History Is Written By The Victors
Have you ever wondered what our world history would look like from the loser’s perspective?
I often wonder what our interpretation of the world would look like now if history had turned out a little differently.
Alternative history TV shows are not new. The Man in the High Castle is the most recent example, with an alternate world where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan win World War 2. Although the concept is not new, there are many aspects of our world history today that has been directly shaped by who has told the story.
Have you ever noticed that the most commonly used world map has Europe at the centre?
This is due to European colonisation and subsequent dominance.
All Roads Lead to Rome
What’s more, is that a lot of our understanding of world history comes from the writing of mostly western elites. The Ancient Romans are particular perpetrators of this. My favourite example of this is The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, which is a scandalous account of the lives of Rome’s 12 Emperors (starting with Julius Caesar and ending with Domitian).
Ironically, this is where we get most of our most famous Roman Emperor stories:
- Caligula making his horse a senator
- Nero playing the lute while Rome burned
- Domitian’s tyrannical rule
Although it is an amazing source material it’s important to remember that Suetonius was personal secretary to the Emperor Hadrian and had worked for Trajan before that. This would have been decades after most of these emperors had died and they were probably written with an agenda.
And yet its content is often cited as true fact. Would it have been written differently under Caligula or even Constantine, the last Roman Emperor of the west?
Telling a Story
You can also see it in movies and textbooks when a certain re-telling of a historical event can be interpreted in different ways. As an American living abroad, it’s always strange to see what what other countries call the American Revolution.
Here’s an interesting article about how other countries learn about the American Revolution in school if you’re interested.
World War 2 also has a hotly contested narrative. Each country involved tends to tell the outcome differently. A great example of this on the TV show, The Americans (which I LOVE, by the way). There’s a scene between in Episode 5 of Season 6 where the daughter, Paige, is told what World War 2 was like from the perspective of the Soviets. A different image entirely from red, white, and blue patriotic narrative that is often told in the U.S.
Similarly, I’m sure that schools in Japan tell a much more sobering story on the outcome of the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945 than above.
Alternative history or not, it’s always interesting to think about what might have been!