Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History

In 2003, James Laine, a history professor, published a book about a 17th-century Hindu king, Shivaji. In it, he mentioned, half seriously, that Shivaji might not have been his father’s son. Laine’s comment led a conservative group from Shivaji’s home province, Maharashtra, to convince Oxford University Press to withdraw the book. Then things got violent. One mob beat up an Indian scholar whom Laine acknowledged; another ransacked the research institute where Laine had worked. The police charged the historian and his publisher with “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause a riot.”

Why such furor over a throwaway comment in a scholarly monograph? Because, argues Margaret MacMillan in Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, we use history to stake claims about the present. The outrage over the Laine book occurred during an election year, and politicians used it to stoke nationalist sentiment. The prime minister of the Hindu nationalist party said “foreign writers must learn that they could not offend Indian pride,” and a tidbit about a 17th-century king influenced the outcome of a 21st-century election.

The Laine controversy is but one example of hundreds MacMillan presents to undergird her thesis: history matters. At first, the premise seems terribly obvious. Do we need a book to tell us the past is important, that many global conflicts hinge on historical claims? After all, MacMillan opens her first chapter, “The History Craze,” by ceding this point: “History, and not necessarily the sort that professional historians are doing, is widely popular they days, even in North America, where we have tended to look toward the future rather than the past.” Evidence is easy to cite: The Night at the Museum movies attract flocks of kids, the History Channel recaps World War II battles 24/7, and new museums, such as the Holocaust Museums in Washington, D.C., and Montreal, open to large crowds.

History may be popular, but professional histories, as MacMillian notes, are not. Her own book belongs to Modern Library’s Chronicles series, in which well-known scholars write short histories in accessible prose, aimed at general audiences. Other Chronicle titles take on particular periods or states: Nazi Germany, the Hellenistic Age, the American Revolution. In her entry, MacMillan, a professor of history at Oxford University and the University of Toronto, author of Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World and Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, tackles the idea of history itself.

We need this series of breezy histories, including MacMillan’s overview approach, because academic historians have become a coterie, writing mainly to each other, absorbed by intra-disciplinary concerns, and relying on obscure language and abstruse prose to make their points. Abandoning the general public, these historians have allowed amateurs take up the slack, and simplistic accounts of the past are left to slake our thirst for history. (A recent New York Times article on the withering away of traditional historical fields, such as diplomatic, economic and military history, in favor of “bottom-up” studies of social, cultural, and gender history, touched on similar concerns.) Younger historians are attracted to women’s history, Asian-American history, and other new fields, often narrowing their subjects into tiny slices. As MacMillan wryly points out, “While it is instructive, informative, and indeed fun to study such subjects as the carnivals in the French Revolution, the image of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, the role of the doughnut in the Canadian psyche?, or the hamburger in American life, we ought not forget the aspect of history that the great nineteenth-century German historian Leopold van Ranke summed up as ‘what really happened.’ ”

When we forget to tell the story of causality and sequence, of who did what and what ensued, others swoop in, and play dangerous games. MacMillan’s subtitle riffs on Nietzsche’s On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, in which he cautions against history becoming “the gravedigger of the present.” Of the history written today, MacMillan writes, “Some of it is very good, but much is not. Bad history tells only part of complex stories.” “Bad history” is the book’s raison d’être, and we have it in spades. MacMillan gives us example after example in a monotonous yet lulling rhythm. Golly, we realize as the pages turn quickly, there sure is a lot of violence, atrocity, and destructive logic done in the name of history. MacMillan never delves too far into particularities, as her method works by accretion. Trotsky was written out of Soviet history by Stalin. Mao tried to expunge most of Chinese history during the Cultural Revolution. A looming figure such as Churchill is remembered as the perfect, unassailable hero of World War II, “not the author of the disastrous Gallipoli landings in World War I or the ailing prime minister who stayed too long in office.” We create “lost golden ages,” like that recalled by Deaf activists who vaunt a moment in the 18th century when sign language was invented. We traffic in victimhood: Irish schoolchildren were once reared on a diet of simplistic, anti-British tales. Et cetera.

MacMillan can come across as a tease. She prompts us to question the meaningfulness of apologies for the past (Australia apologizes to the aborigines on National Sorry Day, the United States apologizes for slavery) and demonstrates the archaeological uncertainty underlying age-old claims of both Arabs and Israelis to the same plot of land. But she offers few conclusions. After we are convinced of the need for professionals to lead us through the morass of the past, it is easy to want them to continue and make up our minds for us. Should African Americans get the $5-10 trillion they would be owed if we paid restitution for slavery, or not? Should Israel withdraw from Gaza? MacMillan will not comply; instead, she goes on to summarize another historical quagmire. On whether we should “never forget” the past, she goes this far: “Dwelling on past horrors such as the Holocaust or slavery can leave people without the resources to deal with problems in the here and now.”

Aware of the violence that histories, even obscure ones like Laine’s, can cause, and well versed in her field, MacMillan is right to eschew truth claims. The historian’s role is to complicate, to smudge blacks and whites into all manner of grays. It is humbling, this good history. The best we can do, it seems, is understand, empathize, learn all sides, and, sometimes, weep.