Margaret MacMillan is an astute writer. ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ is a short book, based on a series of lectures she gave at the University of Western Ontario in 2007 on the usefulness, or otherwise, of history and historians. I was interested because I found her work on Mao and Nixon and on the gathering of leaders after the First Word War so fascinating. I was also keen to see what she had to say about the way politicians use history to suit their arguments. She has pertinent points to make about the way Blair and Bush used history selectively to justify their invasion of Iraq. The images the publisher used on the paperback edition are telling!
In clear prose, Margaret MacMillan demonstrates how a fixed view of history takes hold and becomes the accepted wisdom. This quote about the causes of the Second World War illustrates part of her point:
“Bad history also makes sweeping generalisations for which there is not adequate evidence and ignores awkward facts that do not fit. It used to be thought that the Treaty of Versailles, made between the Allies and Germany at the end of World war 1. was so foolish and vindictive that it led inevitably to World War 11. It was a compelling story, bolstered by the polemics of men such as John Maynard Keynes, but it overlooked a few considerations. Germany had lost the war, and its treatment was never as severe as many Germans claimed and many British and Americans came to believe. Reparations were a burden but never as great as they seemed. Germany paid a fraction of the bill, and when Hitler came to power, he cancelled it outright. If Germany in the 1920s had financial problems, it was largely due to the policies of the German government which wanted to neither raise taxes nor default on the war bonds that so many of its own middle class held. What is more, things were getting better in the 1920s, not worse. Europe was recovering economically, and Germany and even the Soviet Union were being brought into the International system.”
She builds her case to show that inconvenient facts are often down played or even ignored. She goes on to write: “Bad history ignores such nuances in favour of tales that belong to morality plays but do not help us to consider the past in all its complexity.”
So, here’s to Margaret MacMillan and her series of lectures. This book is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?