“The Uses and Abuses of History” review

“The Uses and Abuses of History” review

The Uses and Abuses of History

by Margaret Macmillan
Profile Books Ltd (2009)

The uses and abuses of history covered by Margaret MacMillan include the popularity and limitations of history on TV and cinema; the way history has been used selectively to suit the ‘needs’ of current generations; and the way history, particularly military and political, helps form individual and collective identities nationally, or through religious and other organisations.

She suggests that history is to some degree always biased, continually being modified, suppressed, and sometimes completely re-invented. No era or geo-political area seems immune, though distortions are clearly worse in some power structures than in others.
Formal history-teaching, even in ‘democratic’ nations, can be hugely biased. As she points out, textbook publishers often have no compunction in publishing blatantly biased histories. However, she brings in recent initiatives that challenge this – French and German schoolchildren learning from almost identical history textbooks, while a more ‘mature’ view of national history is evolving in South Africa and Ireland.

The main goals of the book are admirable; complex issues are written in a readable way; while traditional ways of teaching history are challenged, although a reference section would be helpful. This has very relevant implications for organisations such as MAW, particularly when the deliberate distortion of history not only leads to war, but is sometimes intended to lead to war.