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New Book: Margaret Macmillan writes about the uses and abuses of history

Historians in the News




During the Soviet era it used to be joked that Russia was the only country in which the past was unpredictable. When the secret police chief Lavrenti Beria was shot in 1953, libraries were ordered to cut out the pages of the Soviet encyclopedia that dealt with him and expand the section on the Bering Strait. As far as official Soviet history was concerned Beria had never existed and the events in which he had played a part had to be rewritten.

In the former Soviet Union history was repeatedly revised to reflect the changing pattern of power and the shifting party line, but rewriting the past is not a practice confined to totalitarian states. It goes on in regimes of all kinds, not least liberal democracies. Churchill's history of the second world war, Margaret Macmillan observes [ in her new book, The Uses and Abuses of History], is "a sweeping and magisterial account which glossed over many awkward issues". There is no mention in it of cabinet discussions in May 1940, when the issue of seeking peace through the mediation of Mussolini was actively debated. Fortunately for the future of civilisation the idea that peace could be made with the Nazis was rejected and Churchill prevailed; but his claim that the issue was never seriously deliberated is contrary to fact. The decision whether to fight on could easily have gone the other way, with unthinkable consequences for the world.

The official history that exaggerates British unity in 1940 is only one of many examples discussed by Macmillan, but it encapsulates one of the conclusions that emerge from her wise and enlightening book. While there will always be different perspectives on the past, we are not adrift in a sea of relativism. There are facts of the matter, which historians can sometimes establish. As Macmillan writes: "Memory is not only selective; it is malleable." For example, when writing his memoirs Dean Acheson remembered sitting in President Roosevelt's office with secretary of state Cordell Hull on the day in 1941 when the US froze Japanese assets and edged closer to war. Acheson's secretary checked the record, and found that Hull was not in Washington on the day. Memory is unreliable, but that does not mean the truth cannot be known....
Read entire article at John Gray in the Guardian

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