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 the awesome magnitude of both men’s ignorance.

Washington’s neoconservatives in 2001 and thereafter explicitly likened the opportunity, and even the duty, to confer democracy upon Afghanistan and Iraq with the Allies’ political transformation of Germany and Japan after 1945. MacMillan suggests that they might have gained “instructive ideas and warnings in the British experience there or in other occupations.” Here, I find myself in rare disagreement with her. The postwar Germans and Japanese had nothing to teach the twenty-first-century neocons, because they were defeated peoples who responded to occupation with docility and indeed subservience.

The real lesson, if the Republicans had cited precedent more intelligently, lay among 1944–1945’s liberated peoples. In Belgium, Italy, the Balkans, and above all Greece, the wartime Allies faced frightful problems in reordering societies traumatized and radicalized by the horrors of war and Nazi occupation. While the vanquished could be, and expected to be, treated with arbitrary ruthlessness, liberated societies could not. George W. Bush and his colleagues repeatedly assured Afghans and Iraqis that they had been liberated rather than defeated. Those populations behaved accordingly, not least in showing disenchantment when promises of improvements in their lives went unfulfilled. Washington did not read the wrong history books, but the wrong chapters.

“History provides much of the fuel for nationalism,” says MacMillan. But even more, nationalism causes the public to be willfully selective about what history it likes, and she writes very well about this. World War II is supremely popular, especially in the US and Britain, because it is perceived as the last unequivocally “good war.” Many Westerners still flinch from recognition of the fact that the Western Allies relied on the tyranny of Stalin for most of the horrific bloodshed necessary to destroy that of Hitler.

MacMillan cites the view of the British historian Michael Howard that the proper role of historians is to challenge and even explode national myths. He has written: “Such disillusion is a necessary part of growing up in and belonging to an adult society.” Almost all teachers and serious students acknowledge this, but the wider public does not. I often find myself in trouble with patriotic American and British readers for asserting in my own books what the evidence clearly shows: that the German soldier was man-for-man a more effective fighter than his Allied counterpart, excluding a few elite units.


MacMillan describes the fearsome controversy that broke out in Canada in 1992, after the screening by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) of a documentary series, The Valour and the Horror, that raised questions about the morality and impact of wartime strategic bombing, in which 20,000 Canadian airmen participated, half of whom died in combat. A lawyer for veterans who sued the CBC for damages declared that the issue was quite simply “about right and wrong; good and evil; white and black; truth and falsehood.”

MacMillan herself was summoned as an expert witness by the Canadian War Museum, and asserted the proper duty of chroniclers. “History,” she said, echoing Michael Howard, “should not be written to make the present generation feel good but to remind us that human affairs are complicated.” Such voices of reason were drowned out by the mob. Canada’s Supreme Court ruled the veterans’ suit out of order, but the CBC bowed to public sentiments by agreeing not to rebroadcast the series.

A similar row descended on Washington’s National Air and Space Museum in 1994. “Patriots” vented outrage at the Smithsonian’s suggestion that its exhibit of the B-29 Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, might reflect the moral controversy about its use. The museum eventually canceled the show and its director resigned.

The problem is that the vast majority of people of all nations, even the liberal democracies, cherish their national myths too much to want mere facts, or even assertions of historical doubt, to besmirch them. They prefer a nursery view of their past to an adult one, and a host of authors and television producers is happy to indulge them.

Americans cherish the delusion that they are not merely a nonimperial but a vigorously anti-imperial society. I doubt whether such books as David Reynolds’s recent America, Empire of Liberty,2 describing the colonization of the North American continent at the expense of its indigenous peoples, will do much to change their minds. Many white Southerners’ view of the nineteenth century remains more powerfully influenced by Gone with the Wind than by objective portrayals of the miseries of plantation society.

China clings to a belief that Mao Zedong was the father of its freedom, and bars open debate about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. A Chinese academic told me not long ago that 50 million Chinese died during his country’s occupation by the Japanese, not 15 million as hitherto supposed. I inquired about the evidence for this statistic, and he looked blank. The new, wild guesstimate is merely a sign of the depth of Chinese bitterness toward Japan, rather than an application of intellectual rigor, which remains largely absent from Chinese historical study.

Japan’s refusal convincingly to address its World War II past is well known. But it must be cause for astonishment that as recently as 2008 the serving head of the Japanese air force was obliged to resign after publishing a study that suggested that his country’s wartime operations in China represented something close to an exercise in philanthropy. Many Israelis’ notions about the foundation of their own state include sorry misapprehensions about what was done to the Palestinians in 1948.

MacMillan describes the vehemence with which Hindu nationalists, some of them in government, seek to promote a vision of India’s past that bears no relation to reality, especially in addressing the contributions of Muslims to Indian history. The Indian education minister between 1998 and 2004, Murli Manohar Joshi, introduced new school textbooks that were blatantly nationalist in tone and perpetuated serious historical falsehoods. It reflected credit on Indian democracy that Joshi’s attempted replacement of the Indian Council for Historical Research’s historian of early India by an appointee of his own was defeated by a public outcry. The candidate’s attacks on Christians and Muslims were deemed to go too far.

Vladimir Putin seeks to rewrite modern Russian history to rehabilitate Stalin. The version of twentieth-century events provided in modern Russian school textbooks would be unrecognizable to most Western historians. MacMillan notes that the Russian mass media are today reviewing the 1940 Katyn massacre and reasserting Nazi guilt for the killing of up to 30,000 Polish officers and intellectuals despite the overwhelming evidence of Soviet responsibility.

The British possess their own rich store of legends, of which the foremost is that most colonial subjects of their empire appreciated the benefits of foreign domination. Admirers of that rousing movie Zulu (1964) do not want to be told that after the 1879 battle at Rorke’s Drift, which it depicts, the British defenders dispatched the Zulu wounded. There is little popular appetite for knowledge of the 1943 Bengal famine, which killed three million people, partly because Winston Churchill refused to interest himself in their fate. British historians have published many books in recent years that seek to rebalance our view of World War II to give just prominence to the Eastern Front. But the public emphatically prefers an Anglocentric vision.


It may be argued that none of this matters much, so long as romantic nationalistic images of the past are not allowed to influence twenty-first-century government policies. But that condition is often unfulfilled. Few modern politicians read more than two or three serious books a year and it is a matter of chance whether these happen to convey useful advice. MacMillan notes that John F. Kennedy’s measured response to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was influenced by the fact that he had recently studied Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962), which argues that accidents and misunderstandings precipitated war in 1914.

By contrast, I was dismayed to learn from a gossip column a year and a half ago that Vice President Dick Cheney had been observed reading a copy of my own book Retribution: The Battle for Japan 1944–45 (2008), which suggests that the bombing of Hiroshima was explainable, if not retrospectively justifiable, by the circumstances and mindset of the time. My imagination boggled at the misuses to which the Vice President might put 1945 historical precedents.

The Victorian creator of Britain’s Dictionary of National Biography, Leslie Stephen, observed: “No good story is quite true.” MacMillan remarks that no evidential basis exists for the much-beloved yarn that a sign stood at the entrance to the old European concessions in Shanghai: “Dogs and Chinese not admitted.” She might have added that great sayings attributed to great men are often of doubtful plausibility. After capturing Sindh in 1843 the British general Charles Napier did not dispatch the triumphal one-word message “Peccavi” (“I have sinned”—i.e., “Sindh”) as many romantic chroniclers have alleged. There is no reason to believe that Pershing really said when he landed in France in 1917: “Lafayette, we are here.”

MacMillan devotes significant space to the modern cult of oral history. Many academic historians dismiss oral testimony with contempt, and it is easy to see why. Take, for instance, Studs Terkel’s highly successful books of interviews, notable among them The Good War (1997), about the so-called “greatest generation.” Many statements made in it by his interviewees are factually unjustified.

This is true of most such works. Their compilers and editors decline to mar the vividness of eyewitness narratives by identifying errors. Millions of people, and almost all TV and radio producers, perceive an inherent merit in the testimony of contemporary eyewitnesses, heedless of whether what they say is objectively sound, or likely to be.

I have interviewed hundreds of World War II veterans all over the world, and made extensive use of their words in my books. I disagree with academics who declare that these are valueless. They contribute to a sense of mood, time, and place that can make an important contribution to a portrait of how things seemed to contemporary participants. But I strive to exclude testimony that carries a scent of falsehood, and would never rely upon the memories of elderly men and women to substantiate any important factual assertion.

As MacMillan observes, human memory is wildly selective. After the passage of years, most of us begin honestly to believe in the reality of things we think we saw and become muddled about chronology. When I encounter people whom I met on battlefields decades ago, in my days as a war correspondent, I am shocked by how often they correct mistaken memories of my own, of which I had become implicitly confident.

Beyond flaws of recollection, it is a fallacy that those who were present can be trusted to know what happened. MacMillan remarks on the folly of supposing, for instance, that those who participated in the bombing of Germany and Japan possess overriding credentials for passing judgment on its merits, as was deemed the case in the 1990s controversies in Ottawa and Washington.

Wars are conducted in part by senior officers, who make the decisions and unsurprisingly seek later to influence historical assessment of them, especially if they continue to hold high rank and exercise some power over the contemporary documentation and what use is made of it. The other, overwhelmingly more numerous participants in conflicts are very young men and women, most of them immature and ignorant of anything beyond their own rifle sights. They are unqualified to offer useful opinions about the big picture of events in which they played small parts. In my own experience, it is valueless to invite those who fulfilled junior roles to pontificate about matters beyond their own narrow compass.

The inherent virtue of oral testimony has become much exaggerated in public imagination. Such evidence has a useful part to play, setting the scene in depictions of recent historical events. But the voices of participants must properly be set in context with documents and contemporary records—though these, too, must be treated with caution.

Some academic historians place an almost religious faith in the sanctity of written evidence. The scientist Solly Zuckerman, who played a prominent part in British wartime councils, told me that in old age, he read anew in the British National Archive the minutes of meetings he had attended, to refresh his memory when writing his autobiography. This exercise caused him to conclude that the papers reflected only the personal prejudices and convictions of those who drafted them, rather than a reliable narrative of what had been said. No US or British regimental war diary that I have ever seen explicitly admits that soldiers fled in panic, as of course they sometimes do.

MacMillan urges that the foremost need in exploring history is a sense of humility. She quotes the British writer John Carey: “One of history’s most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly and painfully, past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful.”

In Patrick O’Brian’s novels of Nelson’s navy, the enchanting and clever surgeon Stephen Maturin’s panacea for every sickness subject to no other obvious remedy was to bleed a man. For centuries, in real life as in fiction, even the most brilliant doctors routinely drained blood from their patients. Their purpose was benign. They were absolutely wrong, but they knew no better. So it is with political leaders. Relatively few, especially in the liberal democracies, knowingly commit evil actions. But the consequences of their actions, in modern times in such places as Suez, Algeria, Vietnam, and Iraq, have often been evil. Not infrequently, this has been the consequence of reading the wrong parts of history.

“History can help us to be wise,” writes MacMillan.

It can also suggest to us what the likely outcome of our actions might be. There are no clear blueprints…that can help us shape the future as we wish. Each historical event is a unique congeries of factors, people, or chronology. Yet by examining the past, we can get some useful lessons about how to proceed.

John Lewis Gaddis likewise suggests that studying history is like looking in a rearview mirror: as MacMillan puts it, “if you only look back, you will land in the ditch, but it helps to know where you have come from and who else is on the road.”

The worst mistake often made by national leaders, MacMillan says, is to cherry-pick historical evidence to justify courses of action to which they are already committed. George W. Bush was especially prone to this. He occasionally invited historians to the White House to share their wisdom, but his choice of guests was dictated by their political mindset. There is no evidence that the President was ever deflected from a course to which he was predisposed by new thinking offered by such interlocutors.

MacMillan spares a deservedly unkind word for professional historians who in recent times have made a virtue of obscurantism. One of them, Andrew Colin Gow of the University of Alberta, says severely that we should not expect historians to tell a good story: “Do we need professional history that entertains us—especially when public money pays for so much of what we historians do? Do we need physics that entertains us?”

Agreeing with MacMillan, I am shocked by the poor literary quality of work, often published by university presses, produced by many academics. It might as well be written in Chinese for all its intelligibility to a lay public. The consequence, says MacMillan, is that amateurs—among whom she would presumably include me, since I possess no academic credentials and hold no tenure—increasingly work the field. She urges that the professionals should make an effort to regain their lost territory by recognizing a responsibility to tell a story vividly, in addition to sustaining the cause of intellectual integrity.

MacMillan’s essays break no significant new ground. They suffer somewhat in coherence and continuity by their obvious derivation from lectures delivered to a student audience. But they assert some useful truths that need restatement, because history is so often abused. She might have said more about public perceptions of World War I. That event feeds a cultural mythology that defies all efforts by academics, Michael Howard and Hew Strachan notable among them, to promote perspective and objectivity.

Most of the peoples of the Western world cling doggedly to a belief in the futility of the conflict, heedless of evidence that a victory by the Central Powers would have been a catastrophe for European freedom. The overriding popular belief that World War I was fought in a “bad” cause while the Allies in its successor pursued a “good” one emphasizes the fact that, while we live in a world overloaded with information, wisdom and balance—especially about choices of relative evils such as many decisions of state are—remain endlessly elusive.

MacMillan’s book shows why governments should stay out of the history business, though of course they never do. Totalitarian regimes, especially, will always seek to exploit choice fragments of their national pasts to justify territorial claims and promote vainglorious purposes. As for the democracies, she is sensibly measured in her discussion of the current mania for formal apologies—to Australian and Maori aboriginals, slaves, women, Irishmen, and other victims of persecution.

It must be right, she says, to acknowledge grievous sins by our forefathers. But it is folly to suppose that we can retrospectively impose the values of the twenty-first century on decisions and mistakes that were made in the very different circumstances of the past. The essence of studying and using history is to recognize the inescapable variability of each generation’s approach: “History does not produce definitive answers for all time. It is a process.” We can be sure that our children and grandchildren will perceive the past differently from ourselves, though there is no reason to suppose that their version will possess any more absolute validity than does our own.

This Issue

March 11, 2010