Monday, November 09, 2009

"Dangerous Games" by Margaret MacMillan

Author and historian Margaret MacMillan's latest book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History is a short and readable polemic arguing that History--used properly and fairly--has an important role to play in society and culture. MacMillan assumes very little here--she is willing to back the debate up to fundamental questions along the lines of "What is History for?" and "Is the study of History worth the effort?"

I don't agree with all of her opinions--I supported the Iraq invasion, for example--but there is much here to agree with and take heart from. More to the point for this blog, MacMillan may not have actively supported military intervention in Bosnia, but she certainly sees the rationale. The former Yugoslavia comes up with some frequency throughout the book, and it's quite obvious that MacMillan's understanding of the situation was grounded in reality.

Which would be of only marginal interest except for the primary reason she was able to understand the root causes of the war and to identify the correct perpetrators of the ethnic violence unleashed against the people of Yugoslavia. Chapter Five (the chapters are more like related essays, making selective reading no obstacle to fully appreciating each separate piece), entitled "History and Nationalism", should be required reading for anyone who wishes to discuss the "ancient tribal hatreds" of the Balkans, or indeed anyone who wishes to pontificate on historic claims to land in the region, or to the centrality of Kosovo to "Serbdom," and so forth.

MacMillan understands--as far too few observers and pundits and self-appointed experts--that national identities are artificial constructs, and that generally they are a product of the modern age. The connections between modern national identities and earlier tribal, ethnic, religious, or linguistic identities are, of course, not created from whole cloth; those connections exist, but they are only the foundation of a deliberately created national identity, which always relies on a grand narrative which is part history and part nation-building mythology.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course, as long as we do not allow the claims of less self-aware nationalists to replace sober history with a wholesale acceptance of national mythologies, especially when one nation's myths come at the expense of their neighbors own right to self-determination.

Comparing MacMillans sensible, even-handed, and (to repeat myself) sober illustration of the nation-building function of national mythologies to the tendency of Balkan revisionists and apologists for Serb nationalism to accept such myths as that of the Battle of Kosovo Polje at face value is almost unfair, as if one were comparing an essay on Western Christmas traditions to a child's letter to Santa Claus.


Srebrenica Genocide said...

The invasion of Iraq was a right thing to do, because Saddam Hussein was responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of his own people; he even gassed Kurds.

The invasion of Afghanistan was also a right thing to do, but George Bush made a huge mistake by allowing Afghanistan constitution to be based on Sharia/Islamic law. Bush (and the western world) made an irreparable mistake by not pushing DEMOCRACY in Afghanistan. There will never be any serious progress with human rights in Afghanistan as long as they have a constitution based on Sharia.

Christine said...

Too often people speak about the wars in the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s as some sort of "Balkan Phenomenon" as if these people are somehow predisposed to starting wars. People simplify the conflicts as rooted in generations of "ancient hatred" that did not exist until Milosevic and his media propaganda provoked hatred. The real tragedy of the whole situation in the Balkans is the demise of the Yugoslav ideal...and a time when all South Slavs felt like they could belong to the same nation.

I appreciated your post as a reminder that history is constructed...and so is national identity. Milosevic tried to force his vision for the post-Tito identity/future of Yugoslavia and it ended in disaster.