“History is written by the victors” — true?

Clichés are often over-generalizations for rhetorical purposes. “History is written by the victors” is punchy, but it is too often a cynical dismissal of objectivity in history. So here is the beginnings of a list of influential history books that do not fit the cliché:

* Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE) was an Athenian’s account of a long war (431–404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta. The Spartans won.

* Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) was not written by one of the victorious barbarians.

* Friedrich Meinecke’s The German Catastrophe (1946) was a hugely influential work, nationally and internationally, by a German thinker grappling with his homeland’s disastrous record.

American examples would include the many histories written by southerners after the Civil War and the outpouring of post-Vietnam War books by U.S. historians.

Feel welcome in the Comments to add to the list.

3 thoughts on ““History is written by the victors” — true?

  • January 11, 2018 at 11:03 am
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    Barbara Tuchmans a “distant mirror “

  • January 11, 2018 at 8:07 pm
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    Years ago I met a pleasant, intelligent Turkish guy studying at the University of Toronto. What do you think he was studying? You guessed it: Middle Eastern history.

    Said back home and neighbouring countries every historical narrative is distorted by the biases and propaganda needs of the political elites e.g. “Saddam, direct descendent of the prophet”, etc. He felt Westerners were not so entangled and had a greater interest in obtaining an objective understanding of the subject.

  • January 12, 2018 at 9:08 am
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    I think it depends. In the past, a lot of historical documents only presented the victor’s perspective–folks write from the perspective of the culture they’re in, after all, and victors tended to not treat conquered people kindly. Rome was an exception, allowing the conquered people to maintain their own culture and even adopting some of the gods of other cultures into their pantheons (Rome was notorious for praying to the gods of their enemies on the eve of battle, too!).

    In contrast, modern history is written from an outsider’s perspective. None of us are Romans, or Visigoths, or Jacobians, or Sumarians. So we don’t favor one side or the other, or at least do so to a far lesser degree than folks did in the past. Plus, history is augmented with archaeology. History is a science now, one that makes testable claims and puts those claims to the test.

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