A Revisionist's Burden

H. W. Brands
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
Center for the National Interest
"EVERYONE IS entitled to his own opinion," Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "but not to his own facts." Samuel Butler, the nineteenth-century English author, wrote that "though God cannot alter the past, historians can."
Political Geography
United States, Canada
Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (New York: Modern Library, 2009), 208 pp., $22.00. "EVERYONE IS entitled to his own opinion," Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "but not to his own facts." Samuel Butler, the nineteenth-century English author, wrote that "though God cannot alter the past, historians can." Whether modifying facts or opinions, historians have been fiddling with history since Herodotus proclaimed his goal of "preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory." Herodotus divorced history from Homeric myth; he consulted written sources, traveled and conducted interviews, and explained to readers what he knew and what he only inferred. But he rarely let informational accuracy get in the way of a good story, and he had a purpose beyond glorifying the past-namely demonstrating the superiority of Greek self-government to Persian despotism. Subsequent historians followed his lead. Thucydides strove for balance in his treatment of the Peloponnesian War, or said he did; but he admitted to having made up speeches of his heroes based on "what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation." Plutarch was unabashedly moralistic, drawing lessons from the lives of the Greeks and Romans he portrayed in parallel. Julius Caesar justified his conquest of Gaul as a way of legitimating his conquest of the Roman state. The Venerable Bede infused his history of the English church with miracle stories that revealed the hand of God behind the whole development. Edward Gibbon, by contrast, blamed Christianity for undermining the Roman Empire; he concluded his magnum opus acidly: "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion." Karl Marx generalized generously in declaring that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Even when they aren't motivated by politics or ideology, historians muddle what really happened. They have to: reality is too unruly to fit between the covers of one (or several) volumes. The historian picks facts the way a mountaineer finds a route across a boulder field: one fact leads to another and then another and yet another, allowing the historian to cross the ground in reasonable time. Important boulders are inevitably bypassed; rocks of lesser significance are included on the route for what they lie between. Histories, moreover, require plots-the networks of causality that distinguish histories from mere chronicles. But causality, beyond the most trivial kind, is nearly impossible to prove. Most of us like to think we are rational, at least some of the time, and perhaps we are. But often rationality is a polite name for rationalization, and the stories we tell ourselves about our motives are simply that: stories. "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature," Benjamin Franklin observed, "since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do." A. J. P. Taylor put the same point differently. "History is not another name for the past, as many people imply," the British historian explained. "It is the name for stories about the past." Historians aren't as narrowly bound in their storytelling as novelists and playwrights, for whom the outcome of a conflict is expected to be contained within the characters and the previous events. Deus ex machina is the device of despair in fiction, but it appears quite frequently in real life. This said, the historian of the French Revolution highlights those developments that contributed to the overthrow of the ancien régime and gives less weight to those that didn't, thus creating an impression of momentum if not inevitability. Teleology has fallen out of fashion among professional historians, who these days aren't allowed to claim that events are tending toward some predestined end; but hindsight, which is a present-minded (as opposed to future-minded) version of teleology, still passes academic muster. MARGARET MACMILLAN understands the imperatives of the historian's craft. A Canadian currently at Oxford University, MacMillan wrote a widely applauded account of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (at which her great-grandfather, then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George, represented Britain). Her new book, first published last year in Canada, originated as a series of lectures at the University of Western Ontario. Her eight chapters echo their origin; self-contained but connected, they raise and then attempt to answer several questions involving the deployment of history in contemporary debates. MacMillan commences by describing a "history craze," an enthusiasm for all things historical that is apparently more evident-to her, at any rate-in Britain, France and Canada than it is in the United States. She attributes this enthusiasm to the end of the cold war, which broke the superpower duopoly and allowed the histories of less powerful peoples and states to resume their former importance. "My own book on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where so much of the foundation of the modern world was laid, could not find a publisher in the 1980s," she confides. "As one publisher said, no one wanted to read about a bunch of dead white men sitting around talking about long-forgotten peace settlements. By the 1990s, the subject had come to seem a lot more relevant." She proceeds to examine history as a form of intellectual comfort food. History promises simplicity in a time of confusion, heroes in an age of all-too-mortals, reliable authority amid corrosive cynicism. Leaders no less than followers take comfort from history, or what they hope history will be and say. "As Bush grew more unpopular," she notes of the younger president bearing that name, "the references to Truman grew more frequent. In December 2006 he told congressional leaders that although Truman had not been popular at the time, history had shown that he was right." MacMillan frets that "amateur" historians have the largest audiences; most professionals, she says, have abandoned the general reader. She doesn't detail her distinction between amateur and professional; one wonders whether she counts David McCullough, the best-selling historian of this generation in America, as an amateur. McCullough has no degree beyond a bachelor's in English, and he holds no academic position; but few historians, professional or otherwise, conduct more thorough research than McCullough or write with greater mastery of their material. MacMillan holds the amateurs responsible for nurturing national myths-sometimes with official collusion. Winston Churchill, who promised that "history will be kind to me for I intend to write it," got the help of the British government in the form of privileged access to records relating to World War II. The result was his heroic account of the war, which lifted British spirits even as the collapse of the British Empire was pulling them down. The job of the professionals, MacMillan contends, is to debunk the myths. She quotes British historian Michael Howard, who likens the myths to the bedtime stories parents tell their children, as saying: Such disillusion is a necessary part of growing up in and belonging to an adult society; and a good definition of the difference between a Western liberal society and a totalitarian one-whether it is Communist, Fascist, or Catholic authoritarian-is that in the former the government treats its citizens as responsible adults and in the latter it cannot. Disillusionment hurts-and this is where MacMillan's professional historians earn their pay. Amateurs, even brilliant ones like McCullough, risk losing their audiences and hence their livelihoods if they cut too hard against the grain of conventional wisdom. Professionals-that is, academics, sheltered by tenure and salaried despite unpopularity-can be as blunt as they choose. They can also be objective. This applies particularly to events within living memory. "The idea that those who actually took part in great events or lived through particular times have a superior understanding to those who come later is a deeply held yet wrongheaded one," MacMillan says. Participants never witness more than a slice of history, and memories of that slice are often colored by later events. MacMillan describes research into the unreliability of individual memories, and she extrapolates the findings to collective memories. She observes that priorities in collective memory change with time. She cites Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life in asserting that American Jews first identified with the Holocaust only a generation after the event itself. Jewish organizations initially emphasized looking to the future rather than to the past. Attitudes changed when Israel's wars of 1967 and 1973 revealed both the strength and vulnerability of the Jewish state, and when, MacMillan says, "victimhood began to acquire a more positive status." The theme of victimhood runs strongly through recent history, and through MacMillan's book. It's a cliché that the victors write the histories, but during the last half century the victors-or rather, the professional historians among the victors-have been writing a great deal about the victims. Call it academic empathy, liberal guilt or simply the need for each generation of scholars to find something new to write about, but previously marginalized groups-African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, women and gays-have found their champions among MacMillan's professionals. History has become a central battlefield in the culture wars. And in the political wars they spawned. MacMillan recounts the 1990s fight over American national-history standards, a struggle in which Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and other Republicans lashed proposed guidelines that emphasized the role of women and minorities as the "standards from hell." Then-Senator, and soon-to-be Republican nominee for president, Robert Dole thought treason a better analogy; the proposed standards, Dole said, were "worse than external enemies." MacMillan adds little to this particular debate, but she frames it nicely by showing how the history wars in the United States have their counterparts elsewhere. The Turkish government has resisted references to the deaths of Armenians during World War I as genocide, while the German government outlaws denials of the Jewish genocide of World War II. China's history textbooks highlight the crimes of the Western imperialists and especially the Japanese; Russia's are rehabilitating Stalin. The Enola Gay controversy in the United States reverberated in Canada, where historians squared off against veterans of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command over the morality and necessity of destroying German cities. Fighting in the history wars has erupted everywhere. Throughout the Western Hemisphere peoples and governments couldn't decide whether to celebrate or condemn Christopher Columbus on the five-hundredth anniversary of his 1492 voyage to America. Germans were similarly torn in 1986 on the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Frederick the Great-was he the philosopher-prince of the Enlightenment or the protofascist forerunner of Hitler? The bicentennial marking the start of the French Revolution revived the debate over its liberalizing beginnings and its dictatorial denouement. Japan's historians regularly attempt to reveal the crimes of Tokyo's militarists during the 1930s; Japan's conservative politicians try to stifle the debate or change the subject. If the battles were simply about history, historians might be flattered that their work aroused such passion. But the goal of most participants is to seize the moral high ground from which to bombard the present. The Chinese government wants to show that Tibet and Taiwan have been part of China for centuries, to bolster its claim to those regions today. Native Americans in Washington State tried to block scientific study of a skeleton discovered near Kennewick that looked strikingly Caucasoid and consequently challenged their claims to aboriginality. MacMillan quotes a Hindu nationalist in India who asserted, "The Hindus came into this land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of the soil always, from times immemorial"; she labels this view as "absurdly simplistic," but can't deny its political appeal. Occasionally governments repent for the sins of their predecessors. Canada has offered compensation to aboriginal children taken from their families and placed in boarding schools in an effort to hasten assimilation into the social mainstream. Queen Elizabeth apologized to the Maori of New Zealand for the seizing of their ancestral lands. The U.S. Congress paid reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. MacMillan concludes her survey with some modest suggestions, mostly negative, which can be summarized in a historians' golden rule for each generation: don't think you're special. Societies get into trouble, and their leaders cause trouble, when they come to believe that the lessons of the past-whatever those lessons might be-don't apply to them. SHE MIGHT have gone further. MacMillan adduces numerous examples of history being dredged for wrongs that are then employed to justify questionable or downright pernicious policies in the present. Why not declare an end to this? Why not impose a moral statute of limitations on historical wrongs? If world opinion, or some substantial portion of it, took the view that victimhood isn't transferable to subsequent generations, humanity almost certainly would benefit. Nationalists and other demagogues would find it harder to fan centuries-old resentments; more to the point, individuals who have been encouraged to adopt an irredentist, cargo-cult mentality toward the past would have to get on with their lives. Blaming others rarely contributes to constructive engagement with the world, whether the blamers are individuals or societies. A statute of limitations wouldn't prevent the likes of Slobodan Milosevic from trying to use the 1389 Battle of Kosovo against the Muslims of Bosnia, but it might limit his ability to gain traction on the issue. It wouldn't keep Robert Mugabe from condemning British colonialism for the troubles he has brought upon Zimbabwe, but it might narrow the audience for such diversionary tactics. It wouldn't stop some Palestinians from clinging to the hope that Israel will vanish and their world return to its pre-1948 configuration, but it would prompt other Palestinians to cut the best deal they can with those who, for better or worse, are going to be their neighbors. It wouldn't prevent Israelis from lamenting the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, but it would make them find other justifications for the existence of the modern Jewish state. The objections to a statute of historical limitations are obvious but not unanswerable. Would it encourage history's criminals to hold out until their victims are dead? Maybe, but by then most of the perpetrators would be dead too. Some of the criminals' heirs would gain illegitimately, and some of the victims' heirs lose, but life is full of unearned gifts and undeserved costs. Statutes of criminal and civil limitations suffer from these same drawbacks, yet nearly every society has decided that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. How would a statute of historical limitations be enforced? By the pressure, or rather the absence of pressure, of public opinion. If the world merely shrugs at ancient grievances and declines to privilege the heirs of the victims, those heirs will stop pressing their stale claims. At a minimum, they will need to discover contemporary reasons for the actions they favor. A statute of historical limitations would serve particularly well to defuse one of the most explosive issues in American historical politics. MacMillan mentions but doesn't delve into the demands for reparations to the descendants of African-American slaves. These demands crop up recurrently, but though they haven't yet gone anywhere, they never quite go away. And while they linger, they threaten to thoroughly poison the atmosphere on race. Without question the millions of men, women and children forced into servitude were horribly wronged. But righting that wrong, a century and a half after emancipation, transcends the power of mortals. Reparations would take money from people who never owned slaves and bestow it on people who never were slaves. It would require judgments of collective guilt and collective innocence, which are problematic at best; when the collectives are defined by race and the judgments extended across generations, the whole issue becomes noxious in the extreme. Racists would find cover for reviving old arguments about slavery actually benefiting slaves-after all, if the issue is money, isn't the average African-American today better-off than the average West African? What about African-American slaveholders-which side of the ledger do their descendants land on? And the American children of Africans who were never enslaved? Would the president of the United States get a check? Merely raising these questions makes clear why this is a debate everyone would lose. Historians shouldn't shy away from hard questions, but as MacMillan persuasively demonstrates, they sometimes should keep their answers to themselves, or at least out of the hands of politicians. H. W. Brands is the Dickson, Allen, Anderson Centennial Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book, Traitor to His Class (Doubleday, 2008), a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.