Opinion: The truth about history: Do the victors truly write our history nowadays?

"The victors will write the history of this war." -- Adolph Hitler "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." -- Winston Churchill It's hard to imagine much on which Hitler and Churchill would have agreed on in life, but here, apparen...

"The victors will write the history of this war."

-- Adolph Hitler

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

-- Winston Churchill

It's hard to imagine much on which Hitler and Churchill would have agreed on in life, but here, apparently, is one. History writers, revisionists, and amateur demagogues abbreviate the sentiment as 'the victors write history.'


It is an idea hard to argue with, of course, but it is also profoundly disconcerting because it calls into question entirely the ability of people today to know what really did happen in the past. If what we understand as history is simply a compilation of the biased twaddle of whoever came out on top then how can we really know anything about our own past?

A contemporary critic of history books has a similar though variant view of history and those who write it.

Professor Larry Schweikart of the University of Dayton, a dyed in the wool conservative (author of "48 Liberal Lies..."), was featured recently on Fox News with his complaint that many American history textbooks being used in public and private schools across the nation include not only gross inaccuracies but factual errors intentionally made in order to serve a specific political agenda.

This is hardly new. Minority groups for at least the last 40 years have argued that schoolroom history books acted as if they never existed. Some feminists of a few decades ago symbolically abandoned history altogether as so hopelessly misogynistic that it could only be kicked to the curb and replaced by "herstory."

Some time ago, over a Christmas holiday, my brother and I were arguing about the ability to "prove" that historical events had occurred. (This is what happens at my house when there aren't enough football games on TV.)

We had been flipping the channels and stopped on one long enough to hear one of those nitwit Holocaust deniers. Even though we both know full well that the Holocaust had indeed happened, we began to argue about how you could prove it since neither he nor I, both being too young, had witnessed the event. That was when my father interrupted and told us that of course it had happened.

Yes, we argued, but how could you prove it?

To which he responded, "Well, because I saw it, a few days after the liberation of one of the camps." He then went on to describe the stacks of bodies, the stench, the ovens, the disbelief. And my brother and I, for once in our loquacious lives, shut up and listened.


But now my father is gone and the millions of men and women who fought with him in the great crusade that was World War II are passing alarmingly quickly as well. Is it really possible that with their passing our ability to assert that the abomination that was the Holocaust really happened will pass as well? If one historian can argue that the founding fathers were the paragons of western civilization while another views them as slave-holding misers whose main purpose for revolting against Great Britain was to protect their property rights, can we really hope for any objectivity or accuracy in history?

Schweikart, to return to a contemporary for moment, laments the inaccuracies of school history texts. But perhaps his fears can soon be set aside for textbooks, themselves, are beginning to pass into history. With the omnipresence of the Internet and the flooding of American schools with laptops, more and more history teachers are abandoning the lock-step textbook in favor of more challenging content on the Web.

Why read a bowdlerized account, say, of World War II with its sterile litany of battles, dates and political figures when you could instead visit a myriad of relevant Web sites on individual events and issues, woven together by the expertise and passion of a great history teacher?

I don't suspect, however, that this really solves the issue. If a biased textbook writer can attempt to lead students astray with unfair interpretations of historical events, how much more so could a lone teacher do the same simply through selection of Web sites, clever argument, and surgical excision of unfriendly content.

And so, I really have no solution. There certainly is objective truth even in such a potentially divisive field as history. But getting to it is anything but easy. It probably isn't true anymore that the victors write history. If Schweikart is right -- and the evidence on the Internet is overwhelmingly in his favor -- then today it may be that whoever is a history writer writes history. A truism, yes, but one with a great deal of meaning.

If may even be that objective reality in history is becoming harder to find than ever.

To paraphrase another Churchillian quip, it may be that such truth is more and more like "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

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