The Uses and Abuses of History

This is a thoughtful assessment of the power of the past in modern politics, says Jeremy Black  

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Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Margaret Macmillan
Publisher: Profile Books
Price (RRP): £11.99 (paperback)

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An informed and well-written account of the place of the past in present politics, this consideration of the use and abuses of history throws light on the role of history in national identity and also in history wars, such as dissension over the French Revolution and the controversy between Japanese and Chinese accounts of the past.

As the author notes, ideologies call on history, but in their hands it becomes a prophecy, and a cause of grievance. Macmillan, author of a notable account of the Paris Peace Conference, argues that it is particularly unfortunate that, just as history is becoming more important in public discussions, so professional historians have largely been abandoning the field to amateurs. She argues that historians do not own the past but that because they spend their time studying the subject they are in a better position than most amateurs to make reasoned judgments.

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Yet Macmillan points out that the historical profession has turned inward in the last couple of decades, with the result that much historical study today is self-referential. This criticism is certainly true of Britain and owes much to the interaction of government policy with the nature of the dominant academic culture. Macmillan also finds history of value as a form of humane scepticism. She points out that each historical event is unique, but that a study of history provides warnings about possibilities. A thoughtful and accessible study.