Writing History

It’s one of the most absurd truisms of the modern age that the victor writes the history books. I’m not really sure how this idea got started. The original quote is typically attributed to Winston Churchill, although no one’s quite sure who said it first. My biggest problem with this idea is how vigorously actual history seems to contradict it.

Take the Peloponnesian wars. Thucydides wrote a history of them, one of the early scholarly histories. He was from Alimos, a small place just outside of Athens. But they lost the war, so Thucydides had no business writing history books about it, right?

Another example from antiquity is Josephus, the historian who wrote a history of the Jews while they were under the rule of Rome. The Jews would not have a nation to call their home for more than 1800 years, living an existence that was pretty much the total opposite of a victor, but Josephus still wrote the history of his own people.

Or, more recently, consider the American Civil War (or War Between The States, or what have you). In spite of the fact that no one has fired a bullet in that conflict in nearly a hundred and fifty years, no one can agree on the history of it. Was it a war of northern aggression? Was it a war to liberate slaves? Was it a war to protect the Union? Do they even mention protecting the Union in history books any more? How did the premier cause of the victors wind up getting so totally lost in the retelling? Weren’t these people writing the history books? And how did the South get away with creating the legend of the Lost Cause if they weren’t writing any of the history books?

There are other examples, to be sure. From monasteries on the British Isles writing records of being sacked by raiders to Masanori Ito’s book Fall of the Imperial Japanese Navy right up to the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, the defeated have been chronicling their own history and doing their best to both remember and learn from their defeats ever since the study of history first came about.

To me it frequently feels like this idea that the history books are written by the winners actually has its roots in a famous quote from someone on the other side of the English Channel from Churchill. Joseph Goebbels told us that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to regard it as truth. We’ve come to accept this as a truth, that if we can just get a platform to push out agenda loudly enough and often enough, we can make people think whatever we want about anything, even history.

However, in spite of telling his lies for 12 years, Goebbels is not now thought of as a great historian, a visionary thinker or a leader. He’s thought of as a liar.

Perhaps the real problem is the lack of scope in this way of thinking. There are no victors in history, there are only people who come for a short time and then quickly fade away. We don’t write history. Rather, history is written on us, its letters and words the lives of people and the traditions, values and literature they leave to their culture. History shows through how we live and what we do far more than what we say. After all, you can’t know the winner until everything’s over, and in history, the end has not yet been written…

5 responses to “Writing History

  1. What we have to take into account is the implications of the statement. Obviously, a lot of history has been written by the losers. But that’s rarely (if ever) the “official” history. What Americans, for instance, learn about the history of this country is the official history, which is, in large part, very different from what actually happened. The more accurate histories, written by the losers, are there, but you have to go looking for them. If you’ve been thoroughly suckered into believing the official history, you won’t have any reason to think there might be another side to the story.

    • That’s more a problem with having an “official” history, if you ask me. And even then, Goebbels was in charge of things like official history, and its questionable how many people believed many of his lies. Sure, a small core of true believers existed, but most Germans admitted after the fact that they really didn’t take the Nazis seriously as they rose to power.
      Likewise, Tiananmen Square has an official history, but I think you’d have to search far and wide to find someone who really believes it, even in China.
      Again, it just comes down to perspective. I was raised outside of the normal schools so I’ve never come near an “official” history, it’s very easy to reach your hand out and grab pretty much any view point off of history shelves at a library. If people aren’t learning history, maybe we should stop force-feeding them “official” history and let them learn it on it’s own.

      • “Official” history changes over time, so what people know about their own history will be influenced by that and by whatever degree of control the government and media have over what they learn and see. You’re lucky not to have been indoctrinated, but anyone who goes through a regular school system is probably going to believe pretty much what they’re told, and denied any other view of reality. Most people are satisfied with that, unfortunately, which is why whole populations can be easily controlled without the use of force. And force is always waiting in the background in case it’s needed.

      • One of the reasons that police ask the same questions time and again is that, while the lies or tricks of memory will change, the truth tends to stay the same. So changes in history don’t really surprise me, and by looking at our understanding of history as it changes I feel we can put together a better idea of what happened.
        But when I hear people say the winners write history it’s usually not in the context of careful thought and analysis, it’s almost always with the idea that the victory’s history is inherently bad and should be discarded in favor of something else (usually whatever the person is pushing.) I’m not sure what the original context of the quote is, so I can’t be sure if that’s cutting against its spirit or not.
        I do agree that if people have no drive to move beyond one recounting of history, the issue is a pretty moot point.

  2. I have no idea where it came from, and it’s used so often that I think people tend to accept it automatically. But like so many sayings that have risen (or fallen) to the status of cliches, it can lead to thoughtful discussion. If only people took advantage of that more often!

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