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Looking back without anger

The Uses and Abuses of History, by Margaret MacMillan

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

The Uses and Abuses of History Margaret MacMillan

Profile, pp.256, 11.99

Margaret MacMillan’s Peacemakers deservedly attracted the highest praise. It was illuminating and a compelling read. Equally, her Women of the Raj evoked the lost world of the memsahibs — courag- eous, often narrow and intolerant, but dauntless as they nearly always were. Now, from her eminence as Warden of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, she stands back a little and considers the uses and abuses of history.

The result is not a long book — always an attractive characteristic — but it is a worthy one. It will certainly bring back memories for those who, in the mid 20th century, offered a special paper as part of their A-levels or who attempted the Modern History School at Oxford shortly afterwards.

Why should we study history? Can we learn anything from it? Can history be used for purposes moral and immoral? Is history dangerous? MacMillan asks all those questions and with a carefully calibrated liberal judgment. In doing so she is not hugely complimentary to the 19th- or 20th-century giants who asked the same questions more magisterially. Indeed, not for her more than a passing reference to von Ranke and Renan and none at all to Sir Herbert Butterfield.


MacMillan’s subject is an interesting one. One of the phenomena of every age is what she calls ‘the power of the past’. She observes how even revolutionary regimes have imitated their predecessors. Napoleon’s court, for instance, was largely modelled on that of the Bourbons, and the Red Tsars lived behind the walls of the Kremlin like their predecessors. Today, the obsession with the past is not confined to our new lords and masters, the bureaucrats. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, if they know any history, they choose to ignore it. Rather, it is the general public who are becoming obsessed with the past. Perhaps the bureaucrats’ loathing of nationhood and contempt for those whom the haut fonctionnaires of France used to call ‘les administrés’ has prompted a reaction among their victims. As our liberties and individualism are threatened by Whitehall, Brussels and the increasing homogeneity of the developed world, perhaps, in reaction, we search for a connection with a past that, however bleak for many, at least allowed us an identity. MacMillan has some sympathy for this view. She suggests that ‘we call on the past . . . at least in part because we no longer trust the authorities of today.’

However, she deeply distrusts nationalism and the nation state, the attack on which has been partly responsible for that of which she complains. It is true, of course, as she points out, that ‘political leaders too often get away with using and abusing history’, and that all nations have been guilty of what Michael Howard has called ‘nursery history’. She is equally right that abusing history to whip up hatred and justify wicked actions has often led to appalling consequences. She refers us to what followed Venizelos’s efforts to re-establish what he considered Greece’s ancient boundaries after the first world war. She might have added that in this he was aided and abetted by Lloyd George, who, in the best traditions of Gladstonian Liberalism, was romantic about Greece and hated and despised the Turks. Hitler, Pat Robertson, the American evangelical, Osama bin Laden, MacMillan’s own Canadian compatriots over Vimy Ridge and a number of others are brought in as evidence of the dangers of nationalism. She quotes one of Renan’s critics with evident approval: ‘A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.’

The difficulty of taking a high moral tone with nationalism is that it presents the reverse side of the ‘nursery history’ coin. Nationalism excites high emotion. So does religion, even, perhaps especially, among Christians who are supposed to value peace and forgiveness. This does not mean that nationalism and religion are bad in themselves. It means that man is not a wholly rational creature and has a spiritual side to him that demands irrigation. Equally, as MacMillan has noticed in passing, man needs to feel a sense of identity in that he belongs to a place and to a polity to which he can give his loyalty and affection. Both needs have been used and abused with devastating consequences throughout history. They continue to be. Such abuses cannot be addressed by abolishing the nation state and its institutions and substituting bureaucratic constructs like the European Union. The patriotic instinct can be better channelled through national parliamentary institutions and the rule of law that can evolve to meet changing circumstances.

MacMillan has some interesting things to say about the study of history, an activity which she has pursued with great distinction. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the crack about F. D. R.’s successor, ‘To err is Truman’, and learning about Feuerstein’s invention of the Lazi nation. And she is surely right to insist that the study of history should be regarded as a process which subjects the past to continuous review. In that way, all our prejudices, including MacMillan’s, can be balanced.

However, as I read her book, I found myself straying back to David Cannadine’s Making History Now and Then. MacMillan allows that it may be an advantage for history to be enjoyable to read. Cannadine certainly is enjoyable, and he covers much of the same ground as MacMillan. He also reminds us of two remarks by great statesmen: Václav Havel’s ‘Any society that is alive is a society with a history’ and Winston Churchill (himself an accomplished abuser of history):

History, with its flickering lamp, stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days.

He then asked, ‘What is the worth of all this?’ We will, of course, never know the answer to that question, but that should not prevent us from trying to find it.


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