Is History Always Written by the Victors?

My recent posting on the US Civil War, provoked some discussion and the comment from our correspondent Victor that ‘history is written by the victors’. I thought it worth posting my response with some editing in its own right:

Victor’s opening comment was: Well- if you read the accounts of life in NYs Hells Kitchen and the life of indentured workers in the factories in the North-it was no different than slavery in the South and for many miners much worse and for the Chinese who built the rail road much, much worse
History is always written b y the victors—Democrat Senator Bird was a grand wizard of the KKK-you never heard about that in his hagiography

My response: I quite agree that the way US history is taught is very selective, and very much what we used to call the Whig version of history: the inevitable progress to now.

I am not sure though that history is exclusively written by the victors because good historians won’t let it be. The moment we say ‘history is written by the victors’ it ceases to be true, because we have understood the need to look for the history from the losers’ viewpoint. At least for some of us, our natural curiosity drives us on to find this, however hidden. Eventually thorough historians get in there, and if you look for it, there are correctives, whether for women throughout history, Native Americans, African Americans, other minorities, or Germans post Second World War that you have alluded to previously.

I tend to scan the world and ask what was happening to whom in each geographical area, in each era, to each category of society, and go looking for the history. I think Timothy Snyder’s ‘Blood Lands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin‘ that I have just started reading, is just such a corrective for some of those lost from history previously: Ukrainian peasants etc. And the same has been done for Mao’s victims, though his heirs are the victors. And no doubt I will find others in 2011.

No doubt there are still many gaps on the map, but young historians are always on the lookout for them. A friend of mine is studying US colonization of the Philippines from a Filipino perspective for her PhD, using the US documents here, but not taking that as the last word. Tony Judt did not, I think, write from the victors’ viewpoint; and neither does Norman Davies (‘No Simple Victory’ etc.) on Eastern Europe in the Second World War and beyond. Every balanced attempt to write the history of Palestine is an act of recovery of 1948 or whatever. There are always Eric Hobsbawn’s 19th and 20th century histories. As the original posting suggested, the US South certainly propagates the loser’s history. And of course, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was memorably taken from the loser’s viewpoint in most of UK inter-war discourse.

Finally, on a personal note, I was certainly taught in a British High School in the 1960s, 19th century Irish history from a largely Irish viewpoint, 19th century Indian history partly from an Indian point of view, the Chartist struggles from their point of view, and the English Civil War at least partly from the view of the lower classes, not just the Gentry or Aristocracy so prominent in most histories. My teachers had an immediate instinct for the underdog, the loser and their stories in anything we covered.

I would add to this a further comment: while the histories of women, minorities, the losers of wars are being uncovered, there is still a danger that they remain specialist narratives and not necessarily integrated into the main stream historical narrative or popular media. A balanced, integrated history is always hard to achieve but we should keep on trying.

Footnote: For an entertaining movie about history and conflicting views on its educative role, The History Boys set in a British 1980s all boys High School and directed by Nicolas Hytner from the Alan Bennett stage play is excellent. I think they may even mention ‘history is written by the victors’ but I am not sure.


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Is History Always Written by the Victors?

  1. Victor says:

    Bloodlands is not written by the victims because all those 14 million non combatants are dead from starvation, bullets or gas.
    The victims of torture by the NKVD where later shot or died in camps.
    I think that this always been the case–we do not read any accounts from the Carthaginians about the wars with Rome, we do not read any Aztec accounts of the wars with the Spanish–we have a couple of books about the Gulags.
    The accounts we have of Shoah were written by people in the labor camps not the death camps.
    I finished the Bloodlands, it is quite remarkable — up to 40% of the senior officers in the NKVD were ethnically Jewish though Jews were less than 1% of the Russian population, which explains–but does not justify– the hostility towards Jews by Ukrainians.
    Robert Conquest at Hoover has written extensively about Stalins great famine and great terror–but he was ignored–while Walter Duranty of NYT got the Pulitzer Prize for covering it up

    Snyder apparently he collaborated on a book with Judt before he died.

  2. Interesting insights/perspective. But while we cannot hear the direct account of the dead victims of the death camps or the Aztecs, we can get closer to their take on it by thoroughly understanding what happened, and using the imaginative empathy that is central to the conflict model of this blog. We have some idea what the ramp at Auschwitz felt like because there were some survivors. Though less of the exclusively extermination camps.

    And art: writing, film, poetry, painting, music can add to this, however inadequately. I did not agree with the idea that silence is the right response in the face of horror. Conrad managed to give us a sense of the Congo slaughter. Though he was not a victim, he could understand their torment and report it in a way that impacts us.

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