I was thinking about that old aphorism the other day, “History is written by the winners.” It is one of those self-evident truisms taught in high school history classes. But I think it’s misdirection. How can that be?
The reason it’s misdirection is because of the way it’s used. We usually use it to refer to a situation where there is a clear conflict or war and one side wins. They get to write the history books, to define which side in the conflict was justified, who attacked who, why, and otherwise re-interpret or invent the historical facts to make themselves look good.
I poked around a bit trying to find out who said it ‘originally,’ and it seems to have been attributed to Churchill, Hitler, Napoleon, Machiavelli, and Orwell. But they all used it in the same way. Orwell is a good example. Here in this 1944 entry in a column he wrote for The Tribune, he writes:
Out of the millions of instances which must be available, I will choose one which happens to be veriﬁable. During part of 1941 and 1942, when the Luftwaffe was busy in Russia, the German radio regaled its home audiences with stories of devastating air raids on London. Now, we are aware that those raids did not happen. But what use would our knowledge be if the Germans conquered Britain? For the purposes of a future historian, did those raids happen, or didn’t they? The answer is: If Hitler survives, they happened, and if he falls they didn’t happen. So with innumerable other events of the past ten or twenty years. Is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a genuine document? Did Trotsky plot with the Nazis? How many German aeroplanes were shot down in the Battle of Britain? Does Europe welcome the New Order? In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is ﬁnally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners.
Note his emphasis on ‘physical struggle.’ He then goes on to use this comparison to sell a big lie about the honesty of the press in a ‘free’ country:
In the last analysis our only claim to victory is that if we win the war we shall tell fewer lies about it than our adversaries. The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.
So by contrasting Britain to the totalitarian German regime, he is selling the public on the notion that their government, their rulers, care more for the truth — to an extent. Basically the same misdirection he was selling with 1984. He concludes:
I still don’t envy the future historian’s job. Is it not a strange commentary on our time that even the casualties in the present war cannot be estimated within several millions?
Few of us would find it strange, but it is certainly revealing. Yet even as he admits to the mundane wartime propaganda of exaggerating casualty counts, he drills in the biggest lie: that England and Germany were really mortal enemies–one a free democracy, the other a totalitarian dictatorship–and fighting a war for their very existence. When in reality both countries were being controlled by the same masters who were orchestrating the war behind the scenes. (See for example Anthony Sutton’s Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler.)
But let’s cut to the chase, shall we? We are taught to think of the phrase “history is written by the winners” as referring to a situation of open war or conflict, where one side is a clear winner. As when Orwell referred to ‘physical struggle.’ In that case, the loser will retain some collective memory that there was a war–a memory that cannot be easily erased but can be shaped to suit the narrative of the winner. But, what happens when the conflict is not fought out in the open–if we didn’t know we were at war? If it the struggle is not physical but takes place behind the scenes over the course of centuries. How would we know that we lost? If history is really written by the winners, then why would they even let us know we had been conquered? Wouldn’t it be better to erase any trace of it? Or, wouldn’t they want us to think, in fact, that we had triumphed?