The Uses and Abuses of History.


194 pages
Contains Bibliography
ISBN 978-0-14-305478-8
DDC 907.2





Reviewed by Graeme S. Mount

Graeme S. Mount is a history professor at Laurentian University and
author of Canada’s Enemies: Spies and Spying in the Peaceable Kingdom.


Historical misinterpretations can be deadly. In the 1930s, people drew wrong conclusions from pre-1914 history about alliances and arms races. Since Hitler and Pearl Harbor, governments have often overreacted to avoid appeasement and surprise attacks. Anthony Eden wrongly compared Egypt’s Nasser to Hitler, and George W. Bush found questionable reasons for occupying Iraq. September 11 was not Munich.


History is popular, says Macmillan. There are historical television programs. People study family history and visit historical museums. There are commemorative events, some more serious than others. In 1993, Perth (Ontario) observed the centennial of an enormous cheese that it had sent to the Chicago World’s Fair. Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades, and successive Canadian governments have apologized for their predecessors’ shortcomings. Macmillan refutes the tendency to promote social and cultural studies at the expense of political history. People like FDR and Hitler really did make a significant difference.


History can be destructive. Serbs and Croats used it to justify attacks on each other. Nazis appealed to Frederick Barbarossa, the Teutonic Knights, and Frederick the Great. French-Canadian nationalists ignore Abbé Groulx’s anti-Semitism and the support of many Quebeckers for the Vichy Régime. Some Africans have exaggerated their past, claiming Socrates as one of their own.


History can be controversial, and some “historians” can be as dogmatic as religious fundamentalists. The official Serb version of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo is riddled with errors, upon which generations have acted. Veterans did not want open discussions of the Allied bombing of Germany or the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima. Macmillan’s Nixon in China does not circulate in China because China’s government disapproves of certain references to Mao.


History has lessons to teach. Before going to Vietnam and Iraq, U.S. authorities should have studied French and British experiences there and in Algeria. East Germans and Austrians unwisely practised collective amnesia.           


Macmillan compares Stalin to Hitler and says he “was gambling on an easy victory” in Korea. However, North Korea’s invasion of South Korea was Kim Il Sung’s idea, not Stalin’s.


Macmillan, Margaret., “The Uses and Abuses of History.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024,