A Revisionist's Burden

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Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (New York: Modern Library, 2009), 208 pp., $22.00.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “but not to his own facts.” Samuel Butler, the nineteenth-century English author, wrote that “though God cannot alter the past, historians can.”

Whether modifying facts or opinions, historians have been fiddling with history since Herodotus proclaimed his goal of “preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.” Herodotus divorced history from Homeric myth; he consulted written sources, traveled and conducted interviews, and explained to readers what he knew and what he only inferred. But he rarely let informational accuracy get in the way of a good story, and he had a purpose beyond glorifying the past – namely demonstrating the superiority of Greek self-government to Persian despotism.

Subsequent historians followed his lead. Thucydides strove for balance in his treatment of the Peloponnesian War, or said he did; but he admitted to having made up speeches of his heroes based on “what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” Plutarch was unabashedly moralistic, drawing lessons from the lives of the Greeks and Romans he portrayed in parallel. Julius Caesar justified his conquest of Gaul as a way of legitimating his conquest of the Roman state. The Venerable Bede infused his history of the English church with miracle stories that revealed the hand of God behind the whole development. Edward Gibbon, by contrast, blamed Christianity for undermining the Roman Empire; he concluded his magnum opus acidly: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” Karl Marx generalized generously in declaring that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Even when they aren’t motivated by politics or ideology, historians muddle what really happened. They have to: reality is too unruly to fit between the covers of one (or several) volumes. The historian picks facts the way a mountaineer finds a route across a boulder field: one fact leads to another and then another and yet another, allowing the historian to cross the ground in reasonable time. Important boulders are inevitably bypassed; rocks of lesser significance are included on the route for what they lie between.

Histories, moreover, require plots – the networks of causality that distinguish histories from mere chronicles. But causality, beyond the most trivial kind, is nearly impossible to prove. Most of us like to think we are rational, at least some of the time, and perhaps we are. But often rationality is a polite name for rationalization, and the stories we tell ourselves about our motives are simply that: stories. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature,” Benjamin Franklin observed, “since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” A. J. P. Taylor put the same point differently. “History is not another name for the past, as many people imply,” the British historian explained. “It is the name for stories about the past.”

Historians aren’t as narrowly bound in their storytelling as novelists and playwrights, for whom the outcome of a conflict is expected to be contained within the characters and the previous events. Deus ex machina is the device of despair in fiction, but it appears quite frequently in real life. This said, the historian of the French Revolution highlights those developments that contributed to the overthrow of the ancien régime and gives less weight to those that didn’t, thus creating an impression of momentum if not inevitability. Teleology has fallen out of fashion among professional historians, who these days aren’t allowed to claim that events are tending toward some predestined end; but hindsight, which is a present-minded (as opposed to future-minded) version of teleology, still passes academic muster.

Margaret MacMillan understands the imperatives of the historian’s craft. A Canadian currently at Oxford University, MacMillan wrote a widely applauded account of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (at which her great-grandfather, then–Prime Minister David Lloyd George, represented Britain). Her new book, first published last year in Canada, originated as a series of lectures at the University of Western Ontario. Her eight chapters echo their origin; self-contained but connected, they raise and then attempt to answer several questions involving the deployment of history in contemporary debates.

MacMillan commences by describing a “history craze,” an enthusiasm for all things historical that is apparently more evident – to her, at any rate – in Britain, France and Canada than it is in the United States. She attributes this enthusiasm to the end of the cold war, which broke the superpower duopoly and allowed the histories of less powerful peoples and states to resume their former importance. “My own book on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where so much of the foundation of the modern world was laid, could not find a publisher in the 1980s,” she confides. “As one publisher said, no one wanted to read about a bunch of dead white men sitting around talking about long-forgotten peace settlements. By the 1990s, the subject had come to seem a lot more relevant.”

She proceeds to examine history as a form of intellectual comfort food. History promises simplicity in a time of confusion, heroes in an age of all-too-mortals, reliable authority amid corrosive cynicism. Leaders no less than followers take comfort from history, or what they hope history will be and say. “As Bush grew more unpopular,” she notes of the younger president bearing that name, “the references to Truman grew more frequent. In December 2006 he told congressional leaders that although Truman had not been popular at the time, history had shown that he was right.”

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