Book: Uses and Abuses of History

A snappy history book from 2008 which I picked up on a whim based on the quality of the author’s stellar Paris 1919. This book is about how history is used, mostly by states and governments to justify actions. Think, for example, of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and war against Ukraine based on their claims that Ukraine was historically a part of the Russian motherland.

The timely theme of History being used to bolster nationalism is repeated again and again in the book. Take here, for example, MacMillan’s take on how Western democracies looked back at the Second World War:

Victorian historians too often depicted the past as an inevitable progress leading to the glorious present when Britain ruled the world. And French and German and Russian and American historians did much the same thing for their nations’ stories… Such histories, says Michael Howard, the eminent British historian, sustain us in difficult times, but they are “nursery history.”

The proper role for historians, Howard rightly says, is to challenge and even explode national myths: “Such disillusion is a necessary part of growing up in and belonging to an adult society; and a good definition of the difference between a Western liberal society and a totalitarian one-whether it is Communist, Fascist, or Catholic authoritarian is that in the former the government treats its citizens as responsible adults and in the latter it cannot.” After World War II, most Western democracies made the difficult but wise decision to commission proper military histories of the conflict. In other words, they hired professional historians and gave them unrestricted access to the archives. The results were histories which did not gloss over Allied mistakes and failures but which strove to give as full a picture as possible of a great and complicated struggle.

In short, history is incredibly complex, and we should resist attempts to oversimplify it. These oversimplifications are often done to help bolster political agendas or even injustices.

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