"History is written by the victors"

Discussion in 'History' started by Smalltownboy, May 21, 2007.

  1. Smalltownboy Registered Member

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    While this is quite a widely believed statement, by this logic should history be used more as a type of literature to be studied? Or are the current concepts of historical research (to find absolute truth) more valid?

    Discuss.
     
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  3. Baron Max Registered Senior Member

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    The world is "smaller" now, so history is not quite so difficult to hide or to fake. Back in the good ol' days, it was a different story. Today, history is often written by propagandists intent on getting their own way in conflicts or disagreements. And "history" is sometimes used right this day as a tool for fighting wars or conflicts. How many news stories have you read or heard about such-n-such group killed "innocent civilians"? See? Tomorrow, those comments become history, don't they?

    Baron Max
     
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  5. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

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    The concept of "history" has changed over the ages. History as undoubtedly "literature" when Herodotus or Thucydides or Tacitus wrote. More modern historians strive for "objectivity," but some historians now believe that all history is filtered by the author in such a way as to eliminate the possibility of a purely objective account. Historians simply are not dispassionate, disinterested parties. They have favorites, and they have biases that color their interpretations.

    That said, history has rarely been entirely written by the victors, nor has it always favored the victors. To some extent, I think Churchill may have focussed a bit too much on his personal interests...the history of the British Isles and the history of Rome. In the British Isles, the Celts were almost completely culturally absorbed by the invading germanic tribes and the settlers in the Danelaw. The resulting Anglo-Saxon tradition of the educated (and history-writing) classes was then largely swamped by the French (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles excepted, and even that stopped being recorded in less than a century after 1066).

    In the case of the Romans, there were the highly educated kids on the block, and the other highly educated peoples had a tendency to become Romanized. There were likely many anti-roman histories in the later days of the Republic and early days of the Empire...but as the Pax Romana settled in, those books would have been frowned upon and vanished over time. Pro-roman books, on the other hand, we have plenty of those. That is not to say that anti-roman histories didn't survive at all, however. Tales of the Roman persecutions of Christians survived (in part because Rome Christianized and those stories became more acceptable), as did tales of Roman persecution in Judea (the most famous written account of which, by Josephus, was sanctioned by Roman society). Still, overall Rome has a very lopsided body of written history, and one has to read it that way. Were the Celts the blue faced savages history paints them as? Probably not entirely, since most of what we know (or think we know) about them comes from Roman accounts. Sadly, they were amongst the pre-literate societies about whom we may never have a complete understanding.

    On the flip-side, as Churchill should have realized (and probably did), there have been books about the American Revolution written by each side, as well as by neutral parties to those conflicts. Most of what Americans think we know about the Alamo comes from later American authors, even though the Mexicans clearly won, and the American accounts are unabashedly romantic. (Though it's hard to deny that no Texans survived long enough to write any first-hand accounts.)

    I think the point of the quite was nothing more than a sardonic reassertion that "might makes right"—that, through victory, you can shout your moral superiority from the rooftops and "retcon" many of the foibles you may have actually had. I think it's clear, however, that the only way the assertion truly works is if your enemies are incapable of writing histories when the conflict ends. Either because they lack a written language, because they lack the educational background to field a serious historian, because you have the ability to completely suppress their histories or because you killed them all.

    With histories the best thing you can do is to read multiple accounts of the same topic (if possible) and then cross reference those works with other, partial, sources like archaeological evidence, and in more modern cases personal accounts recorded at the time. You then slowly accumulate information that allows you to challenge parts of what you have read and to see ambiguities and nuances here a particular author might have missed them.
     
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  7. Baron Max Registered Senior Member

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    That's a good suggestion, but it'll never give you the "real" history of some event ...it'll always been tainted with both the authors' bias as well as your own. You'll simply never know for sure.

    But history has changed. In the old days, events were much more localized, and as such, it was often direct causes of events that could easily be traced and verified (to some extent). But now, if Iran farts, China might react by raising the price of some product which has a direct effect on America, who then gets pissed off and refuses to buy, which will have a dire effect on the economy of Germany, which will then cause the European Union to show economic downturns, which....... And it goes on and on ...all because Iran farted!! There's is and can be no direct action-reaction like there was in the days of such a small and localized population.

    History has changed and in doing so, it's changed our very way of thinking. Look at this discussion site and how people from all over the world react differently to the exact same issues/events. If three of us were to write a history about one of those events, which one would be correct/truthful/real?

    Baron Max
     
  8. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

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    Short of appealing to some omniscient, neutral source (like God) there is no absolute way to say which is "correct/truthful/real." All history has a subjective sense to it, even those histories written by people who saw it unfold first hand. (In fact, especially those histories, since personal recollections disproportionately bias one's interpretations.)

    "History" (or, rather, what is viewed as "real history" and not "wrong") is determined largely by consensus. You will always have some people outside that consensus, and few (if any) people who study history extensively, will agree with the consensus in every single detail. Over time, the consensus on a given issue can shift and those ho were in the minority can find their position generally accepted.

    The good news is that more data one accumulates regarding history (from written sources, archeology and elsewhere), the narrower the range of opinions tends to be...the variance in opinions amongst those who study the topic tends to fall.

    Perhaps when we die we will meet our makers and be able to ask them what the "truth" really was.
     
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    24,690
    Film changed history but video is really changing history. It's too easy for eight different people to record the same event and too difficult to track down and edit or destroy them all after they go on YouTube five minutes later.
     
  10. Pandaemoni Valued Senior Member

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    3,634

    I agree that there is a possibility of that happening, but I know whether I've indisputably seen it yet. Take the recent "police brutality" claims in MacArthur Park or the Rodney King video. There's plenty of video, but there are still differences of opinion on "what really happened" and whether the police actions were justified. So there is still some room for subjectivity, though p[erhaps to a lesser degree.

    It would be interesting for military historians to have access to to have video documenting "front line" combat (and it's only a matter of time before every U.S. soldier's helmet has a wireless camera embedded in it). It will be even more interesting when cameras are present on all sides of a conflict (though that might take a long time to come to pass).
     
  11. Lord Hillyer Banned Banned

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    1,777
    Napoleon said it well: 'History is the agreed-upon lie'.

    A consensus of delusion, fabrication, confabulation, and jingoism. Oft-bad literature grasping for legitimacy through 'facts'. At its most pure and innocent and earnest, it is speculation, conjecture, distortion, and faith. And it is frequently not pure. History is a cartoon of what has gone before, and in most cases a cartoon with a 'moral to the story' imbued by an undisclosed partisan. Let it inform your biases with an entertaining seepage, but be mindful that it is but fiction by another name.
     

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