Revising the record, for better or worse, provides a lesson for our time
For nearly two decades, Russian governments have sought a new identity for post-Soviet society by reshaping national history. Although they no longer celebrate the Nov. 7 anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, they don’t want to alienate the populace by abolishing what for so long has been a two-day holiday. So when Boris Yeltsin was in command he kept the holiday but renamed it the Day of Accord and Reconciliation. Yet the public remained largely ignorant of the change. In 2005 Vladimir Putin moved the holiday forward to Nov. 4 - commemorating Russian success in driving out Polish invaders in 1612 - and designated it the Day of National Unity. Is it any wonder that Russians like to say they live in a country with an “unpredictable past?’’
That sense of a malleable record reveals the essence of a universal problem: that history gets revised to serve the ideological ends of a regime, the political needs of a party, or the concerns of a group that has suffered subjugation or sheer omission from the record. More often than not, historical accuracy and legitimacy suffer in the process. On occasion, however, revisionism serves as a corrective to unworthy causes or lapses that need to be rectified. Late in 2007, for example, after historians, writers, and filmmakers had begun to explore the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the government in Madrid enacted a Law of Historical Memory that has led to the Franco regime being formally repudiated and removed from public commemoration.
These kinds of kaleidoscopic shifts provide us with a variegated pattern of vignettes in Margaret MacMillan’s “Dangerous Games.’’ A professor of modern history at Oxford and Toronto universities, MacMillan is the author of wide-ranging books titled “Nixon and Mao,’’ “Women of the Raj,’’ and “Paris 1919.’’ In this book she turns her talents to a succinct but sweeping inquiry concerning lessons of the past, or as she puts it, the uses and abuses of history. Although she devotes considerable space to disturbing cases from Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, China, Japan, and elsewhere, she has much to say that is revealing about the United States - quite often sharply, though not unfairly critical. Her mission is to illuminate the perils of historical manipulation and ignorance, especially when they serve the cause of national pride.
MacMillan recounts an improbable but substantiated conversation between two men in a bar on the evening of 9/11. “This is just like Pearl Harbor,’’ said one. “What is Pearl Harbor?’’ asked the other. “That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor and it started the Vietnam War,’’ replied the first. Although the story sounds absurd, I have experienced comparable misconceptions concerning other momentous events.
“Dangerous Games,’’ however, is less concerned with ill-informed citizens than with decision-makers who misunderstand or misuse the past to justify regrettable policies. Not surprisingly, the decision by George W. Bush and Tony Blair to invade Iraq takes heavy fire from MacMillan.
In her closing chapter, “History as a Guide,’’ we find a passage written by Lawrence of Arabia during the 1920s - one that we can only wish had been widely cited in 2003: “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqés are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things are far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster. Our unfortunate troops . . . under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy of the civil administration.’’
For those who have forgotten (or never knew), MacMillan provides a clear reminder of history’s place in our own culture wars of the 1990s: the objections of Native Americans and others in 1992 to commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, and the fierce debate (and Senate denunciation) over the newly proposed National History Standards for secondary schools, which sought to be more inclusive by emphasizing history “from the bottom up,’’ which meant more attention to women, minorities, and ordinary Americans. Lynne Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George H.W. Bush, denounced the new standards as unpatriotic, a “grim and gloomy’’ vision of the American past. Senator Bob Dole called the standards treasonous, “worse than external enemies.’’
For conflicting versions and visions of the past, the United States hardly stands alone. MacMillan describes how distortions of the historical record assisted Hitler’s rise to power, aided the French in repressing the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Germans during World War II (and then France’s subsequent fiasco in Algeria), underpinned Australian rationalizations for the treatment of Aborigines, and sustains an Israeli rendering of Jewish history to justify the sequestration of Palestinians and their history in the Holy Land.
It suits the focus of MacMillan’s book when the author contends that “it is almost impossible for the two sides to find common answers to such questions because history lies at the heart of both their identity and their claims to Palestine.’’ Although that is certainly true, the impossibility also owes much to the dynamics of international politics today. Readers are likely to dissent from some of MacMillan’s findings and interpretive emphases, but they should also admire her mastery of modern history and its message for our own time.
Michael Kammen is the author of “In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture’’ and editor of “The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States.’’