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May 10, 2017 / No Black Pete

Writ of History

Image result for children writingIs history always written by the victors?
From history.stackexchange, 2012

The famous “history is written by victors” saying argues that the victors overwhelmingly influence historical accounts. Are there any examples of history written by the (or THE) losers?

asked Nov 14 ’12 at 22:52 Jayaram

History can only be written by survivors – victors are survivors more often than losers, but the ratio is still finite. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 22 ’14 at 2:51

The 70 AD siege of Jerusalem is a prominent example. Depends on your definition of ‘losing’, I guess. – dwn Jan 26 ’15 at 15:11

“History is written by victors” may itself be an example of history written by the losers! While the quote is commonly misattributed to Winston Churchill, it’s origins are unknown and it might be inspired by Hermann Göring’s quote:

We will go down in history either as the world’s greatest statesmen or its worst villains.

On a (perhaps) more serious note, the aftermath of the Fall of Constantinople (1453) is a prime example of history written by the losers. A wave of Greek scholars emigrated to the west after the event that essentially marked the end of the Byzantine Empire, bringing with them extremely biased accounts of Ottoman brutality. The vilification of the Ottomans was the prevalent opinion in the Western world for centuries and served as propaganda material as late as 1832, when the Greek War of Independence ended. Even modern attempts at identifying the historical truth of the era, such as the 2011 “1821” documentary, are met with controversy in Greece.

A more recent example would be the American Civil War and the Lost Cause movement, a term borrowed from Edward Pollard’s 1866 book The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates : Comprising a Full and Authentic Account of the Rise and Progress of the Late Southern Confederacy–the Campaigns, Battles, Incidents, and Adventures of the Most Gigantic Struggle of the World’s History.

Lastly, a (perhaps controversial) example of history written by the losers is the account of the Vietnam War. Although whether the US lost the war is debatable they certainly didn’t win it, still the overwhelming majority of historical documentation for the war comes from the US.

Further reading:

Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended (Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76)
Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History,
Social history and People’s history articles on Wikipedia,
Philosophy of history article on Wikipedia,
Truth by consensus article on Wikipedia,
Historical revisionism article on Wikipedia,
History written by the losers article on The Guardian.


Good answers. Particularly the Civil War bit. I’m old enough to have encountered history textbooks with Reconstruction sections essentially written by southerners (it was all about incompetent uncivilized [Black people] being given government jobs and voted into office and evil northern “carpet-baggers”. This is what we were taught. Ick). – T.E.D.♦ Nov 15 ’12 at 1:05

@T.E.D. – Was that really not the case? (honest question – I know very little about Reconstruction, but from what little I do know, it seems to be a pretty common situation on both counts) – DVK Nov 15 ’12 at 11:15

@Yannis – i would recommend splitting your answer in two – one where the losers were not – in the BIG picture – a major power even after loss, and one where they were (Vietnam would be an example of the latter). The latter is intuitively obvious as a counterexample to this incredibly vague saying, while the former is what’s actually of historical interest. – DVK Nov 15 ’12 at 11:20

@DVK At one point that is how the Reconstruction was taught, it was ‘the “North” that came down to “teach the immoral white southerners” how to co-exist with the now free [Black people].’ Often glossing over the fact that discrimination and prejudice against [Black people] was already well entrenched in the North but never spoken of – MichaelF Nov 15 ’12 at 13:11

A side note about vilification of Ottomans: I am not so sure that it was uncalled for. There have been plenty accounts more recent than 15th century of Ottoman’s habitual cruelty, ottoman sultans traditionally murdering their own brothers, etc. Perhaps the most glaring and relatively recent example of institutionalized cruelty was the genocide of Armenians in 1915. – Michael Jan 27 ’15 at 21:36

All the bad press given to Vikings (and the like) by angry monks suggests not always. Depends if the victors build a tradition of literacy and of documenting history or whether they just go build more longboats and get drunk.

answered Dec 11 ’12 at 0:59 Nathan Cooper

Possibly the best example of all, history is not written by the winners but by those who know how to write, in that case, the priests. – Juan Antonio Gomez Moriano Nov 25 ’14 at 9:26

“History is not written by the winners but by those who know how to write.” – Juan Antonio Gomez Moriano Nov 25 ’14 at 9:26 Best comment ever. 🙂 – Ziezi Jan 27 ’16 at 10:48

An important example from ancient history is the Peloponnesian war. The most important account of it comes from Thucydides, “the father of history”. Thucidydes was an Athenian, and Athens lost the war. I am not aware of any Spartan accounts of this was that survived.

answered Dec 19 ’13 at 17:34 Alex

+1. But isn’t the title “father of history” traditionally awarded to Herodotus? – taninamdar Jun 21 ’16 at 21:13

Yes, Herodotus is more frequently called the father of history. However Thycydides is considered by many the first “true historian”, his writings are almost free of legends and rumors, he was the first to use a really “scientific” approach. – Alex Jun 22 ’16 at 6:47

Here are some other examples:

The US Civil War. Much of the history was driven by the South’s need to justify itself especially after the first 20 years up to about 1960 or so.

The Fall of the Roman Republic Virtually all of the surviving histories were written by the conservative factions of Rome and not by the Caesarian side. Augustus didn’t mind that much as it let the elite blow off steam while he ran things as suited him.

answered Mar 21 ’14 at 22:02 Oldcat

People downvoting this either haven’t heard of the Dunning School or think that the Dunning School is pretty damn great – two sheds Mar 29 ’15 at 14:53

@twosheds Or maybe they should just re-read “Gone with the wind” with a critical eye… – Felix Goldberg Nov 23 ’16 at 11:22

The Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arabs lost to Israel in 4 wars (1948, 1967, 1973, 1982) but their version of history is the most accepted today (even the universal acceptance of the term “palestinian people”). Thus Israelis are portrayed a “colonizers“, Zionism was portrayed as racism in the UN, and Israel as an apartheid state. This while Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people (recognized by the league of nations 1922), Jews are depicted as pigs all over the arab world, and Israel is the only country in the middle east in which Arab citizens have basic human freedoms.

answered Jul 19 ’13 at 13:24 Tom

While I disagree with a lot of your premises (Israel won in 1982? I would call it a draw at best), Israel is responsible for most historical accounts of the holocaust during WW2, which is another excellent example of history being written by the losers [winners]. – Carmi Mar 21 ’14 at 20:13

Neither Israel (which did not exist back then) nor the jewish people where combatants in WW2 (many of the murdered jews where actually Germans), so they cannot be said to be losers in the war. A better point would be to say that many historical accounts of the holocaust where written by germans, which is an excellent example etc. – Eike Pierstorff Jan 26 ’15 at 8:56

@EikePierstorff : By Germans living under foreign occupation that regulated what they could write about the holocaust. It’s no sign of history effectively being written by losers. – Christian Jun 25 ’16 at 13:08

I am reading Andrew Weatcroft’s’s The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburg, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe (see also here). It contains this relevant statement in relation to a (from some perspective) loosing party rewriting history:

Of course, once the great [Ottoman attack on Vienna in 1683] failed, history was rewritten and the sultan portrayed as wisely dubious from the outset and latterly wholly innocent of his duplicitous servant’s machinations.

That servant was Kara Mustafa, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmet IV, who survived the battle in the remote West but not its aftermath closer to home: he was strangulated on orders from the sultan, his co-loser in (and according to this source perhaps the co-initiator of) the failed campaign.

answered Mar 29 ’13 at 21:03 Drux

The Spanish Civil War is an example of loser-dominated historiography. That the Rebels won is beyond doubt, but the Loyalists wrote all the history… it’s hard to think of a history of the war which is sympathetic to the winning side.

answered Jan 25 ’15 at 15:57 Ne Mo

I read one when I was in college. I suppose they were quite common in Spanish, but that no one bothered to translate them into other languages. The rebels won the Civil War, but their side lost WWII, which perhaps explain this. Similarly, why would one translate João Ameal’s pro-feudal ramblings from Portuguese, or the Dunning School works from English? – Luís Henrique Nov 27 ’16 at 10:43

Yeah, I suppose the thing is that once we start saying ‘Oh, well Franco didn’t win the wider conflict he was part of’, then the ‘winning side…’ dictum starts to lose any coherence or predictive power. If we keep it narrowly to ‘the literal military victor always writes the history’, then we can see it’s not true. – Ne Mo Nov 27 ’16 at 11:46

It isn’t true, of course. But it also isn’t true that there aren’t histories of the Spanish Civil War sympathetic to Franco. Here (in Spanish), a webpage blogs.elpais. com/historias/2014/04/… that sheds some light about how things were viewed in Spain, where the victor’s version of History was imposed into two generations at gun point. – Luís Henrique Nov 27 ’16 at 11:59

The entire Bible is pretty much written by the losers [winners] of history, written from the perspective of the Hebrew slave [owners], the prophets, and the exiles [elites], rather than the Pharaoh, the king, and the conquerors, respectively. Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, the Greeks, and the Romans all have their empires, but the perspective is taken from a particular people who live under the control of these empires. In the Greek New Testament the early followers of Jesus take those identities on themselves as well. Unfortunately, the Christians became major oppressors a few centuries after that. Some of us who are sticking with the church are working to undo that false (but long) step.

answered Mar 21 ’14 at 19:54 Joel Miller [Edited]

I’m not saying that everything in the Bible is intended to be written as history, per se, but as a work of literature, much of it is peering out through the eyes of the oppressed [oppressor playing victim]. – Joel Miller Mar 21 ’14 at 19:57 [Edited]

Significant part of the Old Testament is about the military victory of Jewish tribes on their neighbours, conquering new lands, collecting foreskin etc.. – Greg Nov 25 ’16 at 8:01

If you are looking for examples: The history of most major invasion on Europe is written by or significantly influenced by the Europeans (who happened to be on the loser end). Huns and Attila, Mongols, Vikings (ok, they are European, too), Ottoman Turks – even if there is a significant body of information (e,g in case of Ottoman Empire), the history is heavily dominated by the stories of the European side.

Similar is true for Chinese history: China was many times beaten and conquered by the northern neighbors, who even gave several dynasties to them. Yet I see more Chinese account on the stories than any manchuurian or jurchen.

answered Jun 23 ’15 at 6:00 Greg

Howard Zinn, in his A People’s History of the United States, claimed to be endeavoring to do something quite similar to that.

If you are interested in USA history, I highly reccommend it for two reasons. The first is that many others with that same interest will be familiar with it, so you can at least hold your own in conversations. The other is that it gives the best coverage of the (typically ignored) union movement in US history that I have seen. This was arguably the defining social issue of the late 19th and early 20th century. It is tough to understand the events of this period without it, yet most other US history books practically pretend it didn’t happen.

I understand there is also from another author A People’s History of the World, written in the same vein.

answered Nov 14 ’12 at 23:02 T.E.D.♦

I’m having trouble figuring out how this answers the question. – American Luke Nov 15 ’12 at 0:24

@Luke The answer points to the “history from below” concept, an approach to history from the perspective of common people (the “losers”) that’s in direct opposition with the more common approach that emphasizes historical figures, leaders, etc (the “winners”). – yannis Nov 15 ’12 at 3:07

@YannisRizos – what you said is ONLY valid if you take the Marxist point of view that “common people” were the losers in America. – DVK Nov 15 ’12 at 11:17

I think I am one of the few History majors to have never read Zinn or have any interest in it, other than everyone else has read him. – MichaelF Nov 15 ’12 at 13:09

@MichaelF – Its not an easy read. His writing style is a tad dry, and the information itself isn’t exactly uplifting. You might consider checking it out from a library and trying it someday though. If nothing else, its tough to hate it properly if you haven’t read it. 🙂 – T.E.D.♦ Nov 15 ’12 at 15:23

An interesting article in History Today by Katherine Weikert is devoted to this very topic. The three examples studied in depth are:

Byrhtnoth, the Saxon leader who lost – and was killed in – the battle of Maldon. Nevertheless, he is the subject of an Old English poem which glorifies his valour; he is also praised in the Ely chronicle. As Dr. Weikert explains, the fact that both Byrhtnoth and his widow were, to use a modern term, major donors for the Church institutions in Ely, must have helped a lot.
Harald Hardrada
King Harold.

I do recommend reading the article, it’s very enlightening – and available for free.

answered Nov 24 ’16 at 9:29

The Battle of Thermopylae is completely written by losers. (All citations from the Wikipedia article) First of all, the first myth about this battle is that there were only 300 defenders, but in fact there were at least 20 times more. Secondly, the legend says that all but one of them died, but losses were about 4000. Third, it was not a clear strategic success of the Greeks.

(…) within the context of the Persian invasion, Thermopylae was undoubtedly a defeat for the Greeks. It seems clear that the Greek strategy was to hold off the Persians at Thermopylae and Artemisium; whatever they may have intended, it was presumably not their desire to surrender all of Boeotia and Attica to the Persians. (…) the last stand at Thermopylae was a successful delaying action that gave the Greek navy time to prepare for the Battle of Salamis. However, compared to the probable time (about one month) between Thermopylae and Salamis, the time bought by the last stand at Thermopylae was negligible.

Fourth, it was not a high-losses win of Persians (although they lost much more soldiers than Greeks):

there is no suggestion by Herodotus that this was the effect of the Battle of Thermopylae on the Persian forces. Furthermore, this idea ignores the fact that the Persians would, in the aftermath of Thermopylae, conquer the majority of Greece, and the fact that Persians were still fighting in Greece a year later.

answered Jun 23 ’13 at 21:01 Voitcus

This isn’t correct. First, the Greeks won the Greco-Persian Wars, you can’t really claim the history of the battle was written by the losers just because the Greeks happened to lose there. Second, I’m not aware of any notable source that claims there were only 300 defenders at Thermopylae. The number is the number of (free) Spartans that fought in the battle, not the total of the defending Greeks. – yannis Oct 23 ’13 at 12:47

I was talking about the battle itself. In popular culture there were 300 defenders and I’ve written this in 2nd paragraph. – Voitcus Oct 24 ’13 at 6:52

Japan lost World War II, and Japanese people write the textbooks for its history, including World War IIImage result for children typing, for Japanese schools.
answered Jun 23 ’13 at 9:02 Andrew Grimm

That is true, but if they had won WW2 the history they write would be very different – for starters, if they had won, would they/anyone be writing about comfort women, for example? – Kobunite Jun 24 ’13 at 9:21

Source: https://history.stackexchange .com/questions/5597/is-history-always-written-by-the-victors




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