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Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Modern Library Chronicles) Hardcover – July 7, 2009

3.6 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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30 of the World's Greatest Historical City Maps
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. MacMillan, author of the acclaimed Paris 1919, reminds readers that history matters: It is particularly unfortunate that just as history is becoming more important in our public discussions, professional historians have largely been abandoning the field to amateurs. According to MacMillan, this is a grave mistake. Governments and leaders use history to invent tradition and subvert the past. In a world hungry for heroes, badly researched historical biographies fly off bookstore shelves. In this highly readable and polished book, readers learn of the dangers of not properly tending to the past, of distorting it and ignoring inconvenient facts. If done correctly, history helps unlock the past in useful ways. The author explores the ways history has present meaning—not always constructively: in providing a sense of identity for groups, as a basis of nationalism or national pride, as a tool for redress of past wrongs and as an ideological tool. In this important work, we learn that history is more than presenting facts, it is about framing the past. This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of correctly understanding the past. (July 7)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

In this compelling, persuasive treatise, MacMillan investigates the innumerable ways that history has been twisted, embellished, and politicized to serve one purpose or another throughout, well, history. Based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Western Ontario, Dangerous Games details MacMillan's expert analyses and arguments, presented in her incisive, witty prose. Critics praised MacMillan's reasoning, even if they did not always agree with her proposed solutions. For example, her appeal to leave history to the "professional historians" rankled the critics who believe that amateurs add energy and relevance to the field. Others pointed out that professionals are not without their own biases. Despite these complaints, MacMillan's balanced defense of the importance of the study of history is eloquent and timely.

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Chronicles
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; First Edition edition (July 7, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679643583
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679643586
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.7 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #516,813 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen Chakwin on July 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover
MacMillan is very smart. More important, she's very wise. That latter category informs all the thinking in this book and is what makes it well worth reading. (There's an oddly cranky review from earlier this month posted here. I don't understand it and can't square it with the book I read.)
The book tells us why the study of history is important. Part of the answer to that question is what history is - it's not just a table of names and dates: they are necessary, but not sufficient. Part is how history has been used and abused over time.
The learning in this book can be summarized in two phrases. The first is that you can't understand the news unless you understand the history. MacMillan shows this in her treatment of The Battle of Kosovo, which was a very different thing in 1389, when it happened and in 1989, when Serbian president Milosevic gave a speech marking the battle's 600th anniversary and began the process of unleashing the forces that would turn the former Yugoslavia into a slaughterhouse. The second, which is almost a corollary of the first, is her mention of the bewildering effect of living in the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 40s, where the rewriting of recent history of the revolution and its aftermath was an ongoing industry. She notes dryly that it can be disorienting to live in a country with an unpredictable past.
The book, between flanking chapters of the history craze and history as a guide, discusses the abuses of history as a source of comfort, as a property to be controlled, as a tool in shaping identity, as a catalyst of nationalism, and as a source of grievances (and we all know what kinds of actions unaddressed grievances can lead to in our modern world). She also addresses history as a battle in the culture wars going on almost everywhere.
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Format: Hardcover
In this slim but important volume, historian Margaret MacMillan sets out to challenge those who use or misuse history for their own purposes. Few escape her glance, from the Chinese who cultivate a sense of victimization even now that they have risen to the status of economic superpower (and whose leaders cite a sign that never existed in Shanghai, denying entrance to a park to Chinese and dogs) to both Palestinians and Israelis, quarreling over the question of "who was here first" with reference to the lands now under Israeli authority.

MacMillan's two most recent works (one about the Versailles Treaty of 1919; the other about Nixon and Mao) have given her tremendous insight into the way history is used and abused in geopolitical and political conflicts around the world. Bad history, she writes, tells only parts of complex stories, is selective, misleading and can lead to the creation of national 'myths' that hold their own dangers. She uses examples to bolster every point, such as the Serbian myths surrounding the defeat of Prince Lazar, their national hero, by Ottoman Turks at the battle of Kosovo in 1389. In fact, MacMillan points out, Lazar was simply one Serb prince (not a national leader); while he was killed, the battle was widely viewed as a draw and even claimed by Serbs at the time as a victory; and far from marking the end of Serb independence, an independent Serbia remained for decades. The Orthodox church used Lazar's death to bolster the myth of a resistance to Turkish rule for centuries; in the 19th century, when that myth collided with the emergence of nationalism across Europe, the result was not only the bloody conflicts in the former Yugoslavia but also one of the triggering events of the still-bloodier World War I.
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Format: Hardcover
MacMillan writes a decent book, and she makes some good points about the way history ought to be used -- to teach "humility, skepticism and awareness of ourselves" -- and how it is too often abused to further political and cultural agendas. No quibble here, and anyone with any intellectual integrity would agree. But there's an irony here, because good historians should look for complexity and attempt to explain ambiguity, yet MacMillan too often picks some very low hanging fruit to make her argument, and as a result we read about culture war excesses from the right and the left which are all easy targets for a book on the politicization of history. Far more interesting would be to explore how ideology shapes the more credible or mainstream historical narratives that too often determine the fate of nations. How, for example, does the "city on a hill" narrative shape public policy in America? Or why has the United States for years been driven by the notion that capital and capital alone creates wealth? Instead, we hear, once again, about the Enola Gay controversy or about the usual suspects in ethnocentric history (though she seems to have a very broad and negative brushstroke when discussing ethnic history). So this is a book that will confirm the righteousness of all who are fed up with the obvious and well-known abuses of history. But we've all probably read the same arguments in magazines and op-ed pages. A more compelling book would ask tougher questions about the subtle and profound ways that history shapes history.
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