The Uses and Abuses of History
Canadian Margaret MacMillian writes about history; titles like "Paris 1919" and "Nixon in China" might be familiar to you.
In this book, she tackles the big picture of the telling history: how accurate should it be? For example, Winston Churchill was a remarkable leader during WWII; he also had undesirable behaviors, and following the war lost the election. (I recall when he died, our entire elementary school had to troop into the gymnasium and gaze at his enormous photograph while the principal talked about this unknown-to-us man.)
How accurate is history? I recall the propganda films we saw repeatedly in my hometown of Kitimat, a town whose life was dependent on the world's second largest aluminum smelter -- or, as they put it in those Cold War days, "second largest in the Free World." It was not until decades later we learned how representatives of Alcan forged 'X' signatures on behalf of natives, paving the way for the flooding of their valley for the hydroelectric power needed for smelting of alumina powder into aluminum metal.
How far should bias carry history? She notes several cases where modern reinterpretations place the now-dead in poor light, such as the pilots whose aircraft napalm-bombed the civilian population of Hamburg -- my mother lived through that time.
How mistaken is our recollection of history? She recounts an American statesman's recollection of being in FDR's office when the news broke of the Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbor. When a secretary later checked his records, he hadn't been in Washington DC that day. Our seemingly-accurate memory fails us.
And sometimes history becomes too complex for us to cope with. Who really has a handle on the jigsaw pieces that make up the wrongs and retributions, the true victims and false victims of former Yugoslavia?
How far back should guilt be carried forward? She describes the effort of a nationalist organization to guilt the Canadian government into holding a state funeral for the last survivor of WWI. No one felt they could speak out against the ceremony -- not the government, the opposition, the media, nor the man int he street. None, except for the relatives of the last survivor, who wanted no part in this public spectacle that ultimately served as a marketing campaign for the nationalist organization.
It's not Ms MacMillan's job to answer these question, but to raise them and provide concrete examples of pros and cons. She raises our awareness of how history is used and abused by those in power -- and those wanting to be in power.
Unfortunately, she also abuses history, such as the underestimating the impact of religion; she writes assuredly of the belief in the probable insignificance of King David's empire and the small numbers of Israelists who emigrated from Egypt; this, despite of the archaeological evidence is just being uncovered. At times, even small details are wrong; she mentions the "large" role America played in the formation of the state of Israel, but not on the even larger role played by Britain.
Thus the reader ends up with a greater appreciation of the abuse of history, but then feels abused by Ms McMillian's own beliefs.
Published in 2008 by Viking Canada