All history is rewritten; the choice is over how to do it

I am a historian by training, so you might expect me to instinctively favour of arguments about how ‘we mustn’t airbrush history’ and ‘we mustn’t edit history to meet current values’.

But two things strike me about those who say this when a contemporary controversy comes up.

First, history is already massively edited. Too much has happened for it not to be. That’s why there isn’t a statue of me as a 4 year-old. History has been edited already to leave that out as irrelevant and trivial.

Saying ‘we mustn’t edit history’ is asking for the impossible. The question is how to edit it, not whether or not to edit it.

Hence you get them shouting out in defence of statues put up long after people had died in order to rewrite their own role in history (hello, Edward Colston). Those protesting about somehow changing history frequently are actually defending a previous deliberate alteration.

And yet also the same people are usually very much at the back of the queue when it comes to fixing previous really bad editing of history, such as the common pattern of editing out of history the contributions of women.

If you want to love history, that’s great. But remember, what was in the history textbooks when you were a child was not a perfect version to be preserved at all costs. It was just the history as was when you were at school. Not the perfect history for all time.


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5 responses to “All history is rewritten; the choice is over how to do it”

  1. The old truism “The winners and conquerors write history” is undoubtedly true.

    After a war or conquest, those coming out on top have the honour of writing the story of what they perceived to have happened.

    Understandably, a very positive picture will be painted of what happened during the conflict and anything which doesn’t fit within this narrative will be ignored. Similarly, the vanquished side of the story will not be recorded – not for a long time after at any rate.

    So I have never truly believed accounts of these events, our heroic victories and the way we spread good all over the world, without at least trying to see what the defeated party has to say about it.

    When, finally , we learn about some of the less savoury things we did during these events, there is a reluctance to rewrite the relevant history books.

    History is not generally written in these cases from a neutral perspective. This can cause a feeling of injustice in the future, as is obviously the case now.

    • “The old truism “The winners and conquerors write history” is undoubtedly true.”

      Oh really? Ever heard of lost cause revisionism?

      Even though the Confederacy lost the American civil war pro-South narratives ( that pain the CSA in good light and minimise the role of slavery in causing the war) of the conflict proliferate to this very day.

  2. To give one example of this…
    I am lucky to have been part of a generation of kids who were allowed to play out with our mates without adult supervision.
    Me and my friends used to love watching Westerns, and we used to play “Cowboys and Indians”. Everyone wanted to be a cowboy (portrayed in Westerns as the “goodies”) and no-one wanted to be an Indian (portayed as the “baddies”).
    Gradually, as we grew up, we realised that the perceptions of who were the goodies and baddies was 180 degrees out of sinc with the reality.

  3. I was always taught that what happened previously wass the past and could not be changed. It happened. History is what we know of the past, written down (and now in more modern idioms), and oftern imperfect. Thus when I look at my book collection, I realise that the books I bought thirty and forty years ago may still be a good read, maybe of use for reference to get you started, but the recorded contents have often been overtaken by more recent publications based on deeper reasearch. Therefor this debate about rewriting history is a myth. We have through the centuries rewritten history, or should I say our understanding of the past, as knowledge grows, social attitudes change, and we acknowledge that the behaviour of our ancesters would not have been accepted in today’s world. It is good to know of the past, but not to glorify it, for whatever reason, if that brings harm into the present.

  4. The truth lies between these two arguments. Of course the victors rewrite history, the more so the more complete and ruthless their victory was. The Union executed just one Confederate for what he did (the commandant of a notorious POW camp). The losers were left able to write their versions without censorship. History created a market for Southern apologism. The defeat of Native Americans was much more complete and their culture was not via the written word anyway. Nonetheless, few Americans now would agree with the characterisation as evil savages and there’s plenty of History and Archaeology devoted to a symapthetic study of their culture. The truth has a way of seeping out.

    Facts is indeed sacred and respecting the facts is a key part of Liberalism; but historians choose, in the light of what they thing important at the time, what facts to highlight. An historian in 1860 would not have placed stress on the wastefulness and non-renewable aspects of industrial processes developed in the 18th and 19th centuries: one now might well do.

    The Allies won the First World War, but as the horrors of the war were fully realised, an orthodoxy grew up by which victory was pointless. Misapplication of the lessons from that in the 1930s led to a further revision. Nonetheless, a good historian will always be aware that perceptions are likely to change again.

    Read a good historian like Mary Beard and she’s always questioning the received accounts – for example, pointing out that the emperors who got assassinated all have a bad press and those who avoided this fate get a better deal from the records.

    What is common and wrong is failing to take any account of circumstances at the time. Thus someone who challenged slavery may be described as racist because (s)he made assumptions general at the time, but discredited now; and a politician trying to push things in one direction is condemned for not going the whole way, though (s)he rightly judged that would be impossible at the time.

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