Thought: Who Writes History?

Everyone knows the canard “History is written by the winners.” Few people ever point that it’s sheer nonsense. Are there no Confederate histories of the American Civil War? No British histories of the American Revolution? No Christian histories of the Crusades? The greatest of all historians – Thucydides – wrote from the point of view of the losing side of the Peloponnesian War.

History isn’t written by the victors; it’s written by people who write history. That may sound like a tautology, but it’s really not. The key point is that who writes history is whoever has the inclination or skill to do so, which means it’s written by the vanquished as often as by the victor (depending on whether the conquered culture has a tradition of writing, written accounts, and so on). People read history from their own cultural POV, which means they tend to read works that tell the story of their own culture. By definition, it’s one that has survived thus far. Most people, therefore, read history from the point of view of ‘victors’ in one sense or another.

For instance, a Frenchman will typically read history from the perspective of modern French culture. He will thus take the tacit position of the ‘victor’ in the sense of the figures and events that ultimately lead to the current position he finds himself in. But this isn’t a ‘victor’ in the sense that he would only see the British POV of the Battle of Waterloo or Trafalger. In a more real sense, his history will have been written by the losers of the Napoleonic Wars, Franco-Prussian War, and so on. He reads that point of view because it is his point of view, just as a Prussian would read the same history from the POV of the victor, not because history is written by the victors, but because that is his point of view.

In other words, the idea that history is written by the victors is, at best, an optical illusion based on how history is generally read by the common man.

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