Margaret MacMillan warns of what can happen when history is misappropriated.
What’s most remarkable is not how much we know about history, but how little. In my own family, memory wanes quickly after just a generation or two. My sister and I recently wondered whether our grandmother was still living at home when she met our grandfather. Although the answer is only 60 years in the past, it might as well be buried in Pompeii.Skip to next paragraph
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It’s not only private lives that obscure so quickly. In Dangerous Games, a slim, thought-provoking volume on the dynamic power of history, Margaret MacMillan points out that a great many East Germans grew up believing their country had fought alongside Russia in World War II. It was a case of Soviet-sponsored subterfuge, designed to fabricate a common history for the enemies-cum-allies and it worked, MacMillan says, because there were insufficient voices to defend history as it actually happened.
“Dangerous Games” was adapted from a lecture series MacMillan gave at the University of Western Ontario in 2007 and the writing has the clear, brisk quality that comes from having first been spoken out loud. MacMillan, of Oxford University, is the author of “Paris 1919” and “Nixon and Mao,” both of which blend scholarly rigor with broad popular relevance. Among the several rebukes contained in “Dangerous Games,” is one aimed at her academic peers for not writing more books like those.
“If we do not, as historians, write the history of great events as well as the small stories that make up the past, others will, and they will not necessarily do it well,” MacMillan states. She criticizes professional historians for larding their work with “specialized language and long and complex sentences” and for focusing on esoteric topics like “carnivals in the French Revolution” and “the role of the doughnut in the Canadian psyche.” The net effect, she worries, is to turn the study of history into a closed-circuit conversation and to abandon the public to the devices of tyrants who would retell the past for their own purposes.
In a sense, “Dangerous Games” is a catalog of the many ways history might be misappropriated, something like an Anarchist’s Cookbook for the past. MacMillan tells of how in the 19th-century the Greeks used the boundaries of their ancient empire to justify an invasion of Turkey, and how in the 20th-century, Slobodan Milosevic spun a reborn Serbian identity out of military battles 600 years distant. Pol Pot inaugurated his regime at Year Zero, denying history completely. So, too, did the Communist Party of China when it first came to power, burning the Confucian classics and condemning traditional practices. Only now, secure in power and looking to gild its ambition, does the CPC cherry-pick from the past.