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The Uses and Abuses of History: An Interview with Margaret MacMillan

Historian Margaret MacMillan has just published Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, July's HNN Book of the Month. In it she examines the ways in which history is used to shore up arguments, make territorial claims, and generally used to set the course of the present and future. The following is a recent discussion conducted by telephone.

What moved you to write this book?

A number of things came together really. I’ve been doing a lot of work on nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and I was struck by how often history came into that. Also, during the invasion and occupation of Iraq both Blair and Bush and various others in their administrations kept on saying that history has taught us that we have to deal with dictators this way [to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein]. So I began thinking about the whole variety of ways in which history is used. Then I was asked to give a series of lectures at the University of Western Ontario and when they asked me for a topic I thought that would be a good subject.

You offer an array of examples of particular versions of history being fought for from Israel and Palestine, the Hinduvata movement in India, to Serbia and Bosnia. I was struck at how contentious all this is. It seems more a political battle -- war by other means if you will -- being fought out under the objective banner of history. Why is this so fraught?

I think history is a very important part of identity which is why I think you get such fights over it. Certainly nations say that, ‘We are who we are, we have always been a people, our history shows we deserve to be a people, etc.’  Countries such as my own, Canada, where there have been many recent immigrants there is much debate over what is Canadian history now and what does it show us about ourselves. So I think the relationship between history and identity often leads to quarrels over it. Claiming a particular identity, claiming that some people aren’t included in the identity or trying to make others included in the identity.

I think history is also very contentious because in some cases it can lead to claims. Certainly in Europe at the end of the First World War, when a lot of land was up for grabs, history was used to say that, ‘this piece of land must be Romanian, because Romanians have always been there.’ So I think history can also have a real and practical impact.

You say, “We call on the past to help us with our values at least in part because we no longer trust the authorities today.” That strikes me as something relatively new -- and also something that is accelerating. Is history being used more these days to counter a crisis of credibility?

I sometimes think it is. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. It seems to me that certainly over the course of the twentieth century we saw -- in many societies -- the old deference for ‘one’s betters’ that feeling that those who are of a superior social class or have more education are somehow entitled to lead and know what they’re doing.  I think we’ve really lost much of that, which is probably healthy.

We may have flung too much the other way of being immensely cynical about anyone in positions of authority. If you look at the way people talk about politicians so often with contempt. I get really annoyed at times with my students when they say ‘all politicians are corrupt.’ I say that is not true, and would you like to live in a little uncorrupt dictatorship, is that what you prefer?

A number of factors have contributed to this. In the United States, Vietnam and then Watergate helped to contribute to a feeling that those in positions of authority are incompetent or worse. I think also the tremendous spread of celebrity culture. We just know a lot more about people now than we used to. For example we didn’t know at the time Kennedy was having all these affairs and had serious health problems. Compare that with Bill Clinton where we knew every detail of his marriage and his trouble with women. In a way that has lead to a focus on people’s failings--which are very often human failings and it doesn’t mean they are bad people or bad political leaders. I think in a way we almost know too much.

At one point you say, “Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events; in many cases the opposite is true.” You cite the example of the protests of Canadian veterans upset about an exhibit that portrayed candidly the bombing of German civilians during WW2. I live in the U.S. and there is a strong element here of “show me,” if you didn’t experience it you don’t have the right to speak. Why is that a wrong way to go about the understanding of history?

You can experience things very directly and first hand but you may not be able to make sense of them till much later on. As you experience it, you only know a small part of the picture.

The war veterans issue in Canada was interesting because many Canadians flew in bomber command in the British Air Force, I think a quarter of all the pilots in the Royal Air Force were Canadian, so it’s a very sensitive subject.

Yes, you [the pilots] knew what is was like to fly in a bomber, but what you didn’t know at the time, because you were an ordinary pilot, you didn’t know what the grand strategic decisions were. You didn’t know what debates were going on in the war cabinet. You also didn’t know what was happening on the ground in Germany. There is no way you could have known in the detail we now know what was happening on the ground in Germany. You have the direct experience, but you can’t possibly have insight into all the other things that were going on of which you were part of.

I think in my own case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember being scared silly by it. We all thought ‘that’s it’ we’re all going to be blown to smithereens. We didn’t know what the debates were in the special committee President Kennedy had set up. We didn’t know about the contacts between the United States and the Soviet Union. We didn’t know what Castro was thinking. We didn’t know what the Soviets were thinking. There’s a lot that we couldn’t have known at the time. The idea that because you have lived through something that you have a superior claim on being able to judge that something or understand that something I think is really dubious. I think the only way you truly understand events is to read about them and learn about them as much as you can and learn about as many of the dimensions as you can. Being there doesn’t give you that understanding. You need to do more than that.

In discussing the matters of national identity and past crimes -- for example you talk about the native aboriginal population in Australia as well as the native population in North America--you talk about how involved it all is and the competing agendas, etc. It struck me that things are complex. When I was growing up in the early 60s history was a lot simpler. There were cowboys and Indians. The former were good, the latter bad--it wasn’t true, but it was simple. Isn’t it mainly a good thing that all these things that used to be ignored are now asserting themselves and demanding a proper understanding?

I think so. I think it’s good. I always liked the distinction which I use in my book, that Michael Howard makes between nursery history and grown-up history. We all grew up learning about heroes and villains and that is a first stab at history, but what you learn as you grow older is that the story may well be more complicated.

When I went to public school we learned about Ferdinand and Isabella sending Christopher Columbus out across the ocean and what a brave thing it was and what a brave man he was. I had no idea that this was an attempt to spread Catholicism. I had no idea of the background. That they had just cleared Spain of the Moors. So you learn more about it. It actually makes the story more interesting. I think one of the advantages you gain if you study and learn history is you gain a questioning attitude toward things. You ask questions. Is that all there is to the story? Are there dimensions we’ve missed? I think that makes the past much more interesting.

You take China to task for abuses during the Cultural Revolution of which there certainly were--and such abuses have been more or less the singular focus of historians and memoirists of that time. But that period also saw the greater freeing of women, the elimination of hunger, the deployment of things like ‘barefoot doctors’ to serve the larger population and other forms of more popular participation in the running of a state.

The philosopher Alain Badiou, in talking about the Cultural Revolution said, “This political hurricane is so novel but at the same time so obscure that many of the lessons it no doubt harbors for the future of the politics of emancipation have yet to be drawn.

It seems to me that is true of China but it is also true of other places that undertook a radical socialism in the last century. To what degree are we still so in the middle of it all that we have not yet grabbed hold of certain of the richer historic lessons?

You always need time with history, but I think we’ve got a fair distance now with the Cultural Revolution. Some things you mentioned, elimination of hunger, I would actually disagree with. There are other things the Chinese had done, land redistribution, which perhaps helped. But if you look at the Great Leap Forward, it led to a hideous famine, the worst famine that China had ever experienced. It seems to me that these great upheavals often do, as side effects, lead to progressive social changes, but the cost is so horrendous. You always have to ask, ‘was it necessary?’

Was it necessary to have the horrors of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution to, for example, advance the status of women. I would argue that it wasn’t. The status of women was being advanced in other ways. In fact considerable progress had already been made particularly in the cities long before the Communists took over under the Kuomintang and earlier--there were active women’s movements. Also women were beginning to move into the professions.

I think what the Cultural Revolution did, and it perhaps is a long-term beneficial effect, but I just don’t think it will ever outweigh the costs--I think what it did do is destroy forever the Chinese habit of deference for those in position of authority. And I think we see the consequences of that in the environmental movement today, the citizen’s movement today in China. I think much of the mystique of which the Communists inherited from earlier generations, that those in power are somehow morally fitted to lead was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The fact that so many Communists themselves were attacked and hounded out of office, helped to destroy that moral authority.

I can think of very few radical upheavals that have actually lead to things being better. If you look at what happened after the Bolshevik Revolution, I argue that it was much worse for the Russian people. I think that if it hadn’t been the Bolsheviks seizing power you might well have seen a more peaceful evolution. I don’t think anything could have been worse than what happened to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. If you look at the violent phase of the French Revolution and what did it lead to except absolute misery and a great deal of brutality?

I think we can always look back and see that some things have changed as a result of these great upheavals and I suppose as a historian you try to see what was positive and what was negative out of these great moments but I also think we’re also moral beings. I think things like the Cultural Revolution were absolutely dreadful. I think the failure of the Chinese to deal with that has been bad for Chinese society. It is simply not something dealt with in China.

You make the insight that “The great majority of people live in a rapidly changing world where long-standing relationships that were once taken for granted--whether with places or with people such as family or friends--no longer exist for many.” Could you talk about that, and give us your best thinking on what you think this current historic moment is?

I think as far as the rapidly changing world I think we all recognize that there are tremendous movements of people, tremendous changes in technology, the globe is interlinked in a way that it hasn’t been interlinked since really before the First World War. We’re interlinked economically, and there are mass movements of people around the world.

It is a world that has seen tremendous change and I think we are still trying to absorb the impact of the electronic revolution which of course is going to go on affecting us. So I think that is one reason that there is a certain nostalgia for the past. It is probably not a realistic view of the past but I think there there is a view that the past at least is settled and things are simpler there.

What this current historic moment is of course impossible to say. I think when you are living through something you can’t really see it. You can begin to grasp the outlines, but I bet 30 years from now people will be looking back and pointing to something that we thought at the time was not particularly important and saying that was something that has lead to enormous changes.

You think at the end of the Second World War and some of the things like radios, transistors, jet engines, who would have thought that they would transform our society as much as they have done? Who would have thought that those early clunky computers would lead to what we are experiencing now?

I think it is very difficult. Sometimes newspapers do this game of ‘what will we look back and say is the most important thing of this particularly period.’ I think it is very difficult to say. It may be we will look back and say the Swine Flu was the most serious challenge we faced... who knows? It’s very difficult to see when you are in the middle of it.

What are you working on now?

I’m just starting work on a book on the outbreak of World War I. It is one of the great historical questions, so I’m going to try my hand at it.

About Margaret MacMillan

Margaret MacMillan is the author of Paris 1919, Nixon and Mao, and Women of the Raj.Paris 1919 won the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History, a Silver Medal for the Arthur Ross Book Award of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Governor-General’s prize for nonfiction, and it was selected by the editors of The New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year. A past provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, MacMillan is the warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University.