History Written By the Winners?

A recent conversation with a coworker about my seminary studies of history brought to mind the cliché “History is written by the winners.” I think this was the point he was trying to make with me without saying it in so many words and, of course, it got me thinking…

This saying has enough truth in it to pass for wisdom on a superficial level. Supposedly those who come out “on top” in the struggles of history are the ones who get to write about it. We never get to hear the “losers” side of the story. To a certain extent this is true and it’s something any good student of history ought to take into account when considering sources. We must be careful and weigh the evidence for any conclusions we draw from history. But how well does it serve as a general principle?

Some people seem to use this cliché as a basis for taking liberties with our understanding and interpretation of history, justifying their own rewriting of it and deflecting criticism from those who take the study and presentation of history more seriously. Dan Brown appears to do this when asked why some of the history in his best selling novel, The Davinci Code, contradicts what we may have learned in school. Rather than asking what we should believe, Brown suggests we first ask, “How historically accurate is history itself?” (See his “Q &A” page on The Davinci Code at his web site.) Anyone else smell smoke? What is Brown trying to tell us? That we can’t really trust any historical record because, by definition, it was written by the “winners” and we don’t have the whole story? When documents written by the “losers” turn up are they inherently more trustworthy? Is it pointless to try and weigh the likelihood of historical events based on the evidence? Is historical fiction as good as, or indistinguishable from, historical fact?

When I hear that “history is written by the winners”, it is more often than not an attempt to brush aside a commonly held view of history and justify an alternate view without going to the trouble of weighing and arguing the evidence. It is certainly not a comprehensive statement. Take any slice of history and many of today’s “winners” were at one time or another, yesterday’s “losers”. How does the statement apply to the history of the Jews, for example? The Jews are probably the most persecuted and oppressed people in history. Yet, not only have they survived as a distinct people over several millennia, their historical record is probably the most complete and reliable of any people. One evidence of its reliability is that it records the humiliating events of jewish history as well as the glorious ones. Why? I think Paul Johnson summed it up well in the prologue to his book, A History of the Jews: “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny” (p. 2). History is written (and studied) by those who think that history is important. Whether they are considered historical winners or losers by our standards is really a peripheral issue.

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