I’m currently reading a book called ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ by Margaret Macmillan, a short book that explores how History is seen and interpreted by society. One of the most interesting aspects was a section on how the history of war can be censored or restricted, especially as veterans or people who experienced the war object to certain revisionist viewpoints on war. Macmillan argues that the people experiencing the war cannot understand the minutiae of, say, Truman’s decision to drop the nuke on Japan when confidential files and such would not be released for years afterwards. In this sense, Historians hold the power over perspective and often seem abrasive to people who lived through a period being studied or talked about. The sensitivity of periods like war and social backwardness like the Holocaust or other heinous genocides often leads to a distortion of the facts, or at least that’s what Macmillan argues.
The relevancy of History is, surprisingly, as contested as that of Literature and Art. How can anything that contrasts modern society be relevant to us? With everything that’s been written there is a lesson and it is often the Historians job to interpret and promote this lesson responsibly. Macmillan discusses the abuse and distortion of History by fascist demagogues like Hitler, who used nationalist sentiment to motivate an entire nation to hatred and war. Germany is now one of the most metropolitan countries in Europe, and the world. Perhaps due to guilt, or determination not to repeat History, Germany never allows herself to forget what happened. This morality is absolutely vital to a functioning society and growth.
The sensitivity of History is contested by those who unwillingly wish to forget it. For example, the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign at Oxford University currently hopes to bring down a statue of famous British imperialist and white supremacist, Cecil Rhodes. However noble it is to oppose such a figure of oppression, Cecil Rhodes was a key figure in the expansion of the British Empire and is thus ingrained in the history of my nation. The most immoral thing to do about such an immoral figure is to ignore it or try to erase it. It’s a dangerous practice which allows the actions of people such as Rhodes to be forgotten, the persecution of Africans to be meaningless. If Oxford University want to condemn Cecil Rhodes and deny him his part in their History, then they should aspire to produce fine impartial Historians and Teachers and Writers who promote a well read culture absent of prejudice in any form.
For a better developed and well researched account of the influence of History I fully recommend Margaret Macmillan’s book “The Uses and Abuses of History” which you can find on Amazon or your local book retailer for under £10.
Until next time.
Stuff I used: