as she delivered the annual Palliser Lecture as part of the Designs on the Future initiative on December 1.

“I think we need to, by looking at the past, alert ourselves to think about where we may go wrong in the present. And this is not to say that history is going to produce any very clear lessons, but what it will do, I think, is act as a salutary warning... It’s always much easier to see it in retrospect, but I think we need to always keep our wits about us and look around us,” MacMillan told a global audience of Salzburg Global Fellows and friends, streaming live from her library in Toronto, Canada via the Max Reinhardt Library of Schloss Leopoldskron.

Warnings of another global pandemic, reminiscent of the 1918 “Spanish” flu outbreak, had been made by epidemiologists for years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Why have so few politicians – especially in the West – failed to heed these warnings? 

“There were warning signals before this current pandemic, just as there were warning signals before the French or Russian revolutions or warning signals before the First World War,” she explained. “The world had seen earlier pandemics in the last decades, but I think people living in Western countries have tended to think those are things that happen elsewhere.”

2020 has proven to be a “historic” year for many people, communities and countries across the globe. The first two decades of the 21st century have seen a sharp rise in populism, polarization and economic precarity across the world, with governments and societies further stress-tested by the COVID pandemic – fueling comparisons with the run-up to past wars and catastrophes. What can we learn by looking at the past?

“We do have a sense that we’re living through an historic moment, a moment of transition, a moment of great challenge or great challenges. And I think we do look to the past to try and find some sort of helpful advice, some sort of way of understanding our present situation... I think what COVID-19 and its effects on society and the global order is doing is shaking us out of some of our assumptions. We tend so often to assume that the future is just going to be more of the past.

“I think what historians perhaps realize is, yes, indeed, trends do matter and you can often predict where those trends are going to go, but that you have to be ready for contingency and accident and you have to be ready for the unexpected.”

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, MacMillan’s lecture Should History Carry a Health Warning? also addressed growing right-wing extremism, increasing anti-intellectualism and public distrust, and the decline of multilateral institutions. 

Watch the lecture in full, followed by a Q&A session with Fellows from around the world below:

This year’s Palliser Lecture was the first to be held online instead of its traditional location of London, UK, home of 21st Century Trust, Salzburg Global’s partner in the lecture series. The event was held in association with the Aga Khan Foundation, who have hosted the in-person lecture in previous years.

Being online enabled many more Fellows and members of the public to join, fostering an openness that is a core tenant of the new Designs on the Future initiative. This new, open initiative was launched in July with a webinar on the future of democracy with Salzburg Global Fellow and US voting rights advocate, Stacey Abrams. Subsequent webinars have addressed the role of philanthropy and finance in healing racial divides and the importance of “investing in big ideas”

All webinars in this series are available online: