"Behind every tyrant with a sword is a historian with a sponge": Source?

“Behind every tyrant with a sword is a historian with a sponge.” Terrific, I just saw it today. Anyone know who first said/wrote it?

Lord Acton, but he used slightly different language.
The strong man with the dagger is followed by the weak man with the sponge.

What, pray tell, does it mean?

Here it is in context:


Lord Acton apparently felt very strongly that history should condemn the violence of rulers as harshly as any violence. Which goes with his even more famous quotation: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Great men are almost always bad men.”

We use the word ‘apologist’ to mean pretty much the same thing, although ‘revisionist’ is also quite near when used in a certain manner.

It could be used as a form of partisan recorder/historian.

To me - ‘apologist’ means someone who tries to excuse the bad things that some dictator did. "Hitler/Pol Pot/Idi Amin wasn’t such a bad guy really, they did a lot of good things as well as murdering anyone they didn’t like. A ‘revisionist’ is someone who rewrites history in such a way that their readers are not aware of the bad stuff.

It’s worth nothing that the tendency of historians to defend or excuse the abuses of power among rulers is far less of a concern today than it was a century ago, when Acton was speaking.

If anything, historians in modern democracies, especially places like the United States, are more often accused of being radicals or leftists or ivory-tower liberals who are too critical of rulers and of the rich and powerful. That’s not to say that there aren’t still apologist historians, but Acton was writing at a time when historians tended to be gentleman amateurs, often from wealthy families, who generally identified with the aims and the class assumptions of the ruling class.

A revisionist is one who challenges accepted orthodoxies of history and to varying extent attempts to flip them.

So to take a recentish example the last Carolingian emperor, Charles III ‘the fat’, was traditionally cast as a sluggish incompetent that allowed his empire to crumble. But historian Simon MacLean has challenged that notion, showing how that view was created by cherry-picking from hostile source with an axe to grind while another contemporary source lauded him with the typical hagiographic praise. Then the hostile source turned positive when back in favor and the former favorable source turned hostile due to new ruler. All while an objective examination of the record shows him to have been, contrary to his reputation as lazy, unusually active - moving rapidly from one political hotspot to the next in a highly volatile period.

In this case the work wasn’t intended to show Charles III as the greatest ever, but more to dismiss notions that he was particularly inept. His greatest sin seems to have been the failure to produce a legitimate heir.

Some revisionism is probably more sensationalistic than realistic, but there has been a lot of decent “correctives” published as well, including IMHO the one above.


Revision is one of the things that historians do. It’s a central part of the discipline. The term “revisionist” has sometimes been used as a political cudgel to try and marginalize or ridicule historians who offer new interpretations of historical evidence and events, but in many cases the new interpretations are better than the old ones, or at the very least add something to our understanding of the past.

The usual daily meaning of apologist is negative, one who has to atone for a wrong. That’s a later meaning.

There is a wholly different usage in Christian apologetics, whose adherents are called apologists:

The two meanings of the word are near opposites.

Similarly, revisionist history emerged from a small group of historians after WWII seeking to overturn Civil War history, which had been controlled by Southern apologists: apologists in the sense that they diminished the horrors of slavery, blamed the North for aggression and invasion, demonized carpetbaggers, and generally embiggened the noble Southern people. That led to the wider revisionism that is now mainstream history, with far more emphasis on the actions of ordinary people instead of Great Men, and recognition of the accomplishments of women, gays, blacks, and all the other groups left out of straight white male christian history.

Naturally, this is greatly resented by straight white main christians and they have tried to recapture their nostalgia by demonizing the revisionists as Marxist Feminist Homophilist Atheists. This new revisionism is precisely the opposite of the old, probably helped by a use of the word by actual Marxists who demonized those who worked for reform rather than revolution as revisionists.

Those two meanings are also near opposites. Strange things happen to words when they escape the cage of technical vocabulary.

Interesting thread, thanks.

For the first time, I’m breaking username cover, because fuck it, I’m proud of him (in Yiddish, they say someone has good “Yichus,” meaning worthy ancestors).

My father adapted the phrase/concept to conclude an open letter for the whitewashing of history by the Hungarian government, when he returned his medals given him for his work on Hungarian history, specifically WWII and the Holocaust. The letter was published and covered in many international papers (eg, NY Times. The situation is bad there now, and is getting worse and worse.

Good for him.

Good for him.

Though look at how many statues - and monuments and streets and schools and… - Southern cities have that glorify the names of Confederate generals and politicians. People hate to be reminded that they have acted badly. For pity’s sake, we have a million threads here in which people won’t acknowledge that an Internet post was wrong.

Yes, good for him. You should be proud.

“Never Forget”

I am neither a Jew or in any way directly connected to the Holocaust but deniers and modifiers will forever be my enemy both here and in real life.