(It’s getting difficult to distinguish between the titles of my posts and the titles of light novels, isn’t it?)
You’ve probably heard that the winners write the history books. The victors of various conflicts (military, political, cultural, etc.) fabricate self-glorifying stories at the expense of the losers. Except that’s not how history actually works. Since winners-write-history is such a ubiquitous misconception, it’s always worth beating up on, and what brought this issue to mind most recently is a quote from The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress, Vol. 6. The narrator states:
“Human beings are neither gods nor devils. Their behavior is not always good. However, history is written by the winners. The winners always seek to portray their path as glorious and blessed. They pretend their past—their cowardly, traitorous, oppressive and bloodstained past—never happened. Or they try to cast it in a new light. And every time they do, they make use of people incapable of protest. The dead… The defeated… They come in many forms.”
According to this light novel, history is just a web of lies crafted to glorify the powerful by taking advantage of those who can’t share their side of the story. I think that’s a fairly typical depiction of this cynical attitude toward history. And I want to burn it.
The best examples I can give are from early U.S. history, since that’s what I’ve studied the most. For example, who wrote about the American War of Independence? Well, as you might guess, Americans (the “winners”) did. But that’s not all. There are many accounts of the war by the British, their Hessian allies, Tories (people of the colonies who remained loyal to Britain), etc. It’s especially amusing to read the memoirs of various defeated British generals; they try to paint themselves in a positive light and make excuses for why they weren’t more successful. And despite these sources being written by the perceived “losers,” American historians use them in research. I know because I, an American and a historian, have used them.
It’s even more true that “losers” write the “history” when we look at the American Civil War. Unrepentant white southerners created an extensive mythology (often termed the Lost Cause) relating to the war. Starting almost as soon as the war ended, white southerners made extensive efforts to falsify why they rebelled and started the war, what slavery was like and how enslaved black southerners truly felt about it, and why the Confederacy lost. Confusion wrought by the postwar writings of these former Confederates lingers even today. The losers were so successful at embedding their version of “history” in popular culture that historians are still fighting to correct it. Ironically, white southerners themselves provided a lot of the ammunition necessary to attack the Lost Cause. You see, they ramped up their mythologizing after losing the war… but their writings from before and during the war were a lot more honest. (If you want to hear more truth about the CSA and the American Civil War from a professional historian, I’m would be happy to discuss it further on Twitter.)
There’s an episode of the 2018 version of GeGeGe no Kitaro that pretty clearly indicates this problem of losers writing history is relevant to Japan—specifically, Japan’s involvement in World War II. (For example, the Japanese have long resisted acknowledging the terrible evils Imperial Japan committed in Korea and China.) In the aforementioned anime episode, while visiting a Pacific island (possibly New Guinea), average Japanese schoolgirl Mana is shocked to find a grave marker with a Japanese inscription. She doesn’t understand why Japanese soldiers would have been fighting and dying on an island so far from Japan. A surprised Daddy Eyeball asks the question:
Mana’s confused response makes clear that her school only taught her a sanitized shadow of the war’s history. For instance, she’s surprised to hear that Japan attacked countries like Britain and America. The episode as a whole comes across as a critique of how the war is remembered in Japan. In other words, it’s saying that despite being the unequivocal loser of the Pacific War, Japan has managed to invent it’s own doctored, self-serving version of “history.”
So in the first place, “losers” have written quite a lot of “history,” but in addition, the winners-write-history paradigm collapses in the face of how history actually gets written. “History” starts with primary sources: eyewitness, contemporary accounts written close to the time of historical events by people directly connected to those events. The literate write primary sources. Not winners. Not losers. Just anybody capable of writing. If primary sources are overwhelmingly slanted toward one side of a conflict, it’s probably because the other side was largely illiterate and/or because the events happened so long ago that relatively few documents have survived the ravages of time.
And then there are secondary sources. These are the sort of history books with which you’re probably more familiar. Secondary sources are written by historians who analyze and synthesize the primary sources, piecing them together to see the big picture and create larger narratives. Historians strive to take into account the biases of their sources, and by consulting numerous primary sources, they can detect inaccuracies. This is aided by the reality that historians are distant in time from the people and events they study. For example, am I one of the winners of the American Civil War, or one of the losers? Well, the war ended more than 150 years ago, long before I even existed. There’s no logical basis for thinking of myself as being on the either side.
The idea that history is written by the winners to make themselves look good and slander their helpless victims is a simplistic justification for cynicism. “Now let me be clear,” historians are quite fallible, but “winners-write-history” isn’t a substantive critique. It’s merely a glib excuse to dismiss history without even examining the arguments or the primary sources on which those arguments are based. Fulfilling what Jean-Luc Picard termed our “duty” to “historical truth” requires that we put aside the fallacious winners-write-history paradigm, and instead face the real human complexities of the past.
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