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The Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan - author of the best book on the 1919 Versailles Conference, Peacemakers, as well as several other very fine works - has a warning for her fellow historians and for society in general about the traps that await us when we try to apply the lessons of history to present-day situations. Ironically enough, however, after 165 pages of wise and intelligent analysis she then falls into one of the very same traps that she has herself identified.

The book begins by pointing out that history can offer simplicity and support to just about anybody who is willing to twist and distort its lessons. If you believe that Man is acting out God's purpose, or progressing towards liberal democracy, or moving towards the inevitable dictatorship of the proletariat, you will always be able to find examples from the experience of the past to confirm such a prejudice. Equally, if you think that history has largely been responsible for most of the world's recent woes - and anyone living in Ireland, Bosnia, Kashmir or the Holy Land could be forgiven for suspecting as much - you might yearn for Man to unlearn the past. This has in fact been tried on occasion: the Emperor Qin of China destroyed all history books and the scholars who wrote them, vowing to start history over again - the same nirvana that was later offered by Robespierre's new calendar, Pol Pot's Year Zero and Chairman Mao's cultural revolution. Yet none of these attempts worked, and Clio wreaked her own revenge on the reputation of all four dictators. Trotsky has now been digitally restored to the photographs from which Stalin had him airbrushed in the 1920s. Whether we like the idea of history and its capacity for inflaming conflict or not, we are nonetheless stuck with it.

So how can we make history work in favour of peace and decency? Ms Macmillan is understandably suspicious of the way that modern-day politicians have attempted to use public apologies for historic wrongs in a cheap and easy way to make politically correct points. Sometimes, as with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 1996 and 1998, these exercises can do genuine good, but they work only if the people apologising are the same people who are responsible for the crimes. When Tony Blair apologised for the Irish potato famine, Bill Clinton apologised for Slavery and Pope John Paul II for the Crusades, such gestures were meaningless. There was, for example, (rightly) no question of paying the $10 trillion in damages that Georgetown University economists reckoned to be the correct compensation level for enslaving black Africans. The new Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, instituted a "National Sorry Day" for the historic maltreatment of Aboriginals in February 2008, prompting an Aboriginal leader to comment: "Blackfellas will get the words: whitefellas will keep the money."

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