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Bewildering Stories

Margaret MacMillan, The Uses and Abuses of History

reviewed by Don Webb

The Uses and Abuses of History
Author: Margaret MacMillan
Publisher: Penguin Canada, 2009
Paperback: 208 pp.
ISBN: 0143054783; 978-0143054788

History is bunk. — Henry Ford

Your opinion has been duly noted in the annals of history, Mr. Ford.

One has to wonder: did Henry Ford know whose image he saw in a mirror? And, when he woke up from a nap, did he know not only who he was but where he was, and in what year?

Outside of total amnesia, we all have a history in our personal memory. Likewise, societies have collective memories that tell them the same things. And these memories — namely histories — may be oral or written.

Stories are what we are and all we have. — Thomas King

Choose your stories carefully. Those who hear them may not be in a position to check the facts, but they will see immediately what those stories mean.

Literary genres serve a useful purpose. Is history a form of literature? Yes. Is it fiction or non-fiction? At best, it’s interpretive non-fiction. At worst, someone may be using it selectively to further a social or political agenda.

There is no story so truly Bewildering as reality.

Some readers are unclear on the concept of “bewildering” in our title. They think it means “befuddling.” Not so. Rather, it’s a semi-humorous way of saying “unusual” or “unconventional.” But who would pay more than sceptical attention to a publication titled “Unusual Stories”? Our title is poetic, in a way: does it have a single-word translation in other languages? Probably not.

What, then, does our motto mean? It’s simple: Can any novelist or playwright invent characters as striking as those that history provides? Think of Cleopatra, for one. Or Alexander. Or any prophet. Who but a Master Artist could create such personalities for what, as Macbeth calls it, the world stage?

Shakespeare himself didn’t try; he exploited history for its dramatic characters. His Richard III is a “history play” but, riveting and lifelike as it is, historians may view it as Tudor propaganda. Shakespeare may have known or at least suspected as much. He knew which side his bread was buttered on, and the play can be performed as either a tragedy or a tragi-comedy.

How does all this fit in with Margaret MacMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History? The renowned Canadian professor, who has held prestigious positions at the University of Toronto and Oxford University, cites example upon example of history as bunk, as interpretive stories, and as a fascinating kind of meta-literature.

The series of essays in The Uses and Abuses of History is based on the Joanne Goodman Lecture Series at the University of Western Ontario. Readers who imagine themselves as spectators may hear Professor MacMillan’s calm voice conveying, by turns, seriousness and amusement.

Let’s sample Professor MacMillan’s story. The page numbers mostly situate the quotations; the rest is my paraphrase or interpretation. We’ll go by chapters and select a significant example or two from each. And remember: these examples are only a few among very many.


“History is something we all do, even if, like the man who discovered he was writing prose, we do not always realize it.” (p. ix) And, since we can use history to understand ourselves, we ought to use it to understand others, as well. (p. x)

The author cautions against danger. History is not a “pile of dead leaves” but a pool that is sometimes benign, sometimes sulphurous that underlies institutions and ways of thinking. And it can be called on for validation or justification. (p. xi)

The History Craze

Three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously predicted the triumph of liberal democracy and “free-market” capitalism in his The End of History and the Last Man. Meanwhile, Margaret MacMillan had already been experiencing an “end of history” all her own. Her book, Peacemakers, could not find a publisher in the 1980’s. “[Who] wanted to read about a bunch of dead white men sitting around talking about long-forgotten peace settlements?” (p. 12) That was a pity. She had a personal interest in the topic as a great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister who represented Britain at the Versailles conference.

History suddenly began busting out all over in the 1990’s. Many peoples were demanding to settle scores, some centuries old. Francis Fukuyama soon changed his mind about history and modified his economic philosophy substantially. Professor MacMillan’s book was published in Britain and then, at last, in North America as Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. One of her best-sellers, it won many awards. History was suddenly very popular, and genealogy research alone meant that the public could play, too.

History for Comfort

In a secular world, to what does one turn for moral standards? Mainline denominations in Christianity, for example, have been losing adherents in Europe and North America. Large evangelical churches do exist, but they seem to be engaged mostly in entertainment and socializing. Generally speaking, most evangelical adherents seem to comprehend only dimly what Christianity stands for. (p. 21) Historians, I infer, find themselves cast willy-nilly as secular priests providing — if only in history as literature — a sense of continuity and community in groups larger than the family.

Thus, for example, World War II could be depicted as “the last morally unambiguous good war.” Such comfort is best served cold; the Allies included Josef Stalin, one of history’s greatest tyrants. (p. 17)

“If history is the judge to which we appeal, then it can also find against us.” (p. 24) President George W. Bush foresaw a decades-long struggle against terrorism and fundamentalist Islam. He compared himself to President Truman in doing unpopular things in a good cause. He spoke of a “crusade,” a remarkably poor choice of word when dealing with the Middle East.

He did not mention that Truman was a Democrat and had worked with the United Nations rather than scorning it. And he overlooked President Richard M. Nixon, who made overtures to China in an effort to end the war in Vietnam. Would Nixon have gone to Iran for help in extricating the U.S.A. from Iraq? (p. 25) It was a quagmire of Bush’s own creation, born of his and his advisors’ ignorance of Iraq’s history and culture.

Is it comforting to receive an official apology for what is now perceived to be a historical wrong? Can governments really apologize for the past? “Words are cheap [...] and politicians like to appear caring and sensitive. Moreover, apologies about the past can be used as an excuse for not doing very much in the present.” (p. 30)

What would the U.S. accomplish today by apologizing for slavery, which was abolished in the 19th century? Such an apology might make someone feel good, but for how long? Wouldn’t it let America off the hook, so to speak, and excuse inaction in improving social and economic conditions today?

Canada has gone to great lengths to make amends to its First Nations for the infamous Residential Schools, which are now considered to have been tools of cultural genocide, child abuse and even torture. The apology and its compensations are real, but aid to ameliorate the current living conditions among Canada’s aboriginal populations has been slow to come.

Who Owns the Past?

Historians are the ones who “make” history, but do they “own” it? By extension, are historians purely academics who ought to write obscurely and only for each other? Are they like physicists? Or should they write for the public, as well?

Professor MacMillan notes that historians are not scientists. (p. 36) Indeed, history — unlike the sciences — has no specialized vocabulary. But modern science has “gone public” in a big way, to the benefit of both the citizenry and science. History has done much the same. Scholarship is essential, of course, but, in the end, it must emerge from its ivory tower and tell the public what it means.

History has an “irreducible core,” namely “What happened, and in what order?” MacMillan quotes historian Michael Howard as saying that the proper role of history is to challenge and even explode national myths. History is truly possible as such only in a liberal, democratic society, one that treats its citizens as responsible adults in a way that totalitarian societies of any stripe do not. (p. 39)

For example, Winston Churchill is generally regarded in North America as a hero of WW II, and that seems to be where it ends. His reputation in Britain is more mixed, because his long political career was studded with sometimes colossal blunders, among which were the attack on Gallipoli in WW I and intervention in the Red-White civil war in Russia.

Churchill also wrote that “the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone [against Hitler] never found a place on the War Cabinet agenda.” As a matter of fact, the Cabinet did consider asking Mussolini to broker a truce with Germany, but it sadly concluded that the initiative would be hopeless and tantamount to surrender. (p. 40)

Do the participants in events “own” history? “Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events; sometimes the opposite is true.” (p. 46)

Macmillan cites the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which took place mostly in secret. The public knew only later that John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were actually talking to each other and making a deal to their mutual benefit. And who knew that Fidel Castro’s attitude was suicidal?

What about the fliers who carried out the bombing raids on Germany in WW II? They knew about their part in the action, but they knew nothing of the intense high-level debates over the efficacy and even morality of strategic versus tactical operations. When those debates became public, Canadian veterans’ groups staged a backlash and made them a hot-button political topic.

Finally, MacMillan cites the phenomenon of false memory syndrome. Psychiatric research has found that the concept does not exist prior to the 19th century. The Romantics’ preoccupation with the supernatural and imagination combined with Sigmund Freud’s theories of the subconscious revealed that “the mind can play extraordinary tricks on us.” (p. 49)

A culture’s collective memory is subject to the same delusions. MacMillan cites the battle of Kosovo, in 1389, as the Serbs’ “defeat on earth but their moral victory in their unending war against Muslims.” (p. 50). A modern false memory. The battle was a draw, and many Serbs were on the side of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1994, young Chinese historians said they had found no evidence that a sign ever existed at the foreign enclave in Shanghai reading “Dogs and Chinese not admitted.” The official backlash was predictably harsh: “the humiliations of Chinese history” were to be prized as politically useful. (p. 53) In short, the truth about Chinese history is whatever the government says it is.

History and Identity

“Lost golden ages” abound in political mythology. Pick a country, pick a story; there’s no end to them. For communism, Karl Marx seems to have updated Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideal of the “golden age,” a prehistoric time when the concept of private property did not yet exist. Imaginary utopias can come in handy as emblems of national identity.

Canada dates its identity as a modern nation — rather than as a British colony — from the battle of Vimy Ridge, in WW I. It’s a convenient date, but the real significance of the battle is very complex. It’s hardly a “golden age,” but it fits more or less neatly into the mythology of Canadian national identity.

Ireland has become peaceful and prosperous, and it has overcome an image of itself as a victim of 800 years of foreign oppression. A clearer view of its history reveals that there is more to Ireland than that, and it can be intriguingly complex. In WW I, more than 200,000 Irish Catholics and nationalists fought on the British side. The fact used to be considered politically heretical. Likewise, the Easter Uprising “was not the unified movement of all Irish patriots of nationalist myth but the result, at least in part, of internal power struggles.” (p. 76)

The Japanese government has been loath to allow archeological research that would probably confirm evidence of the imperial dynasties’ early connections with Korea and China. But the Japanese would surely be amazed to learn that right-wing Hindu nationalists assert that all civilization began in India, which was quite peaceable without pesky Muslims and Christians. And, by the way, early Hindus did not eat beef. Historical evidence contradicting all these assertions has sometimes elicited violent reactions.

The Hindu nationalist story is long and hair-raising. Does it cast India and Indians in an unfavourable light? No more than anyone else. Change the names and a few cultural peculiarities; the story becomes a human story, a cautionary tale about totalitarian extremists anywhere in the world.

History and Nationalism

By now, you can see what the problem is: lies and damned lies; never mind statistics. A critic of Ernest Renan satirized the 19th-century philosopher’s definition of nationalism as “A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.” (p. 88)

Nations used to be cultural entities. Now that they have become political entities, the results are predictably bizarre. After WW I, commissions from the League of Nations tried to determine national borders by polling the populace. I can sum up the results by imagining a typical conversation:

Pollster: What nationality are you: Czech, Slovak, Polish, Lithuanian, something else?

Inhabitant: I have no idea. I live in this town and go to that church over there. Wait... here’s a coin. It has somebody’s image on it. Will that help?

Presenting History’s Bill

“Anyone who has ever had an argument and said, “[...] ‘You owe me one’ is using history to gain an advantage in the present.” (p. 203)

Who hasn’t done it? Stories of victimization have been the order of the day in Serbia and Croatia, among many others, as well as in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. The Chinese government has played the victim card for all it’s worth, and that is another long story.

And it raises a question: How do the Chinese people themselves feel? Do they feel they are victims oppressed and humiliated by foreigners? Recurrent reports of unrest show that they aren’t living in the past quite so much and that they have more reason to feel they are victims of their own government. Does military adventurism serve as a barometer of instability at home?

History Wars

The future is clear. The past keeps changing. — Russian folk wisdom

“History has so often produced conflicts, but it can help in bringing about reconciliation.” (p. 149) In 1984, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl met at the site of the battle of Verdun “to celebrate the future of an integrated Europe” (p. 151)

In 2006, France and Germany published a joint history textbook on the period after 1945. Something similar has been done for Israelis and Palestinians. The problem is, of course, bringing such texts into use in schools.

Truth can both cure and kill the patient. The Soviet Union did not survive Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, which revealed the extent of the gulags and the number of Stalin’s victims, as well as the deal with Hitler to divide up Eastern Europe. Soviet citizens had to ask not only whether such an empire could have survived but also whether it should have. But what now? Even Stalin can be “rehabilitated” for someone’s agenda.

History as Guide and Friend

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, — Santayana

Some want to repeat it; a few want to learn from it.

“History helps us understand first: those with whom we have to deal and second, and this is especially important, ourselves.” (p. 155)

Famous examples come to mind. An American intelligence officer landed in Moscow after the Cold War. He said, in effect, “The first thing I learned was that everything we thought we knew about the Soviet Union was wrong.” Americans had multiplied Marxist dogma by Soviet military power and arrived at a cosmic, existential threat. Meanwhile, the Soviets had the same attitude toward America and feared a monster of their own creation. They had better information than the Americans did, but they didn’t use it. The Cold War was blanketed by an impenetrable fog of mutual ignorance.

Sometimes politicians remember history, all right, but it’s the wrong history. The advisors to President Lyndon B. Johnson remembered very clearly the experience of WW II and the Korean War. And they applied it by analogy to Vietnam.

One exception: Undersecretary of State George Ball cited the correct analogy, the experience of France as a colonial power facing a war of national liberation. Some 250,000 combat-hardened French soldiers and more than 200,000 South Vietnamese had been defeated by North Vietnam.

Defense Secretary McNamara’s memoir In Retrospect concludes in effect that George Ball had been right. “We viewed the Vietnamese in terms of our own experience. [...] Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the people in the areas and the personalities and habits of their leaders.” (p. 160)

When George W. Bush was told of the French experience in Algeria, he concluded that America would succeed in a similar situation in Iraq because it had a better bureaucracy. In 2002, a senior advisor said that the U.S. would create a new empire and a new history. Presidential advisors would have done well to read T. E. Lawrence’s searing critiques of the British government in Iraq. But it was too late; history repeated itself with a vengeance.


“If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility and scepticism, then it has done something useful. We must continue to examine our own assumptions and those of others and ask, where’s the evidence? Or, is there another explanation?” (p. 187) Two groups have always taken history seriously as a guide: business and the military. (p. 166) Their purpose is serious, because they attempt not to use history but to learn from it.

I’ll make a conclusion of my own, which will range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

The director of the FBI has informed Congress — and the media — that his investigators have found e-mails on one of Ms. Clinton’s aides’ laptop computer. What are these e-mails? Are they “classified”? Do any come from Ms. Clinton? If so, what is their significance? Do they have any?

I don’t know what to think. Who doesn’t receive e-mail from Ms. Clinton? I receive some almost daily. Should I turn myself in to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service? The FBI? I would be dismissed more or less politely with a snort. We simply do not know the facts and are not likely to any time soon. The FBI director has admitted as much. Make of it what you will. So much for being present at a moment in history. I, for one, will leave it to the historians.

Now for the sublime. Is the Bible history? Modern archeology has been discovering that in many cases it is accurate; in others, an embellishment; in still others, unconfirmed or unlikely. That’s history as “hard” physical evidence. The texts that appear to be history tend to be very precise about place but rather hazy when it comes to time and the order of events. Such is typical of human memory.

Rather, the Bible is shaped not by eyewitness “you are there” accounts but by meaning. In some cases, it’s poetry; in others, dramatized moralistic literature; in some special cases, it says, “We were there at the time, but we didn’t understand what was going on. Now we do, and we can show you what it means.” There, we see historians both making history and learning from it.

And we can do the same. Whatever your nationality or political viewpoint, Margaret MacMillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History cites many surprises, and some may make you cringe. That’s a very good start in learning from history.

Copyright © 2016 by Don Webb

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