I’ve just finished reading Margaret MacMillan’s The uses and abuses of history (2008), based on the lecture series she delivered recently at the University of Western Ontario. The book makes a strong case for handling history with care. As MacMillan points out in her opening paragraph, “history is something we all do, even if, like the man who discovered he was writing prose, we do not always realize it.” We use it to understand who we are (who are my parents? where does my family come from?), and we use our knowledge or ignorance of it to win arguments (you always do that! or you never told me that! I never knew that about you!). Often our memory of history is selective or we choose to ignore the lessons we might be able to draw from it. The same applies to communities, cities, nations, peoples to increasingly momentous consequences.

MacMillan’s surveys the uses and abuses of history in many significant events in the past century as well as the way nations choose to portray its own history and the pitfalls of how it chooses to commemorate events in its past and the debates these commemorations spark. The veritable wars over commemorations and remembrance make a very fascinating part of the book. An example close to home was the fierce debate caused by the decision of the Canadian War Museum to have a plaque on an exhibition on the bombing campaign against Germany during World War II entitled “An Enduring Controversy” presenting current debates among scholars on the efficacy and the morality of the strategy to bring Germany down by carpet bombing civilian targets. Since about 20,000 Canadians flew with the RAF’s Bomber Command, the veterans’ associations in Canada went up in arms protesting that they found the plaque offensive because it led people to question the morality of what they did. MacMillan was one of four historians invited to give their opinion on the exhibit. She concluded, quite rightfully in my opinion, that “history should not be written to make the present generation feel good but to remind us that human affairs are complicated.” The panel, nevertheless, remained divided and the public outcry was such that the museum announced it would revise the wording on the plaque in consultation with the veterans.

That was only one of many examples of disputes and controversies that can arise out of the use of history. Others include the role of history, or its manipulation, in the formation (and defense) of Israeli and Palestinian identities and claims over land, over the origins of the Second World War, current disputes between China and Japan, the Cold War, to cite only a few. In the end, MacMillan asks the important question: “history, as we have seen, is much used, but is it much use?” After citing a few notable historians who sceptical of how much we can learn from history, she enumerates strong points for its importance. For once, it helps us to understand not only ourselves but those we have to deal with and, as she put so eloquently, “if you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes or how they are likely to react to something you do.” That was certainly one of the things that struck me when I lived in Barcelona. I was much less likely to get annoyed at Catalan attitudes and values than foreigners that simply expected them to be the same as what they conceived as “Spanish”. Other positive effects include avoiding “lazy generalizations” and helping in our “self-knowledge” (it would do us good to remember not only our moments of glory but also our more shady past). In the end, if it teaches us some humility and scepticism, as MacMillan concludes, it does a good thing.