Laura Miller: History is bunk after all

Roundup: Talking About History

Let's start with something small. Many people believe that each of the tartan (plaid) patterns worn by Scottish Highlanders corresponds to a particular clan and that kilts made of this fabric have served as the uniforms and emblems of that clan since time immemorial. But, as the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out in a famous essay titled "The Invention of History: The Highland Tradition of Scotland," that simply isn't true. "Indeed," Trevor-Roper wrote, "the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture and tradition is a retrospective invention," cooked up in the 19th century. Much the same can be said of the customs of the "traditional" wedding (the elaborate church ceremony, the white dress, etc.), which were concocted a the same time. In fact, for most of the history of Christendom, a wedding was a low-key affair conducted at home without the benefit of clergy.

Neither of these interesting tidbits appears in Margaret MacMillan's "Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History," however. MacMillan, a Canadian historian who heads St. Antony's College at Oxford, believes that historians ought to concern themselves with weightier stuff. Take, for example, the Treaty of Versailles, signed by the Allies and Germany after World War I and -- as I was led to believe in school -- significantly responsible for World War II. For decades the treaty was regarded as, in MacMillan's words "so foolish and vindictive" that it goaded Germany into a renewal of its imperial ambitions. But, MacMillan insists, the terms of Versailles were "never as severe as many Germans claimed and many British and Americans came to believe." The woes, financial and political, suffered by Germany between the wars, and the subsequent rise of Adolf Hitler on a tide of wounded nationalist pride, were really the result of the Great Depression and "a whole series of bad decisions" made by German leaders.

Yet kilts and bouquets have more common with simmering Weimar-era resentment than might initially seem. Even trivial "bad history," as MacMillan would call it, can be driven by profound desires. Trevor-Roper judged the "artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original and distinctive," to be an attempt to assert a Scottish identity as a kind of protest against "Union with England." The idea of a gallant, free, Scottish tribal past appealed to the sensibility of the Victorian era as, too, did the notion of a very special white wedding dress; the first one was worn by Victoria herself when she married Prince Albert. Just as Scots thrilled to the idea of a rich native culture with deep roots, so we like to believe that the modern vision of wedlock as a union founded in true love is hallowed and eternal. Convincing ourselves that weddings have always been wrapped in sacred and sentimental rituals is like a charm against our suspicion that marriage may not be that romantic after all.

In other words, when it comes to history, we prefer to believe what suits us. ...

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