MacMillan reminds us that history itself has a history — a subject known in the academy as historiography. Paradoxically, those professional historians whom she so admires grew up with the modern nation-state of which she is so wary. The formal, university-based study of the past, governed by its own scholarly protocols and supported by an impressive apparatus of state-supported institutions like Britain’s Public Record Office, the Archives de France and the United States National Archives and Records Administration (not to mention required courses in national history and officially sanctioned textbooks) emerged only in the 19th century. So did the mass societies fostered by newly robust central governments ruling over dispersed, disparate populations whose members had somehow to be convinced that they owed their principal loyalty not to parish, village or province, but to what the scholar Benedict Anderson has called the “imagined community” of a distinct and coherent people: the nation. Meiji Japan, Bismarck’s Germany, Cavour’s Italy and Lincoln’s re-United States were all products of the nation-building surge that swept much of the Western world in the mid-19th century and spawned models for the rest of the world in the 20th century, usually under the banner of “self-determination.” But “for all the talk about eternal nations,” MacMillan notes, “they are created not by fate or God but by the activities of human beings, and not least by historians.”
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