Among the best-known aphorisms about the concept of history are the warring trio:
History is written by the winners.
History is bunk.
Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.
They contain just enough truth to stimulate surface thought. But, as historian Margaret MacMillan shows in her idea-rich extended essay, Dangerous Games, understanding the uses and abuses of the past is mandatory for anybody who wants to qualify as an exemplary citizen.
MacMillan, a Canadian university professor who also teaches in England, is an excellent provoker of thought for amateur historians. Her book is meant to be brief and approachable, fitting as it does in a Modern Library series known as "Chronicles."
It is no surprise that MacMillan handled this task with aplomb. Her previous books, most notably Paris 1919 and Nixon and Mao, have been lauded for their research, thoughtfulness and style. Unlike those books, Dangerous Games is meant to go broad, rather than deep, yet MacMillan provides at least the illusion of depth in about 200 pages.
For me, her most surprising insights are about the history of nation states. I almost always think of history foremost as the history of specific nations, the United States or France, South Africa or China. MacMillan demonstrates that "nationalism is a very late development indeed in terms of human history." For example, throughout the ages most Europeans thought of themselves not primarily as British, French or German, but rather as "members of a particular family, clan, region, religion or guild."
When they did define themselves according to nationality, "It was as much a cultural category as a political one, and they certainly did not assume, as modern national movements almost always do, that nations had a right to rule themselves on a specific piece of territory."
As recently as 1920, in the aftermath of World War I, representatives from the League of Nations tried to determine national borders throughout Europe. According to MacMillan, those representatives "repeatedly came upon locals who had no idea whether they were Czechs or Slovaks, Lithuanians or Poles. We are Catholic or Orthodox, came the answers, merchants or farmers, or simply people of this village or that."
Although it is difficult to conceive circa 2009 of a practical alternative to nationalism, the hypernationalism of the past 100 years has undergirded many senseless wars. MacMillan shares impressively researched examples of how modern national leaders — Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, George W. Bush — have distorted history to ignite war. She outlines the provocative abuses of history by leaders in Palestine, Israel and other Middle East territorial entities.
She does the same in what used to be Yugoslavia, as those who now call themselves Serbs or Croats or Bosnians provoke the others by falsifying history for the masses. "The Balkans have had, in Winston Churchill's marvelous phrase, more history than they can consume," she writes.
"We can learn from history," MacMillan explains, "but we also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do."
Part of the solution is for conscientious citizens to rely on professional historians who eschew partisanship, including the trap of hypernationalism.
Ferreting out those historians is no simple task, and not even MacMillan can provide a definitive list. In the end, for all her brilliance, she is reduced to saying, "My only advice is to use it, enjoy it, but always handle history with care."
Steve Weinberg is the author, most recently, of "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."