Is history written by the winners?

No. History is written by the locals.

Modern Japanese history texts are criticized for portraying Japanese imperialism and its role in the subsequent war in an overly favorable light. Critics charge that these books mischaracterize the Japanese either as innocent victims or as noble heroes in this war. This is ostensibly because, having won the war, the Japanese can use the spoils to impose their version of history on the world’s children. True, except for the fact that the Japanese lost the Second World War, and only textbooks used in Japan are subjects of this criticism, not the ones in Australia, China, Siberia, or any other area in the non-existent Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

How about our other big opponent in the Second World War? German textbooks are nothing like Japanese textbooks. As far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong) modern German textbooks portray Hitler as a villain just the way everybody else’s textbooks do. This is because there has been a sea-change in the way Germans perceive themselves. Things were very different after another failed German war effort: the First World War. It was easy for German reactionaries to blame German surrender on socialist “traitors”, shielding the Kaiser’s army from the shame of defeat on the battlefield - not exactly “winners’ history”.

Who won the conflict in Vietnam (1950s to 1970s)? The North Vietnamese. Do American school children learn Ho Chi Minh’s version of the events in that war? No. Granted, America didn’t exactly lose that war, but we definitely didn’t win either. Reunification of Vietnam under Hanoi’s terms hasn’t prevented the non-winning side from having its own version of events.

In the U.S., Northerners often charge that the Civil War was about slavery, yet Southerners seem to feel it was more of a matter of states’ rights. I’m not interested here in who is right, I’m just wondering how each side can have a different version of events … did both sides win? It would be easier to argue that both sides lost, but that’s not the point. The point is, no amount of carpet-bagging, Confederate Battle Flag-burning, or Gettysburg Address-quoting has convinced loads of Southerners of the typical Northern version of events leading up to the War of Southern Aggression.

All I’m saying is, let’s get our terminology right. It’s easy for an American to confuse the concept of “winners” with the concept of “locals” because we’ve won so many wars and lost so few. But the concepts are not synonymous, or even related. And certainly, there are counter-examples.

Feel free to add more examples or counter-examples. Does anyone know how the Vietnam wars are portrayed by the other non-winning sides (France, Australia, South Korea)? How about non-war situations? Comments on the early Soviet space program thread got me thinking about this … does anyone know how the Russians portray their successes and failures in this area? Other peacetime examples…?

I can’t speak to most of your post as I am unaware of how textbooks read in other countries. However,

I don’t know how each side can have differeing version of events. Southerners are exactly right in this case. The Civil War was absolutely started over state rights. It wasn’t until some two years of war had passed before the Emancipation Proclamation was written. Once that was out there the character of the war changed to one of freedom for slaves (and even that is a bit of a stretch…only states that had seceded from the Union were covered by the proclamation leaving slavery alive and well in some border states loyal to the Union).

If northern children don’t get it something is wrong with our education system. Perhaps northerners tend to shine the slavery light to show how ‘selflessly’ they threw themselves at a great injustice. It makes them feel good even if it is wrong (FYI: I’m from Chicago and I learned the correct history so not all northerners have it wrong).

We may not be able to affect revisionist history in Vietnam but we should be able to do it in our own house.

Ok, for whoever thinks that if we see the same thing, we’ll have the same account of it, I very much recomend reading An Instance of the Fingerpost . It’s an historical mystery, told from four different perspectives, each of which makes sense individuallly. Four differnt killers are named, and so it makes for a very convincing example of how one story can be told so many ways.
As for the Civil War, the reason Lincoln and the south fought was technically states rights. However, the rights in question happened to be its right to decide slavery issues (not to mention economic and social differences, as well as the Harper’s Ferry incident.)
Ok, I’ll deal with the OP on a point-to-point basis. About Vietnam: we may have lost, but we won economically. The streets of Ho’Chi’Min city are covered with McDonalds and KFC’s. That economic victory led to a cultural one, which means that the text books are probably going to be similar to the US ones.
Also, I beleive that Schleiffen, Moltke, and Sun-Tzu all mentioned the winners writing history. It’s more common sense than anything else here. That “law” developed long ago, when whenever a country won, it totally subverted the previous culture, and so was able to write history as it saw fit. Now, in current times, the US isn’t going to occupy a nation, so it becomes hard to take over its educational system. The rule still aplies- would you trust a veitnamese text book over a US one?

I really did think twice about including the Civil War example, because I was afraid it would be distracting. I decided to include it anyway for some reason I don’t recall. If you want to start a new thread or resurrect an old thread on the causes of the U.S. Civil War, you’ll get no flak from me.

Modern American Southerners have a perspective of the Civil War which agrees, more or less, with that of historical states’ rights advocates like John Calhoun and Robert E. Lee. The South lost the Civil War. Winners per se do not write history. QED

Argeable “the [Vietnamese] text books are probably going to be similar to the US ones.” Hmm. I don’t think I’m going to run into any translation of Vietnamese history texts, but I just don’t think this is true.

Most of the history textbooks I had to read in grmmar school, high school and college were written by liberals who editorialized freely! My grammar school textbooks stated as FACT (not opinion) that the US was wrong to get involved in Korea. My younger brother’s 4th grade history book spent 4 pages on WW2… TWO of those pages were about the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans.

So, even though the United States WON WW2, you’d be hard pressed to argue that our history textbooks glorify the American military!

um…what’s your point?

I’d suggest that you read Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen. US History textbooks are far from objective accounts of US history…just a simple reading of the introductions of these books will tell you that much.

I’d like to see an account of the Alamo written by Santa Ana. Or the Little Big Horn dictated by Sitting Bull.

Jeff_42 said

Not all Northerners threw themselves at a great injustice. It was perfectly legal for a man to buy out of service in the Army provided he paid another man to take his place. Something over 200,000 men, IIRC , did just that. It was indeed a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” on both sides of the line.

I would agree with Boris B that history is written by the locals, although whatever civiliztion persists longest gets their view recorded permanently…consider what we know about groups like the Romans, Egyptians, etc…comes mostly (though not entirely)from their own accounts.

Thousands of years from now people may really believe Americans united unanimously to fight the tyrany of the evil British Empire (upon which we immediately based our own constitution)

IMHO, it was true at one time. History was written by those who were left to write it. A defeated people, back in the time of the Roman Empire, say, would never have a chance to write their version… and if they did, the manuscript would vanish, since any copy that found its way to the hands of the victors would be destroyed.

In order to make a living as an historian or writer, you needed a patron… and if you wrote something that was out of line with what the patron thought, you’d be out on your ear.

The Pharoahs not only wrote their own history, they had the history of prior pharoahs (whom they didn’t like) erased.

However, when we get to modern times, with the ready availability of the printing press and now the internet, the losers clearly have a chance to tell their story. Yes, there ARE accounts of the Civil War from all sides, including the versions of various slave families. Yes, there ARE accounts of WWII from the German, or Italian, or Japanese, perspective.

Almost too much so. Hits the point where every loon with his/her own individual perspective can write a history, even if there’s little truth and no validity in it… such as Holocaust deniers.

Now, that’s different from what gets taught in schools, of course.


CKDextHavn makes some excellent points. We have the advantage of getting multiple viewpoints on historical events in the modern age that were not available in bygone eras.

I would have to say that history is still written by the winners though. In all of the situations you named there is a generally accepted world view. This is shaped by the winners. The fact that Japan and the Southland decide to throw their own spin on things is just a matter of viewpoint. Hell, most Southerners will tell you they didn’t lose and that it isn’t over.

Some things to keep in mind regarding this situation are:

1.) Just because I write a book about some historical incident does not make my version of events legitimate. I will submit the book “Time on the Cross” as my example.
2.) History is evolving. As new evidence comes to light we change our view of events. At one time Columbus discovered America. Now, the Vikings were here first. (and they still couldn’t win the SuperBowl) “Historical fact” is arrived at by consensus. When enough people are swayed by the facts to a specific interpretation that interpretation becomes the accepted dogma.
History is not concrete and will continue to evolve. The interpretation of the winner is just the starting point.

Well…actually it was the amerinds…then probably the africans, and then the vikings…

But you have a good point never the less.

They didn’t work for the Viking joke though. :smiley:

CKDextHavn wrote,

Yeah, that’s probably a better example. You’d think that being
(a) dead,
(b) bigots,
© liars, and not particularly good ones at that,
would be enough to shut the Nazis up. Apparently, that, even combined with their being
(d) losers of perhaps the greatest war in human history
isn’t enough. I mean, it’s like if you were in math class, and your good-looking, Nobel Prize-winning math professor were to eloquently prove that the square root of 16 is 4, and some pimply kid were to walk in, reaking of modelling glue and unwashed clothing, belch, loudly proclaim that the square root of 16 was 256, and die - and a quarter of the class were to go out and form a Committee to Prove that the Square Root of 16 is 256.

I think I’m ranting. Thanks for your responses.

but I particularly agree with the below:

History is still MOSTLY written by the winners, in my opinion, but with more resources available to people in this day and age (to say nothing of a higher percentage of people able to read and write), it’s not as exclusively the winners.

And as I briefly allude to in the above paragraph, it’s not always “just” the winners or the locals who influence how events are remembered. If any of you have studied Medieval English history, you know how the “Paston Letters” from the period of the Wars of The Roses influenced our understanding of the cultural and political times. The Paston family had some influence, but they were hardly powerful or prominent. They just happened to kept their correspondence throughout the ages.

Finally, sometimes what people recall as history is, well, based on novels or screenplays, and not exactly accurate, to put it mildly. (Braveheart is one such “historic” tale, that’s INCREDIBLY flawed in many historic details. If you’ve seen the movie, King Edward Longshanks outlived William Wallace by several years, and there is no indication that the English Princess even met William Wallace–I don’t even think she came to England until after Wallace was long dead, and she certainly did not become pregnant by him, as the movie implies. The battle at Stirling Bridge was also quite different, and there are a lot of other “falsehoods” in the movie. But that’s probably a whole 'nother thread…)

And before we scoff at the evil TV and movie industry perpetrating these untruths, they go back as far as Shakespearean England. Many an English citizen based a lot of his history “knowledge” on Shakespeare, who was often factually in error in his histories. (He was using inaccurate source material and quite possibly had an “anti Yorkist” bias, which, with a Tudor on the throne, was somewhat understandable.

Apologies for the long post, but I’m a bit of a history buff and have a lot to say on the topic.

P.S. I should make clear that I think Braveheart is a very entertaining movie, it’s just that it’s about as historically accurate as “1941”. Then there’s “I, Claudius”, which I think was the greatest miniseries ever. But as HISTORY? Um…no.

CKDextHavn said:

I agree with Dry’s take on this- much pre-printing press history was written simply by those whose manuscripts and writings survived for us to read; from what I’ve studied of Roman History, our interpretation of events is drafted from a very limited scope of sources (Tacitus, Sallust, etc.) because that’s about all we have.

In the literate age (say, 18th Century plus), I’d agree with you to some extent, Boris- history is written by the locals, with little care for who the ‘winners’ were. Compare how the British perceive the American Revolution and King George III with the American perception of those events. But there is a question of how you define ‘locals’, and how long such discordant versions of past events can survive. While it’s taken sixty years, Japan is ever-so-slowly moving to present its WW2 record in a light more in line with how most other countries present it. Likewise, I think the main presentation of Civil War history these days is less a “North was right!” “South was right!” fight than an understanding that there were a lot of factors in effect at the time of the war, and that there was no real single ‘Great Cause’ which resulted in the break. (Then again, I was schooled in Maryland, a border state, so maybe I got a Border State version of the war.) I think as culture and discussion becomes more and more global, the ‘local’ versions of events slowly combine into a more moderate whole. Which is a good thing, IMHO.

History may have been written by the winners, but it is most likely nowadays that history is written by the powerful, or ignorant. An above poster mentioned Lies My Teacher Told Me…a great book, everyone should read it. I can now listen to Rage Against the Machine without doubt…anyways, I have read that Texas is a major purchaser of textbooks because of its immense size. If Texas is not happy with their textbooks, they wouldn’t buy them from a certain company right? Publishing companies, even those who make history books, are out for money, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to enlighten us about how slavery was the sole reason for the civil war, and turn our flawed founding fathers into mythological super-beings. Nevermind states rights, or the fact that the emancipation proclimation freed absolutly noone. Lincoln himself said “if I could win the war without freeing slaves, I’d do it.” (I hope that quote is right, I’d hate to look bad.) Back to the main topic…Publishing companies will pander to purchasers to ensure they buy their books. If you want the real story, dig deeper, do some real research. We shouldn’t expect anything substantial when teachers have to cram 1608 to 1996 into one year.


“Alex Haley’s Roots: Should History Be Written by Non-Winners?” --The Onion ( “Our Dumb Century”

When thinking about medieval or ancient history, it’s not so much “history is written by the winners” or “history is written by the locals.” It’s “history is written by the literate.” Most people back then, after all, were not in the habit of writing stuff down, or preserving what they did write down.

The Huns and Vikings were winners of their respective days, yet they’ve gotten a bad rap in the history books because the losers’ wrote it all down and preserved it for future generations.

The same is true now, of course. He who gets his story before the public first gets to set the terms of the debate.

If the Huns had had a decent PR firm, they might be thought of as heroes today…

Actually, the Huns and Vikings were not exactly the “winners”

The Huns did a good job though Easter Europe of course, particularly under Attila, but even he was beaten by the Romans in Gaul (not that the Romans did fabulously against the Huns) and after Attila’s death in 453 AD, the Huns were largely broken up. So we still get accounts of the Huns from the “victors”…the Romans and the Goths.

The Vikings were the great pain in the ass of the North Atlantic for a while there, and even managed to instill Danelaw in England. But England eventually overthrew Danelaw, and the Vikings slowly disappeared…thus we get horrible accounts of the Vikings from the “victors”…the English.