History can help us to make sense of a complicated world, but we must always be careful if it offers explanations that are too simple. And we must always be prepared to consider alternatives and to raise questions.
Historians have a challenging job. They sift through fictions to try and find the facts about the past. The Uses and Abuses of History is about how we can use the fictions of the past to suit our present narratives. Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan provides many examples on how historical narrative can perpetuate ideological and national myths.
“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.”
We like things to be simple and straightforward, but history is rarely that. The present is not simple and straightforward, so we can’t expect the past to be as well. Beyond national and global history, our own personal histories are reductionist manifestations created solely in the mind.
Memory and the Past
“So long as the past and the present are outside one another, knowledge of the past is not of much use in the present..."
What‘s your favourite memory? Think about it. You’ve probably got a bevy of good times to recall from childhood up to earlier today. Pick one and try to remember what happened. What was so great about that time? Get specific.
My dad recently shared some old family movies that my grandfather filmed when he was a baby. In one of the videos I get to see my dad enjoying himself as a child while on a camping trip. When we were talking about the video he mentioned that he thought he remembered that trip, but now he wonders if his memory is of the video of the trip rather than the trip itself.
More likely his memory is a memory of a memory of watching a video of the trip. Our memories aren’t like cameras at all; perfect snapshots that capture a moment exactly how it is. Instead, they are images that have been run through the photoshop of our mind with new layers added on each time we remember them.
“A memory evoked too often, and expressed in the form of a story, tends to become fixed in stereotype … crystallized, perfected, adorned, installing itself in the place of the raw memory and growing at its expense.”
The moment the present is no longer the past it ceases to be an objective truth and becomes a subjective truth. Because we can’t experience the past again, all we’ve got are these subjective truths.
Combining many subjective truths into an intersubjective collective memory and documenting them is how history gets made.
Did the Armenian Genocide happen? We know that Armenians were forced to migrate out of Turkey and during this migration many Armenians were killed by Turkish forces. Compared to other events where a government oppressed a specific people it seems to fit the definition of genocide. But Turkey won’t acknowledge it as such. So does that mean it didn’t happen?
“Typically,” he wrote, “a collective memory, at least a significant collective memory, is understood to express some eternal or essential truth about the group—usually tragic.”
I hope you’re thinking “of course not” right now. Just because an event is not acknowledged, or taught in history class doesn’t erase it from history itself. Was there a genocide of the Indigenous peoples in North America? Are Uyghurs in China being rounded up, used as slaves, chemically castrated, and killed?
“competing narratives about central symbols in the collective past, and the collectivity’s relationship to that past, are disputed and negotiated in the interest of redefining the collective present.”
A memory forms because an event occurred. A collective memory forms when many people experience the same event. It is still fallible like an individual event. A collective memory has its sharpened edges smoothed over time to fit one purpose or another.
Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned? Disregarding the fact that fiddles didn’t exist in Ancient Rome, this collective memory which was written down as history has more to do with what happened long after Rome burned and Nero died. Nero blamed Christians for the fire and had them killed in horrific ways. He couldn’t have predicted the future dominance of Christianity and the impact it would have on the collective memory of his reign.
Remember that Aristotle thought your measurement of virtue continued after you had died. Being virtuous is to be remembered as virtuous.
As the American historian John Lewis Gaddis put it, it is like looking in a rear-view mirror: If you only look back, you will land in the ditch, but it helps to know where you have come from and who else is on the road.
If Turkey were to gain enough power to control all historical narratives we would certainly not believe there was an Armenian genocide, but it still happened. If Nazis had won World War II there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust, but millions of people would still be dead (and likely continue to die). Nero probably was not so great of an emperor even if he didn't set fire to Rome. It isn’t true that history is written by the winners, but history books certainly are.
Men make their own history,” said Karl Marx, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Hegel believed we were entering a new human epoch in the enlightenment were humanity would reach it's pinnacle state. To Hegel, history was an ever forward march that progressed our collective Geist forward. What is the pinnacle of humanity? Understanding God itself of course.
Marx grabbed on to Hegel's idea and made history a class struggle. In Marxism, we've marched forward through tribal, feudal and industrial societies where the lower class was always in a struggle against the upper class. The Bourgeois were formed by rising up against the oppressive land owners in the the feudal era. We will constantly be leap-frogging each other up the socio-economic ladder. Workers of the world unite!
Using history to label or diminish your opponents has always been a useful tool. The left shouts “Fascist!” at the right while conservatives throw around the Stalinist and Communist labels.
The ideology formed by any social movement or group bends history to suit its needs. Ideologies discard what doesn't fit the narrative and embellishes events that do. This is why conservatives use the term Socialist as if it were a dirty word and liberals (we're all liberals, but that's a different post) feel like we're slipping closer and closer towards Fascism.
“Patriotism is a historical concept, which has different specific connotations in different stages and periods of social development."
My favourite part of The Uses and Abuses of History is a story about the Canadian War Museum.
What is your opinion on the bombing of Dresden? We know from the collective memories of people who witnessed the event that Allied bombers destroyed the city of Dresen and many of the people within. Documents from that Allied side revealed that they were strategically targeting civilian structures, as opposed to military, as way to demoralize the German Army.
You might agree that it was sound strategy, or use some kind of ethical relativism to excuse the horrific act of bombing civilians. I think it's a bad look personally. When the Canadian War Museum opened there was a plaque that mentioned the bombing strategy and had a very Canadian sentence on the value and morality of the bombing:
Mass bomber raids against Germany resulted in vast destruction and heavy loss of life.The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead, and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war.
As you might predict, veterans were outraged. The museum had to bring in a group of independent historians (Margaret MacMillan was one of them) and eventually the plaque was reworded.
“A nation,” he wrote, “is a great solidarity created by the sentiment of the sacrifices which have been made and those which one is disposed to make in the future.”
If historical fact goes against national pride, nationalism will bend historical fact to suit its needs. Unless a nation decides to address it's horrific past, that past will either be discarded from the national narrative or rewritten.
“A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.”
This is how history turns into mythos. I wonder what myths will be created about what is happening right now. When our present becomes the past and drifts into memory. When our collective memory is softened and blurred by the ideologies and nations of the future.
The Uses and Abuses of History was a really fun read. I liked all the stories MacMillan uses to prove her points around ideology and nationalist abuses of historical fact. It sparked a lot of thought and has become interconnected with my ideas around objective truths and time. I hope you enjoyed this Chapter of Booked!
I like when a Booked Chapter becomes less of a summary of what I read and more on the ideas inherent in the reading. I consciously wanted to make sure I wasn't doing book reviews, but instead was using this as a tool to cement thoughts. It seems I move back and forth between disseminating raw knowledge and sharing ideas from a personal perspective. This chapter is certainly more of the latter.