Wednesday, July 15, 2009

History's Truth Let Us Not Forget

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Margaret MacMillan "History can be helpful; it can also be very dangerous. It is wiser to think of history not as a dead pile of leaves or a collection of dusty artifacts but as a pool, sometimes benign, often sulfurous, that lies under the present, silently shaping our institutions, our ways of thought, our likes and dislikes."
—Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History

With the opening of her newest book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, New York Times bestselling author Margaret MacMillan plunges into her exploration of the many ways in which history affects us all, as individuals, nations, and civilizations.

Often we forget how history shapes our identities and the ways in which we see others. And with the public's understanding of the past at an all-time low, MacMillan shows how ignorance of history makes us vulnerable and open to accepting the outrageous claims made in the name of history. Dangerous Games is at once a tribute to a profession in danger and a compelling plea to the public to treat history with care.

This remarkable book has already received glowing reviews for its provocative, persuasive arguments, and its elegant prose.* We recently asked Margaret some questions about the dangers of abusing history and here is what she had to say:

In your book, you make a compelling case for the importance of history in our daily lives. When did you realize that people made use of history as a tool?

MM: There was no one Aha! Moment, but I really started to think about it in the 1990s when I was teaching a course on identities—what goes into making them—and it was clear that history was a key factor. Individuals and groups told themselves stories about where they and their ancestors had come from, including, for example, the great moments in their past and their progress toward the present. The stories were not always wrong, but they often included myths or chose facts very selectively. One of the main things we looked at was nationalism and the ways in which historians had helped to create the sense of a nation that was much bigger than its individual members, which predated them and which would endure long after they were dead. At the time, we had a terrifying example of the abuse of history right in front of us in the Balkans, where Yugoslavia was falling apart and all sides were using the past to stir up their own people against the others.

Dangerous Games draws much attention to the politicians, governments, and other entities that misuse history to bolster their specific messages. Are there any examples of people or groups that have consistently used history in an impartial way, and is that even possible?

MM: If you are using history to do something else, then you are probably not going to be impartial. But, yes, it is possible to have impartial history looks at the past from different angles. A good history of the relations between France and Germany, for example, would not argue that one country was always right and the other always wrong; rather it would try to understand and explain. And good history does not ignore evidence that does not fit a particular theory or interpretation. Historians—if they are being true to their profession—can write objective history, and they do. It's hard to find examples of groups who are consistent in taking a detached view of their own past (human beings are not known for being consistent), but I would say that many countries look at their own pasts without flinching from the seamier side. It seems to happen more in democracies where varieties of viewpoints are expected and even welcomed. So Germans grapple with Nazism; Americans look at slavery; and the British explore the dark side of their empire.

You state that we should handle history with care, as even those individuals who do not mean to abuse it may do so inadvertently. How do you consciously avoid misusing history, and what advice do you have for others?

MM: When we use history to help us think about the present and plan for the future, we should not treat it as a simple blueprint to be followed that will have predictable results. We should be aware that past events often have complex causes and unforeseen consequences. The best way to use history is as a guide to understanding and as an aid to thinking. Knowing something about the past of others helps us to know them better, and a general knowledge of history can alert us to the range of possibilities inherent in human affairs.

How do you think the general American public currently views history?

MM: The American public, like most publics in my view, probably does not know enough history. One of the sad things that has happened in recent years is that the teaching of history in schools has been so watered down that students can graduate without knowing much about their own countries much less the world. I often found that my students reacted with surprise and interest to the fact that there had been two world wars and not just the more recent one.

In your book, you speak of people, particularly governments, that have made apologies for their histories, such as the German government to Israel, and the Australian government to the Aboriginal population. Are there any governments or other entities in the contemporary world that you think should be apologizing in a similar way, yet are not acknowledging their histories?

MM: Turkey does not want to admit that dreadful things happened to Armenians during the First World War and Israel does not want to accept that an injustice was done to the Palestinians when Israel was established in 1948. Austria and Italy have both been reluctant and slow to deal with their fascist pasts. The Russian government is drawing back from accepting Stalin's crimes. The Chinese government has never dealt with Mao's ghastly mistakes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

In what ways can our society become more aware of the importance of history? You cite several examples of individuals—business leaders and military leaders—consistently use history to predict results. In your opinion, what other individuals or groups might find it useful to consciously use history as a model?

MM: It has to start in the schools. Students need to get a sense of the chronology and also of the ways in which the past can be interpreted in different ways. On the predicting of results, I am a skeptic. I can see why business schools and the military study the past to avoid mistakes in the future and I think we can all do the same—but what we ought not to do is assume that we can know for sure what will happen. Studying the past is like watching road signs: they can tell you where you are likely to encounter a change in the road or danger.

Many of your examples of leaders who have abused history, or leaders who have used it well, come from the middle of the twentieth century. How long do you think is a reasonable period to wait before current and recent events become history? When will we be able to use or misuse the events of the beginning of the twenty-first century as history?

MM: Oh, that is a tricky one. Most historians regard the present and the recent past as current affairs and would argue that history only starts to be possible when we get enough perspective to pick out the key developments or events (which is not easy to do when you are living through them) and when the record is reasonably full. That means, for example, when government documents have been released, key participants have spoken frankly, and detailed studies have been done to obtain, for instance, reliable facts and figures. While most historians would not go so far as the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai who said it was too soon to tell whether the French Revolution of 1789 was significant, I think we would agree that we won't be able to write reliable and accurate histories of the first part of the twenty-first century until the 2030s at the earliest.

Happy reading,

John J. Flicker
Executive Editor

Praise for Dangerous Games: *"This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of correctly understanding the past."
Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

"MacMillan deftly maneuvers through time [in this] wide-ranging and provocative testament to transparency as the best historical education."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"For both historians and lay readers, this thoughtful and provocative work will be enlightening and useful."

"In a world where the spin-doctor has replaced the historian, MacMillan reminds readers of the importance of dispassionate, fact-driven narrative, as opposed to reassuring or self-serving accounts that pass for history while burying unpleasant truths."
Ottawa Sun

"[Dangerous Games] reads like the practical manifesto of an especially eminent historian. It tells us why history matters, how it is written and what function it has for societies that continue to place value in its free and rigorous study. It explains why history (and the historian) is needed and what the consequences are when—like all potentially dangerous substances, democracy included—it falls into the wrong hands... This is history used as its own best argument."
The Toronto Star

"This is an eminently sensible and humane book, lucidly and enjoyable written and argued. It is addressed to the general reader, and anyone interested in history should find it an engaging, quick read."
The Globe and Mail

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