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The Uses and Abuses of History

A conversation with acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan, from Oxford University

A conversation with acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan, from Oxford University

In association with:
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4th Floor Conference Room, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), Maison de la Paix, Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2D

Jussi Hanhimäki, Professor at the Graduate Institute, introduced the lecture by stating that in order to connect the past to the future, it is crucial to connect history and policy-making: two worlds that have too often been disconnected.

His introduction was followed by the acclaimed historian Margaret Macmillan’s welcoming remarks on: 

  1. Why historians have started to talk?
  2. What is the power of history?
  3. When is history useful?

Professor Macmillan reflected around what elements constitute history and argued that a good history is a history that respects evidence. Prof. Macmillan affirmed that we are all shaped by history as individuals and groups and hence, “history is too important to be inaccessible.”

"Some people ask: since so many things are constantly changing nowadays, why should we bother about the past?" Professor Macmillan answered that question by reminding the audience that history gives us an understanding of ourselves and some sense to the course of events. Nevertheless, she clarified by affirming that history should not be used as the only criteria when predicting or prescribing future events. Instead, history reflects trends. 

According to Prof. Macmillan, history is a powerful force and “history can be a lot more powerful than what we perceive. If put in the wrong hands, it can be very dangerous.” Prof. Macmillan highlighted the danger of ‘one-sided stories of the past’ with the example of strong national identities in the case of France and Germany. 

Selective memory can be used purposefully and that is why, history can be extremely dangerous. She also took the example of new nations desirous to be recognized on the basis of a shared history or rather an agreed version of the past. Prof. Macmillan concluded by deploring that far too often history has been used for division and not for reconciliation. 

Afterwards, Prof. Macmillan reflected around when history is useful and what do policy-makers remember when taking decision. Prof. Macmillan remarked that parallels with the past can help governments face new threats: “History can warn a state about possible future obstacles.” However, once again, she warned the audience of the abuse of analogies and shortcuts and outlined the importance of constant rethinking in the present. She advised policy-makers to use analogies only when they are helpful for the formulation of questions. Prof. Macmillan commented on the danger inherent in the over-simplification of history that is often performed via quantitative analysis. 


This event was organised in the context of the History and Policy-Making Initiative, a joint endeavour of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. The initiative seeks to reactivate and re-energise the important interface between the practice of international policy-making and the study of history.

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