Daily Archives: January 4, 2010

‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ by Margaret MacMillan

This is only a slim book, based on a series of lectures.  The lecture-hall origins still show- the chapters are all pretty much the same length; the sentences are short, and there’s a sparseness about the writing that would probably aid comprehension if you were listening, but comes over as rather bald and workmanlike on the page.

I’ve only read one of Margaret MacMillan’s works- Paris 1919. I thought that it was wonderful- an engagingly written analysis of the multiple perspectives being brought to the conference that culminated in the Treaty of Versailles, and the intractability for the participants of disentangling historical, cultural and national borders in the wake of  what had been a truly global war.

She brings this wide-ranging perspective to this book but I’m not really sure what the overall point is that she is making here.  Yes- history can be used to make ourselves feel relaxed and comfortable about ourselves; it can be used to justify actions in the present; it can be used to predict rightly or wrongly what is about to happen on the basis of earlier precedents; it can be used to create and bolster national identity for good and for ill etc. etc.   Each of these cautionary tales is supported by examples from all over the world; little cut-and-dried vignettes   to support the contention of that particular lecture.  But put them all together, and what are we left with?  That history should be used carefully and with humility- good advice no doubt, but I felt paralysed, rather than empowered, by such observations.  Given that “good” history can be used for “evil” purposes, that those purposes can change naturally or be subverted deliberately, well- perhaps we should just immerse ourselves within an event, culture or timespan and just stay there, in a rather antiquarian sense, resolutely mute in the face of current events.

If I had attended these lectures, I don’t think that I would have come out from the lecture theatre walking on air.  There’s an abstractness about the examples she uses and no real people. There’s no human story that you come away with; no image etched onto your consciousness that you’ll remember the next day. Other historians have done similar things- Inga Clendinnen in her Quarterly Essay “The History Question”  or in her Boyer Lectures, for example, but she leaves you fizzing with ideas after an encounter with a person or situation that  embodies the questions she has raised.

Perhaps, though, her global orientation and  rather jaundiced views emerge from the work she has done on the aftermath of World War I.  I’ve just been listening again to her speaking on a RN radio documentary about the Paris Peace Conference and this is big, policy-driven, grubby, idealistic, complex history that exemplifies all the human failings that she discusses in this book.   Abuse of history at its worst.

Afterword

I’ve just been listening to a podcast of  Margaret MacMillan talking about this book on Radio National’s Hindsight program in a broadcast called “Dangerous Games- the Uses and Abuses of History”.  You can download it or read a transcript here.  It’s well worth listening to, and has caused me to re-think my response to the book somewhat.

It’s very similar to the book – no doubt it has been delivered countless times previously.  But listening to her, as distinct from reading the book, there’s a flow in her spoken presentation that to me seemed to be missing when chopped up into separate, longer written chapters- indeed I now start to wonder whether the speech or the writing came first!  And I didn’t feel quite so hamstrung as an historian- instead, her oral presentation seemed to emphasize the importance of history (and historians)  in asking the right questions and drawing on the right analogies.  I came away with a stronger sense of her statement in the book about the importance of humility and acknowledging the boundedness of our own perceptions of the past.