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Dangerous Games

Margaret MacMillan warns of what can happen when history is misappropriated.

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What’s most remarkable is not how much we know about history, but how little. In my own family, memory wanes quickly after just a generation or two. My sister and I recently wondered whether our grandmother was still living at home when she met our grandfather. Although the answer is only 60 years in the past, it might as well be buried in Pompeii.

It’s not only private lives that obscure so quickly. In Dangerous Games, a slim, thought-provoking volume on the dynamic power of history, Margaret MacMillan points out that a great many East Germans grew up believing their country had fought alongside Russia in World War II. It was a case of Soviet-sponsored subterfuge, designed to fabricate a common history for the enemies-cum-allies and it worked, MacMillan says, because there were insufficient voices to defend history as it actually happened.

“Dangerous Games” was adapted from a lecture series MacMillan gave at the University of Western Ontario in 2007 and the writing has the clear, brisk quality that comes from having first been spoken out loud. MacMillan, of Oxford University, is the author of “Paris 1919” and “Nixon and Mao,” both of which blend scholarly rigor with broad popular relevance. Among the several rebukes contained in “Dangerous Games,” is one aimed at her academic peers for not writing more books like those.

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