The Uses and Abuses of History

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It reminds us starkly about what history is; how it can be damaging if it falls into the wrong hands but how, if used properly, it can be revelatory. No history lover should fail to digest the lessons of this short but brilliant book. Love puzzles?

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Get the best at Telegraph Puzzles. Books on Amazon. A collection of the best contributions and reports from the Telegraph focussing on the key events, decisions and moments in Churchill's life.

Simon Heffer admires Margaret MacMillan's brilliant essay on modern historians

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The uses and abuses of history: the end of the Cold War and Soviet collapse

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Margaret MacMillan: The uses and abuses of history

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Culture Galleries. Certainly, as visions for the Russian future changed, so their supporting histories were appropriately modified, with new dramas requiring new authors and a new cast of leading actors.

The uses and abuses of history: The end of the Cold War and Soviet collapse

Russia is, of course, far from unique in its ideological underpinning of school history, and in a chapter devoted to the USA Ferro notes some parallel vagaries in the presentation of a national past. And that, Ferro concludes, is the essential mark of a democracy. While forced to concede that historians in democracies are inevitably subject to their own ideological pressures, we might claim that it is of the very essence of a democratic society that alternative histories are at least in principle possible.

That is what differentiates the American position from the Russian: what matters is the possibility of plurality. This is an area that has grown enormously over the last two decades, and is one of which few can remain unaware. The former — with our understanding of personal and national needs to confront pasts that we should rather be without, and to make some current sense of them — has become, since Ferro wrote, and in relation especially to trauma, a study in its own right.

In other words, our own quest for meaning may effectively constitute aggression towards others.

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  5. Memories are variously transmitted — not least through traditional public festivals: Spaniards annually celebrate their liberation from the Moors, Protestant English their salvation from the Papists. Those retrospective visions, though, surely lack the autonomy which Ferro attributes to them, being deliberately put to political and patriotic purpose as required.

    Empire Day has disappeared; Holocaust Memorial Day has recently been established. This deficiency has been addressed of late by historians such as Richard Fletcher and Nabil Matar.

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    In this respect, it seems to me that it would have been helpful, in this new edition, to have been given some indication of how the book fits into our current intellectual climate, and of how the various particulars with which the author deals illustrate a whole comparatively new arena of debate. It is the lack of that overall argumentative structure which particularly disappoints, together with the surprising absence of exact references to cited sources. Admittedly, a geographically based bibliography provides some evidence for works consulted; but that is not enough for the frustrated source seeker.

    While, then, The Use and Abuse of History remains a useful text, it is inevitably in some respects a little dated.

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