Debunking a historical myth – Nicholas Lorimer - Biznews

1 April 2022 - In our immensely cynical age, it is a well-worn cliché to declare that ‘history is written by the victors’, often said by people trying to come off as intellectuals who don’t simply buy the official story.

A cliché used across the board – simply because it is so appealing to the ego and paints the user as an intellectual – is that ‘history is written by the victors’. It’s especially seductive in the South African context where school history books once predominantly spoke of Jan van Riebeeck and Vasco da Gama as if they began human settlement here; that is until the ANC came to power. But that’s mostly about the victor choosing what pupils read, not so much about those who actually wrote the history. This fascinating treatise provides rich examples of losers who wrote history, dating from circa 440 BC to WW II, circa 1945 AD. Yet it’s neither the winners nor losers who predominantly craft what goes between the covers of history books. It’s historians, a discipline as old as writing itself. Enjoy this timely debunking of a popular myth. Story courtesy of the Daily Friend. – Chris Bateman

Nicholas Lorimer

In our immensely cynical age, it is a well-worn cliché to declare that ‘history is written by the victors’, often said by people trying to come off as intellectuals who don’t simply buy the official story.

From the idea that history is inevitably tainted by the lies of winners and conquerors has sprung an entire school of revisionist history. At its best, this has helped rework our understanding of the past to be more accurate and at its worst, has been a cynical attempt to justify funding of theses and books by simply saying ‘good thing actually bad’ or vice versa.

View of the past
The idea of the past – and the world – as something controlled by the powerful and successful appeals to our natural instinct in free societies to support the underdog, the oppressed and the downtrodden, and to see the winners exposed as frauds. In many ways it’s the same sentiment that drives the entertainment people get out of seeing a once-beloved celebrity ‘go off the rails’.

The impulsion to question the truth is, of course, noble, useful, and foundational to proper discovery of the truth, but the assumption that the generally accepted story is automatically cynically shaped by power is often used by paranoid ideologues to claim that the real story is being hidden by them (them being white monopoly capital, the Yankees, the Jews, the British, the ‘establishment’, the Capitalists, and/or the lizardmen, and so on).

In reality, history is written not by the winners, but rather by the historians. The people who show up to the battle of ideas with pen and paper are the ones who shape the world of ideas, and this goes back to the very earliest days of the history discipline.

Father of history
Thucydides is considered by many to be the father of academic history. His writings on the Peloponnesian War are of such high and rigorous quality that they have greatly illuminated our understanding of the conflict. Today, we know far more about that conflict than others that are much more recent. His version of the history of the Peloponnesian War in 440 BC between Athens and Sparta is by far the most influential in our understanding of that struggle.

Thucydides was himself an Athenian general (or strategos) who took part in the war and famously failed to prevent the capture of an important town by the Spartans. Thucydides would be blamed for the defeat and exiled from Athens in a war that Athens ultimately lost to Sparta. He would write his famous history of the conflict at least in part in an attempt to critique his own side and to protect himself from blame. The world’s first detailed history of a war was written by an exiled loser.

Of the Spartans’ perspective we still know little to this day beyond what pro-Athenian sources have told us.

And sometimes it is people within the camp of the ‘victors’ who write the most scathing and vicious critiques of their own side. Indeed, while much of Roman history was written by Roman historians in the direct pay of the rulers of the Roman Empire, many criticisms of the empire come from these very historians. Consider the following quote:

“If an enemy is rich, they [the Romans] are greedy, if he is poor, they crave glory. Neither East nor West can sate their appetite. They are the only people on earth to covet wealth and poverty with equal craving. They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ‘empire’. They make a desolation and call it peace.”
This quote was attributed to a defeated Caledonian chief brought before the Emperor but was either very loosely paraphrased or entirely invented by the Roman historian Tacitus. This biting critique of imperial conquest echoes through the ages and would instinctively be a familiar sentiment to any anti-imperialist activist today.

Distant past
Lest you think this phenomenon is limited to the distant past, our own understanding in the English-speaking world of the Second World War comes not from triumphalist American and British writers (excepting Churchill) but in many ways from the very German generals who failed to win the war. The Americans and British, seeking to avoid lying to themselves in a triumphalist moment of victory, ensured the official histories of the war were written with massive German input. Franz Halder, the German army’s chief of staff in the Second World War was appointed to lead the writing of the official US history of the Eastern Front.

Very widely read memoirs written after the war – such as Panzer Leader by the famous German general, Heinz Guderian – are viewed by most historians to be ridiculously self-serving myth-making works that have birthed many myths about the war.

In this case it has been the work of good revisionist historians to go back and correct such myths … among them, that the German panzers were invincible (they were not); that the German army avoided committing war crimes (they didn’t); and that Hitler was to blame for the loss of the war (he wasn’t).

Indeed, even much of the footage shown on loop in history documentaries, especially on the Eastern Front, was in fact filmed by the propagandists of the Nazi Party. This is why our view of the German army is focused on tanks and trucks, a highly mechanised force, while in reality the German army relied mostly on horse-drawn transport, and consisted of infantry. Allied armies were far more mechanised.

Greatest conflict
For most amateur historians of the Second World War, the greatest conflict in all history, our perspectives have been very much shaped by the losers and not the victors.

There are many more examples through the ages (The ‘lost cause’ narrative of the American Civil War comes to mind) but you get my point.

All this is to say that a wise reader does not simply reward those who write controversy or who challenge the status quo for the simple act of doing so. A wise reader will reward the historians and analysts who use the truth to justify their activism and writing, and approach the past with humility, but shun writers who write the past to justify their own activism.

Nicholas Lorimer is a politician-turned-think tank thinker. His interests include geo-politics, and history (particularly medieval and ancient history). He is an unashamed Americaphile, whether it be food, culture or film. His interests include video games and armchair critique of action films from the 1980s.
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