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.
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.
MacMillan has obvious zeal for the disabusing power of history. History well told, she writes, “should challenge and expose national myths” and teach “humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves.” This leaves her often in the position of saying no. Professional historians, in her view, are the adults at the party, the voices exposing what she calls “Lost Golden Ages” as pure chimera. (If MacMillan studied families instead of nations, she’d be the one to tell you your father was a cheat, but that you should love him anyway.)
Historians, according to MacMillan, ought to do for countries what psychologists do for individuals: help them see the past for what it is, and make that knowledge the basis for positive action going forward. It’s worth asking then what afflicts the United States today. MacMillan suggests several familiar diagnoses, including guilt (reparations for slavery) and the general malaise that attends lost greatness. (She cites the reverential way we remember World War II and the correspondingly negative light cast on our current conflicts.)
It can be disheartening to survey all the problems currently facing the country. We’ve got healthcare, energy, and two wars, all wrapped in an outsized recession and it is easy to feel that we’re not up to the task. In this climate it might fall to historians to remind us that we’ve met greater challenges in the past, but such reminders can be discouraging in their own way, too. When you feel you’ve lost a step, it hurts to look at old highlight reels.
I’ve often thought that as a country we might feel emboldened in the present if we had a clearer view of how bad, in some ways, the past really was. If you’re discouraged by urban poverty, read about 19th-century New York, with its open sewers, immigrant ghettos, and horse carcasses decomposing in the streets. Or if you think politicians are irredeemably on the take, consider Tammany Hall or the Grant administration, when things were a whole lot worse.
There is always the danger that such comparisons might engender complacency, but when complacency is less of a worry than cynicism, it might be helpful if historians did as MacMillan instructs, and descended from the ivory tower to administer to America on the street, reminding us not of how far we’ve fallen, but of how far we’ve come.
Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.