Page 1 of 3

History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Tue Apr 23, 2013 9:01 pm
by Korin
Why is that? Is this because we are lacking stuff about the loser side of wars? Why is history written by the victor?

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Tue Apr 23, 2013 9:03 pm
by Shikanosuke
Korin wrote:Why is that? Is this because we are lacking stuff about the loser side of wars? Why is history written by the victor?


Yes. The victor has the power over individuals including the press and historians. Dissenting scholars and media are often suppressed or destroyed. This leaves only one account of a conflict/subject unless other outside and cross-referencable sources exist.

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Tue Apr 23, 2013 11:54 pm
by WeiWenDi
Shikanosuke wrote:
Korin wrote:Why is that? Is this because we are lacking stuff about the loser side of wars? Why is history written by the victor?


Yes. The victor has the power over individuals including the press and historians. Dissenting scholars and media are often suppressed or destroyed. This leaves only one account of a conflict/subject unless other outside and cross-referencable sources exist.


I think this is a huge oversimplification, for several reasons. However, I generally do think history is written by and for the victors, but the nature and rationales of both victor and loser determine what records get left behind and for what purposes they are used.

Let's use two recent examples, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, who happened to be allies on the losing side of the same war.

The thing one has to remember about the Germans is that they were meticulous record-keepers to begin with, and they recorded everything - including their regime's ghastliest and most heinous crimes against the socialists, the Jews and the Gypsies. When the Allies invaded, they had no need or desire to destroy the primary-source records left by the Nazis - indeed, they made up the bulk of the evidence used in later war-crimes trials. The victors in this case had every desire to keep the historical record intact.

Japan was different. They didn't keep very good track of things, and many of the records were destroyed either in Allied bombing campaigns or by the Japanese themselves when they saw defeat coming. Also, the Allies (apart from China) didn't much care what happened to Japanese military documents. As such, our primary-source references in the Pacific theatre from the Japanese side are much more fragmentary.

The character of the victor matters - to what degree they care about truth and the good, as opposed to power for power's own sake. If the Nazis and Japanese had won, I very highly doubt that many primary records from the Allies would have survived. That said, I will absolutely grant that the victors do indeed have a vested interest in controlling the public narrative outside academia in the aftermath of a war, and that has applied as much to the Allies as to anyone else.

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Wed Apr 24, 2013 12:06 am
by Shikanosuke
WeiWenDi wrote:
I think this is a huge oversimplification, for several reasons.


No disagreement.

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Wed Apr 24, 2013 6:08 pm
by Dong Zhou
Agree with Shi and WWD.

If your writing history just after the events of the win and can shape the narrative, your a brave man if you go against the ruling regime. Imagine Shakespeare (I know, not a historian but his players did form English history) writing a pro Richard III play? That would nor have gone down well with his masters. Or a Henry V where Henry V sucks, would probably be unpopular and end his career. A historian/playwright/film-maker who nowadays savages the victor or praises the baddie/loser might not be killed in western democracy but it could be career wrecker. Be seen as a traitor in people's eyes, getting effectively blacklisted as hiring or supporting you will spread the dislike onto the supporter. Imagine an American doing a pro-Osama biography/play/film or

Korin wrote:Is this because we are lacking stuff about the loser side of wars?


Can be sometimes. History or record keeping (see Shu or latter Wu) can be the sort of thing that falls by the wayside when things are bad or resources limited. Then there are those (like Wu Prime Minister Sun Shao) where politics may have got involved and so ensured we know little about him.

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Mon Apr 29, 2013 9:15 pm
by Ultimate_Nova_X
I have one thing to say: the Chinese Communist Revolution led by modern Mao Zedong, otherwise known as the Qin Shi Huang/Cao Cao of the first half of the 20th century.

My grandaunt was one of those people who lived through those times, and she told me stories that have never appeared and never will appear in history books.

I have friends from China who didn't know about the Tianmen Square incident. Which kind of blew my mind since it seems like common knowledge even for Americans.

Even if we open are newspapers, it doesn't tell us everything that it's showing. Not to mention what appears in newspapers isn't all that's going on in the world.

So is history written by and for the winners? Well that's for the winners to decide.

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Tue Apr 30, 2013 2:18 am
by Zhai Rong
Whether history is written and survives depends upon several things:
- Did the culture actually care about writing?
- Did sources (whether they be official documents or people) survive?
- Were there people who can afford to sit around for years and write?
- Were there people who would read and copy the works so that they survive into future generations?

Losers tend to de disadvantaged in all of these. In ancient times, many were less advanced than their conquerers, resulting in both military inferiority and little emphasis on record keeping. Those that did keep records were liable to have them burnt by rampaging troops or the likes of Xiang Yu, leaving only memories to record the past. Many on the loser's side, including the leaders who were witness to key decisions, would either have died in combat or been executed after capture. Post-conquest, aspiring historians may have to engage in more menial tasks to survive. If they did get around to writing the loser's history, it may not be widely read because lack contact with mainstream scholars, the history isn't written in the predominant language and the topic is of little interest to those more enthused by the heroic feats of their glorious nation in fulfilling their Heaven-sent destiny of vanquishing evil. And that's all before explicit censorship by the rulers of the day.

Losers can write history under the right conditions - basically if they can evade the winners and end up in a society receptive to their writings. England maintained its homeland despite losing the Hundred Years' War, so we English speakers are more familiar with Agincourt than Patay. As noted in a similar discussion here, the survivors of the collapse of the Byzantine empire managed to find a home in Italy where they could engage in scaremongering about the Ottomans.

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Wed May 01, 2013 2:48 am
by Jordan
History is written by the historian. That's why Sima Qian and Procopius could get away with severely criticizing the rulers. Though in general history can admittedly have a bent toward the victor, assuming the victor has control over the history writing process, it's not right to generalize.

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Mon Oct 21, 2013 9:47 am
by ROTKobsessed
That isn't always the cause though. An example could be the failed roman invasion of England when Boudicca won against massive odds. She couldn't sustain the winning though and the romans successfully invaded - why is Boudicca still remembered when she lost the war?
Why is Napolean remembered for his military genius after his defeats to Russia and England?
There's more examples but those were the first 2 in my head

Re: History is written by the victor

Unread postPosted: Mon Oct 21, 2013 10:17 am
by Sun Fin
They might be remembered but are they remembered favourably? Boudicca probably more so now but for centuries she was thought of as a Barbarian queen and Napoleon may be thought of as a great general but he is also painted as evil despite the fact that many of the ideals his Empire were founding on (meritocracy for example) are now considered mainstream.