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A Swede in Germany

History is written by the victors—for a time

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Sometimes a saying can come close to the truth and still miss the point.

A good example is “history is written by the victors”, where the truth is that “history is written by those in control” or, more generally, “the X is determined by those in control”. (Where “X” can be e.g. “historiography”,* “narrative”, “debate”; where “control” should be taken in a wide sense; and where the question “Control of what?” can have different answers. Cf. below. For simplicity of formulation and examples, I will focus on the original in this text—notwithstanding that a great many examples of e.g. control of narrative can be found in recent years.)

*See [1] for some remarks on the words “historiography” and “revisionis[tm]”.

Certainly, the victors are usually in control—but only for a time and often with other restrictions, e.g. in terms of geography, risk of subversion, inability to control the narrative, whatnot. Consider e.g. how the WWI victors tried to paint WWI as almost exclusively Germany’s fault, but the “Dolchstoßlegende” still thrived and helped Hitler gain power.*

*That the WWII historiography, even within Germany, went much more strictly down the Allied line is likely a mixture of the far greater control that the victors had over Germany and a greater realisation of the importance of propaganda and control of narrative. (The actual level of Germany culpability for the wars is, while not unimportant, secondary in this specific context.)

More generally, even victors of wars are rarely sufficiently dominantly victorious to have a long-term control over the historiography of the vanquished—and their control over the historiography of neutrals and allies might often only be indirect. At least in the past, the historiography of the same events in different countries could be radically different in light of local perspectives, what served the local regime, who was in local control, etc.*

*A significant upside of this was that those interested could always gain access to more than one take on a certain event or development, allowing them to form their own opinions, to expose fraudulent takes, and to synthesize different takes for a better approximation of the truth/a more complete picture. Today, this opportunity is lessened, especially as the local aspect is replaced by an ideological drive that supersedes the quest for truth and is too often the same in different works and in different countries.

Looking within a country, even victory in a war can be given a different spin over time, as e.g. a new ideological or social group grows dominant or as the perception of what historiography has the greatest pragmatical* benefit changes.** Consider e.g. various views of the U.S. Civil War over time, the apparent systematic campaign by the current U.S. Left to turn every single Southerner of old into an irredeemably evil racist and supporter of slavery; how the issue of secession, and who was in the right or the wrong regarding secession, is increasingly drowned out and ignored; and how the U.S. Democrats were, in that day, the pro-slavery party and, later, the “Jim Crow” party, while the current propaganda line appears to be “we Democrats are pro-Black and anti-slavery—we have always been pro-Black and anti-slavery” and “them Republicans are anti-Black and pro-slavery—they have always been anti-Black and pro-slavery”.***

*Usually, but not necessarily, in the sense of “how do we get the masses to do what we want them to do”.

**It might also change, of course, through a progress in research, but here the big picture tends to change only very slowly, changes are, I suspect, more likely for events further back in time, and this type of change is off topic. However, it seems quite likely that changes to historiography that arise through on-topic causes are presented as arising from a genuine change of scientific understanding—no matter the truth. In the case of e.g. the infamous “1619 Project” the intent appears to be not just to manipulate public opinion through revisionist historiography—but also to remodel the field of history…

***Something not just historically ridiculous, but something offensive even in the now: Firstly, Democrats largely seem to view Blacks as a source of votes and other types of political support—nothing more, nothing less. Secondly, Democrat politics appear to have been very bad for the Black population. (The “pro-slavery” part in the now is slightly hyperbolic, in that such accusations are rare, if, sadly, not unheard of. The inclusion is mostly for reasons of symmetry. However, both the past “pro-slavery” and the current “anti-black” are quite real.)

Consider the fictional abuse of history in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”: The constant revisionism was enabled by control, not victory. Indeed, if the apparent* situation is taken at face value, victory would not have been welcomed, as it would have lessened the excuses available to keep a strict control.

*My last reading is quite a few years back, but I suspect that no actual proof was ever given that external enemies existed. Theoretically, then, we could have had a continual stream of false-flag attacks to create the impression of an enemy. If someone has sufficient control over the available news reporting, narrative, whatnot, this would not have been that hard to pull off. (Which gives a good example of a non-historiographical control over something to a similar effect as historiographical control.)

Similarly, looking at the real and current world, whoever controls the propagation of historical knowledge or “knowledge”, e.g. through media, publishing, and schools can pretty much dictate what is considered the truth about history—even when the actual truth is something very different. Other takes on history might well be present in older works, especially printed ones, but how often will they be read relative newer works? Will not schools and colleges prioritize newer works over older? (And, in as far as older works are read, note how the modern Left follows an apparently systematic approach of condemning almost everything old as wrong, racist, whatnot, implying that the reader might be inoculated into discounting dissent without actually checking the facts.) Also see an excursion on digital books and censorship.

A good recent example is how the losers of the COVID-debacle proclaim themselves the victors—and, largely, get away with it because they are in control: We now know e.g. that the lockdowns were a horribly misguided mistake, which wrecked the economy for nothing and might well have cost more lives than the (very few) they might or might not have saved. The lockdown proponents have thoroughly lost—but they still make extremely contrafactual claims about the lockdowns saving millions of lives (and what a pity that we did not lock down earlier and harder!). Unfortunately, now as then, they control the narrative, if less completely than in the past, and too large portions of the uninformed masses actually believe them.

Also note how such distortions can affect comparatively small issues, but where the sum of many such small issues can be quite large. Consider e.g. the actual historical constellation of Charles Babbage as an important inventor and innovator, with Ada Lovelace as his assistant, vs. the sometime Feminist “Ada Lovelace! First programmer! Superstar! Women rule at STEM! (Well, yes, there was some Dead White Man helping her with the hardware, but he doesn’t really count.)”. Taken alone, this might be both anti-historical and highly unfair, but it has a comparatively small effect. Pull the same stunt a hundred times over in various* forms and the effect can be quite large.

*Consider simply giving mention to women, Blacks, and whatnot from the second string while being quiet on White men from the first string, giving the first woman to achieve a certain accomplishment more space in a text than the first human (who was typically a man), and similar. Note the old joke on Soviet propaganda about the noble Soviets finishing second and the lazy capitalist pigs of the U.S. second-but-last in a sports event—where the crucial detail that there were only two competitors is left out.

Excursion on digital books and censorship:
Fortunately, DRM and similar trickery around eBooks (and other digital works) seems to be on the retreat. However, this could change again and there have already been cases of e.g. Amazon unilaterally deleting books from the devices of its customers. A future is easily imaginable where, in addition to controlling initial distribution/publishing/whatnot, certain actors could retroactively control what already distributed works remain accessible. In a next step, dissenting voices could easily and retroactively be removed—and, truly horrifying, there might be some automatic rule that works are removed or rendered unreadable in a blanket manner, say, ten years after publishing, ensuring that the available writings on various topics are always compatible with a reasonable current (literal or metaphorical) party line. (Incidentally, this would also “solve” one of the problems of the publishing industry—that ever more quality works of old are available for free and reduce the potential market share for new and still copyrighted material.)

This could to some degree be combatted by e.g. printing hard copies, but, as time changes and as the world becomes more digitalized, the effect of that grows lesser. At the same time, the barriers against e.g. printing a PDF document (or its future equivalents) might grow preventively large.

Similarly, we might well find that some combination of manual and AI interventions cause old books to be automatically revised to fit a certain agenda or new “truth”. Note the already great prevalence of such manual intervention in re-publishing of older works (cf. e.g. [2]), let alone what might currently take place between authors and publisher during editing of new works.

Excursion on fiction and history:
An interesting twist is that the view of history that most modern Westerners hold consists more of fictional portrayals than of actual historiography. In a next step, many of these fictional portrayals are quite incorrect, e.g. through unwarranted speculation, political slanting, attempts to be more entertaining, whatnot—and they naturally underlie less scrutiny and are less vulnerable to criticism. Chances are that if we managed to rid ourselves of ideologically driven historical revisionism within the field of history, the broad masses would still fall for the same lies, as these lies would simply be moved into fiction (to an even higher degree than today).

As a counterpoint, older historiography often tried to combine a telling of history with entertainment or to use history as a vehicle to illustrate this-or-that lesson or to set some example, and might have been closer to modern “historical fiction” than to ideal historiography.

Excursion on manipulation of the educated:
Over the last few years, I have repeatedly heard claims amounting to some variation of “the educated are more easily led,* because they are more exposed to propaganda”, and I find the conclusion hard to avoid in light of the world that we live in. It simply seems to be the case that very few of the allegedly educated have both the ability and the willingness to think sufficiently critically about the information or “information” that they are exposed to. We might then have one in a hundred who arrives at the right conclusions for a good reason, nineteen in a hundred who reach the wrong conclusions for a bad reason (propaganda), and eighty in a hundred who are randomly divided between drawing the right conclusions for a bad reason (ignorance) and drawing the wrong conclusions for a bad reason (ignorance, again). Guess where we find the average new college graduate.

*The etymology of “educated” (“led out”) is interesting here, but this is likely a coincidence.

Excursion on Mencken:
I seem to recall that one or two of the claims mentioned in the previous excursion were by Mencken, but I could not in short order find an example. However, generally, there seems to be a Mencken quote for everything that is wrong with the world, humanity, politics, government, attitudes towards free speech, compliance, whatnot, as it is today, which shows how little true progress has taken place since his days (and, maybe, how pointless it is to discuss the problems of the world: the nineteen from above ignore or condemn-as-evil the one and the eighty do not know of him in the first place). While I do not agree with Mencken on all counts (his view of women appears too positive, e.g.), he shows an immense understanding and, I suspect, that he would have viewed the developments of the COVID-countermeasure era as predictable.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 18, 2023 at 11:55 pm

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