Original URL: http://39years.blog.com/2014/09/02/history-is-written-by/
Sep 2: History is written by…
Twice now, when I’ve told someone that one of my classes is starting with “the history of history” they’ve shuddered because “history is written by the winners”…which in this case doesn’t even make sense. (Why would that make them shudder? Even if I had meant that it was a general survey of all of world history, which I didn’t, why would that be shudder-worthy? Spending the same amount of time doing micro-history of something terrible, like the Holocaust, that would be shudder-worthy. Spending a few weeks on a general survey of world history would be so brief on all points that nothing terrible would get more than a few minutes.)
Of course, those shudders don’t just bother me because they make no sense in this context. They bother me more because that stupid platitude needs to be retired, pronto! It simply isn’t true! It’s as pointless and backwards as “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” and “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Because history is not written by “the winners.” History is and always has been written by whoever has the time, education and inclination to do so. In the beginning, that meant people like propagandists for Egyptian Pharaohs, or self-motivated Greeks like Herodotus and Thucydides. Now, yes, Herodotus was writing as “the winner” when he was writing about the Persian Wars. But Thucydides was an Athenian, and they lost the Peloponnesian War.
The Egyptians are the more typical, though. Whether the Pharaoh won his battle or lost it, they wrote about it none the less. They kept records, for example, of the Battle of Qadesh, even though Ramses II lost it. They simply played up his personal heroism despite being out-numbered, out-schemed and over-powered by the Hittites. Because those Egyptian scribes were writing for the true driving force of most of humanity’s self-recording: they were writing for the ones in power where they lived.
That’s very different from saying that “the winners” write history. An Athenian writing about the Peloponnesian War is one thing, after all, since there was no “publication” as we know it, thus the idea of restricting the “press” was impossible, since there wasn’t any “press” yet. But it’s not as though the losers in a war or battle never recorded them. Do you think that early 19th century English textbooks ignored the fact that the American Revolution happened, or that they imported textbooks from the US if they wanted to read about it? Would the 17th century Spaniards have pretended that the Spanish Armada wasn’t sunk in 1588? Did the French in the mid-nineteenth century pretend Napoleon never existed? No, no and no. They would have stilted their descriptions to fit their own outlook (less so in the Napoleon case, because of changes in the historical process by that point and because the issue is inherently more complex) but they wouldn’t have ignored their losses nor would they only have presented them in the way that the winners would have.
History can be a tool of terrible propaganda, and often has been, and no doubt will continue to be one as long as there are people out there who want to exert power over others, because the way information is presented can be a very powerful tool in that regard. But it has nothing to do with winning and losing. It’s important that people learn the difference.
Also important is this: if a history student (especially at the graduate level!) tells you they’re reading about the history of history, they almost certainly mean the progression of changes to the historical profession since the Enlightenment. It’s almost more philosophy than history, especially once you reach the postmodernists.
So if you must shudder, at least make it in sympathy for weighty and potentially dull texts full of philosophical erudition, and not “because history is written by the winners.”
The student you’re talking to will thank you for it.