The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker


To those of you who have read Peacemakers; the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and its attempt to end War, Margaret MacMillan needs no introduction. That book was learned, exhaustive, readable, humorous. It succeeded in making a lively and interesting book out of a potentially boring subject and it was a triumph. Historical writing does not come any better than this and the book has won for its author a number of prestigious prizes.


The maternal grandfather of Margaret MacMillan was Dr Thomas John Carey Evans of the Indian Medical Service who served as personal physician to Rufus Isaacs, 1st Marquess of Reading, during his term as Viceroy of India (1921–1926). MacMillan´s maternal great-grandfather was David Lloyd George, sometime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who was of course the British representative at the Paris Peace Conference. MacMillan herself was born in Canada, and is now warden of St Antony´s College in Oxford. St Antony´s (founded in 1950) is a graduate college specialising in international relations, and numbers amongst its distinguished Wardens Sir William Deakin, Sir Raymond Carr and Sir Ralf Dahrendorf. Professor MacMillan is its fifth warden.


So it was with some trepidation that I approached The Uses and Abuses of History. Could an author, even one as distinguished as Margaret MacMillan, pull off another book of equal merit? Professor MacMillan must have drawn her title from an essay by Friedrich Nietzsche (Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, 1874, translated as On the Use and Abuse of History for Life) but I do not detect anything else that she might have drawn from that writer. Her book is formed from a collection of lectures given at the University of Western Ontario in autumn, 2007, and in parts has retained its chatty and spoken style. I must confess to some disappointment in the first half of the book, which did not seem to me to be grounded and learned enough. For example, in her Introduction, her first sentence is “History is something we all do, even if, like the man who discovered he was writing prose, we do not always realise it.” I suspect that this sentence represents a memory of the passage in Molière´s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) where M Joudain says, “Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it.”


The second half of this book is so powerful in its argument that I had to review it for the Newsletter. From the point when she exposes the historical run up to the state of Israel, and the world´s tragic treatment of the Palestinians, she held me in thrall.


Her lectures, or chapter headings, are as follows: The History Craze, History for Comfort, Who owns the Past? History and Identity, History and Nationalism, Presenting History´s Bill, History Wars and History as Guide . She goes to lengths to show that history left in the hands of non-historians can sometimes be misleading, and is often used to provide spurious support to politicians intent on misleading their peoples for their own particular ends. Stalin was convinced that the Germans would never repeat the mistake of WW1 by fighting on two fronts, and based his foreign policy in 1939 – 41 on that erroneous assumption. She shows, too, that the commonly accepted solitary heroism of Paul Revere, immortalised by Longfellow, is a distortion of the truth. Professor MacMillan shows that in an age of wider education and greater leisure time, the past has become a resource for all, and that some of the past has been made by non-historians to carry burdens which are demonstrably false.


We all need some roots either collective or individual and it is certain that our experience of the past, be it ever so recent and ever so personal, influences our actions now and in the future.


Various writers have used and misused historical arguments to prove the superiority of various races (a word that I find particularly difficult) and nations, when even the most cursory appreciation of history shows that nations, states, peoples may assume a position of superiority for a time, but certainly not for ever.


In the chapter Presenting History´s Bill, MacMillan introduces the Palestinian question as follows: “In one of the most difficult and dangerous disputes in the present, Israelis and Palestinians argue over possession of the small piece of land that was once Palestine in the Ottoman Empire. Every aspect of their joint history is disputed.” There never can be points of agreement between the two sides because their claims are founded in two different histories. Just as important is the archaeology of the area, since perhaps prior settlement can provide the definitive answer to which side has the prior claim to Palestine itself. Archaeological proof of the insignificant size of Biblical Jerusalem has provoked no Israeli reaction because “The blow to the mythical foundations of the Israeli identity is apparently too threatening, and it is more convenient to turn a blind eye.” And further discussion of Israeli history, “trying to disentangle myth from fact and challenging accepted wisdom” has provoked a furious response from those whose self appointed task is to defend the historical essence of Israel.


Another historical truth that was uncomfortable, and therefore consigned to the dustbin, was that conventional military forces away from home can never defeat guerrillas operating on their own territory – and the classic example is Vietnam against USA (there are others such as Algeria against France). But the lesson of Vietnam was so harrowing to the USA that it was forgotten. In Iraq and Afghanistan, US forces must now learn from the experience of the French in Algeria and the US in Vietnam, however unpleasant the memory is, before they can now hope to fashion a coherent strategy for success.


Later in the book, Professor MacMillan examines the history of Iraq, and of the current conflict in Iraq. The British have been involved in he Middle East for nearly a century and T E Lawrence showed that a military occupation of Iraq was not working in the 1920s and could never work. In 2008, the British Ministry of Defence was severely critical of the preparations of the British Army for the conflict in Iraq which began in 2003. They had clearly not read their Lawrence, nor had they read the histories of the British campaigns in Iraq from 1915 until the establishment of the independent kingdom in 1932 and of the campaign of 1941 to 1947. It is a tragic fact that the British military have forgotten what their predecessors learned only 60 years ago.


In November 2002, Prime Minister Blair had his only meeting with independent British experts on the subject of Iraq. This was only four months before the invasion. The experts said that Iraq is complicated and that a western invasion would not be welcomed. The only subject of interest to the Prime Minister, on the other hand, was the character of Saddam Hussein. He seemingly ignored the advice of all those who had read their histories of British involvement in Iraq, much to the chagrin and puzzlement of those experts.


Apparently, President Bush spoke in 2003 to the American Enterprise Institute, “There was a time when many said that the culture of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken.” The history and background of the circumstances in the defeated and occupied Japan and Germany are so different from those of an undefeated and invaded Muslim country that it seems scarcely credible that they could have been likened and that a conclusion so wrongheaded could have been drawn.


Nowadays, there is often the contention that for example Afghanistan is unconquerable. Perhaps it is so now, but ancient conquerors such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan did not find it so unconquerable.


In her conclusion, Professor MacMillan says that some Americans have drawn a parallel between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Twin Towers attack of 2001. There is no similarity because the attackers of 2001 do not represent a state, and the ensuing “war on terror” has no clearly defined end. How will the protagonist know when the war is won? In its understandably angry response to the attack on the Twin Towers, the USA had departed from the norms of international collective security agreed between independent and juridically equal states.


Historians are trained to treat the evidence of the past as (says MacMillan) an examining magistrate in the French judicial system would do. What happened and why? Where is the evidence? The magistrate searches for the truth – unlike the Anglo-Saxon system of justice, which seeks to convince a jury by rhetoric and oratory as well as with evidence. Our leaders often career off down the wrong path, and history and historians remind us that those in a position of authority are quite capable of getting it wrong. Scepticism and a questioning attitude are the hallmarks of the historian, and are valuable assets in society as a whole and in life in general, even if they are not prized in the military.


I finish with more quotations from Professor MacMillan´s excellent book. “One of history´s most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly and painfully past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful.” (John Carey). And “Visiting the past is something like visiting a foreign country: they do some things the same and some things differently, but above all else they make us more aware of what we call home.” (John Arnold).


Professor MacMillan has written a readable and concise defence of the discipline of the historian. She has shown how history has been and continues to be misused to mislead, and how history provides each and every one of us with roots and identity. In other words, how important history is to all of us. It is therefore of crucial importance that we learn to interpret its lessons accurately, and that we learn to spot historical humbug when it is foisted on us. In pointing out these historical facts of life, Professor MacMillan has done us a superb service.