Drawing the Wrong Lesson

Neue Galerie, New York/Private Collection, New York
Otto Dix: Shock Troops Advance under Gas, 1924; etching from the exhibition ‘Otto Dix,’ at the Neue Galerie, New York City, March 11–August 30, 2010. The catalog is edited by Olaf Peters and published by Prestel.

Societies promote the study of their own past as an element of national identity. The US does so through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. President George W. Bush’s 2003 “Preserve America” executive order decreed:

The Federal Government shall recognize and manage the historic properties in its ownership as assets that can support department and agency missions while contributing to the vitality and economic well-being of the Nation’s communities and fostering a broader appreciation for the development of the United States and its underlying values.

The easy part of this is to cherish—for instance—America’s Civil War battlefields. Every foreign visitor recognizes Gettysburg as a world-class historical site, in contrast to Waterloo in Belgium and South Africa’s Boer War sites, which are in a shabby state, chiefly because descendants of their principal combatants reside elsewhere. The British lovingly preserve their castles. Sufficient centuries have passed since the stones were laid for sensitivities to have dulled about the dismal purposes to which most were put.

Historical interpretation, however, offers epic opportunities for exploitation and distortion. Margaret MacMillan is a Canadian academic, author of excellent books on the 1919 Versailles Treaty and Nixon’s 1972 trip to China.1 She recalls the innocence of her former students, who used to tell her how fortunate she was in her subject:

Once you have got a period or the events of a war straight, so they assumed, you don’t have to think about them again. It must be so nice, they would say, not to redo your lecture notes. The past, after all, is the past. It cannot be changed. History, they seemed to say, is no more demanding than digging a stone out of the ground.

Her theme in Dangerous Games, derived from a series of lectures at the University of Western Ontario in 2007, is the manner in which history is used and abused by societies and their leaders. We live in the age of “the history craze,” when books and films about the past crowd stores and screens, much to the profit of those of us who write them. The quest for family antecedents has become a somewhat narcissistic popular passion.

But some conspicuous political follies derive from national leaders’ misreading of history. Any modern politician who identifies any modern dictator with Adolf Hitler should face automatic disqualification from office. George W. Bush liked to compare the challenge he faced from America’s foes with that which Winston Churchill confronted seventy years ago. Vice President Dick Cheney once said that global terrorism represents the gravest threat Western civilization has ever faced. Such assertions exposed…

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