A wide-ranging and provocative testament to transparency as the best historical education.




MacMillan (History/Oxford Univ.; Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, 2007, etc.) explores the nuances, manipulations and extortions of history.

For centuries, the recording of past events has been distorted for a wide variety of reasons—to induce nationalism, lay claim to land, protect reputations or strengthen a political argument. In this lucid text, MacMillan deftly maneuvers through time, citing conflicts of identity and belonging in the Middle East—where “ideologies call on history…but in their hands the past becomes a prophecy”—alongside analysis of China’s Mao and his attempts to rewrite his country’s past, destroying “all memories and all artifacts that, by reminding the Chinese people of the past, might prevent him from remodeling them” into his Communist regime. The author also disputes memory of or participation in an event as “proof” of a historical account, writing that many major events—the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, the fall of Napoleon, the Cuban Missile Crisis—contain narratives colored by unreliable spectators. Psychologists point out that memory—even of something recent—is hardly concrete. This fallibility, combined with the opportunity for control, has resulted in myriad written texts that are of questionable accuracy. “The past,” writes the author, “can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present.” Political and religious leaders are also loathe to record their histories as marred by “evil,” and instead highlight often selective, exaggerated positive perspectives of violent historic events—such as Bastille Day or Columbus Day—to draw tourists and increase national pride. MacMillan is careful to defend history and its objective chroniclers as a necessary, and often precise, science. However, when power and control are introduced, the truth is often left wanting and “bad histories” emerge, which “belong to morality plays but do not help us to consider the past in all its complexity.” Examining history honestly is also crucial to the pursuit of peace and, the author sagely notes, the only way to teach “humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves.”

A wide-ranging and provocative testament to transparency as the best historical education.

Pub Date: July 7, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-679-64358-6

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Modern Library

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2009

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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