What history should be teaching us

Uses and Abuses of History
by Margaret MacMillan,
Viking Canada, 196 pages, $30.00

(Canscene) — I don’t know how many times I’ve been sickened by George W Bush’s insertion into one of his addresses of phrases like “history teaches us”: or “history shows us” or “there’s a lesson in history here.” We know, of course, that he’s off the mark, just like his pronunciation of “nuclear.”

Dubya is quoted in Margaret MacMillan’s latest book Uses and Abuses of History, a compact but searching examination of how historical inaccuracies and myths easily become acceptable to the most intelligent among us. This brilliant Canadian historian knows her subject well; as the author of the monumental Paris 1919 she detailed the many perversions of “history” that, at the Peace Treaty of Versailles led to wholesale giveaway of land belonging to Imperial Germany and its vanquished allies.

Now that he world knows no weapons of mass destruction existed in Saddam’s Iraq Bush she says, frequently refers to his perceived need to begin the invasion of Iraq as action against “appeasement”. The term first gained use among the more perceptive of political analysts when British PM Neville Chamberlain in 1938, led the democracies into the Munich agreement which avoided immediate conflict with Hitler and led to his grabbing of Czechoslovakia World War II was to begin a year later.

MacMillan points out the total dissimilarity between the two situations: primarily in 1938 Hitler was a real menace to the peace of Europe while in 2003, Bush’s act of aggression against Iraq was based not on a real threat to the United States but on misleading information about weapons of mass destruction.

The author claims that through the ages, such interpretations have led to spurious beliefs through efforts to either gloss over or deliberately suppress the truth. Fundamentalists’ insistence that the world is only 6,000 years old, based on their interpretations of the Bible, make one with recent renewed efforts by the Turkish government to deny the Armenian genocide and a successful effort by veterans’ groups to rewrite a plaque at the Canadian War Museum revealing the stark ruth of Allied bombings of German cities.

Apologies such as that made to Canadian Aboriginals for residential schools are worthless when the majority of Native Canadians still live in circumstances unacceptable to their fellow countrymen, MacMillan points out.

Germany and South Africa come across as demonstrating much more civilized behaviour according to MacMillan. The former’s acceptance of the Holocaust is living proof that the despicable attempts of the Ernst Zundels and David Irvings don’t carry much weight. And South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation hearings which examined unspeakable behaviour toward Blacks and dissidents enabled us to hear,the perpetrators. from heir own mouths.


The clarity of MacMillan’s writing should guarantee a wide readership for all Canadians from teens upward. Have no doubt: this is a highly important book. I sincerely trust it will get the recognition it deserves.

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