The past is told by those who win


Staff member
"The past is told by those who win."

What do you think about this saying. What historical "facts" do you think may or may not be biased, based on who recorded them?

In ancient Egypt (and I'm sure other civilizations), one of the punishments for people would be erasing their name from history. They would burn documents and writings with any record of certain people in them.

Do you think the bias of history has had a good or bad effect on what we can learn from it?


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When the conquerers write history, they often do a poor job of justifying themselves to their descendants. We aren't overly sympathetic with the conquest of South America and slaughter of the native peoples under the pretense of some holy mandate. It just looks to us like they committed genocide for gold. So we can be thankful that conquering peoples and persons aren't overly clever, at the very least.

Treating history like something of a science--with a degree of neutrality being expected in historical accounts--is a relatively new concept, and we can be further thankful that bias is open and evident in most older texts. Better that writers be frank in their bias, than feign objectivity while pushing lies of omission or just outright lies. The problem of course being that we wouldn't know if we were being bamboozled by some brilliantly written bunch of lies with an extensive cover up of the truth.

I do think we have to say that any loss of information and absence of certain perspectives in the record is highly unfortunate.
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Registered Member
That's a very interesting question, and I think I have not given appropriate thought to it yet. So my first reaction is to say it's absolutely correct. Winners write history.

For example, an extreme example that comes to my mind is the German one: Due to losing WW2, we have an extreme burden of guilt due to the Holocaust, because we were forced to face our crimes. But if Nazi Germany had won WW2, the Holocaust would not be a topic today. Probably, the full extent of the crimes would have been covered, even if the Nazi regime had collapsed or reformed later, and at best it would be remembered as a few massacres, a bad side effect of a just war (much like the American Holocaust on Native Americans as a minor flipside of the American dream). You can see that in case of Spain, where the fascist regime (although not responsible for crimes of the magnitude of the Holocaust) is still glorified by many supporters of the moderate right, because it was not defeated, but slightly reformed to democracy. Statues of Spain's fascist leader Franco are still standing -- unthinkable in Germany.

For that nobody gets me wrong, I am glad it's the way it is in Germany.

But often, struggles and wars are wars between ideologies and worldviews. So it's not just that "winners write history", in the sense they actually falsify history, but it's more a matter of interpretation and focus. The winning ideology determines the mainstream interpretation and focus on certain aspects of history, rather than obviously falsifying it.


In need of Entertainment
The ones in control are the ones who right history. I suppose if you look at it as a winning/losing situation then, yes it is a correct saying.

In a way it's frustrating that history is written in a biased way, after all it's history and the facts won't be changed just because you report it neutrally.


Staff member
Well I'm not just talking about facts being reported neutrally. What about in more ancient history when there's much less third party validation for the details of an event?

What if the causes of entire wars that changed the face of history were fabricated after the fact by the winning side? What if the side that won was really to blame for causing a war and after wiping out their enemies, simply wrote down that the other side invaded their cities, raping and pillaging as they went?

It's possible. Basically think of how there are always multiple sides to a story. What if you only ever heard one side? Would you assume you heard it right or would you assume for a margin of error? See what I mean?


Registered Member
It's possible. Basically think of how there are always multiple sides to a story. What if you only ever heard one side? Would you assume you heard it right or would you assume for a margin of error? See what I mean?
There's not a single eye-witness account that isn't biased in some way, or at least coloured by the observer's background, social status, religion, etc.
The first thing you learn in college is not to trust ANYONE or ANYTHING. Doing research in history is like researching a murder, only by piecing together tiny bits of evidence you get a chance of understanding what really took place. Historians go by what is logical to them, not so much by what they hear or read in eye-witness accounts.

The best example is perhaps the portrayal of the Vikings. In Western-Europe known for pillaging, raping and burning churches (based on accounts written by monks), in South and Eastern-Europe as traders, brave warriors (they served as the elite-guard of the Roman emperor in Constantinople) and as the founders of the Russian nation and in the US and Canada as explorers & adventurers.
These stereotypes are still very persistent in popular culture, but in scholarly works there's much more room for nuance and new interpretations.


Endangered Species
One of my favourite quotes that would be perfect in a thread like this:

"History will be kind to me as I intend to write it" - Winston Churchill

Like has been said before our history is more often than not a presumption that what we have been told is true. Often source material is by the victors or the educated, the Romans were good at this, the British were good at this, most of the great empires embelished the stories they wanted to be heard and manipulated or disregarded the ones that brought them shame. According to the history books; Europeans were apparently uncivilised barbarians before the Romans came along. The Philistines of the middle east were well "philistines" all of which is untrue. Most of what we know is what we were told, even in the present day current affairs we can take most of history in writting as being falsified some how.

Here is a queastion for you that you probably know: Who was America named after?

BBC - History - The Naming of America

NB: If it were named after Amerigo Vespucci it would of been called Vespuccia


In need of Entertainment
But that's just the point. History has probably rewritten several times, each time changing according to the one in control over the records at the time.
That's why you have inconsistancies in accounts of history.

What I was saying that it's a shame that history wasn't written as fact - as to what really happened, to report it neutrally. Meaning that the ones in control wouldn't change the records of the accounts.

Most of written history is true but completely biased and there's no way to know the dry facts of it.


/ˈɪzəˌbɛl/ pink 5
I've had experience with history falsely presented with the way they endorsed specific history textbooks in my primary/secondary school, only to find out when I got into the university that they're way biased and written by people who had the agenda to make certain parties appear more heroic. The thing is, they're often the mainstream accepted version (Boredie is right that the ones in control are the ones who write the story) and the rest looks like a conspiracy and revolutionary version (I know it isn't because, thank goodness for the availability of global information and archives in the internet later on, I verified it using other sources).

Anyway, subjectivity will always play a role once you have historical accounts that require interpretation (not just statistics). It's possible to have many versions of an event. It doesn't mean that one has to be right and the other wrong. Maybe they were both right, but they just viewed and tell history from different perspectives.


Registered Member
Hey Hybrix have you ever read 1984 because a large part of what made it great was something like this. The Party could go back and rewrite whatever they wanted to make it seem like they were always right, that everything they did was justified.

Some battles in the past may have had completely different reasons for being.