History is written by the winners. And Europeans are losing.
There are a lot of people to whom the quote “history is written by the winners” is attributed to. Winston Churchill frequently pops up in the context of a discussion that he had with Stalin on how they would be remembered by history. Another is George Orwell, the writer of “1984” and “Animal Farm”.
In February 1944, Orwell wrote an article in the Tribune, where he was a regular columnist, that includes the line “History is written by the winners.”
In the article he described his concern that history is unreliable as it is typically written by the victors in a conflict and that the losers have their point of view written out of the narrative or distorted. Orwell participated in the Spanish Civil War and he wrote:
During the Spanish civil war I found myself feeling very strongly that a true history of this war never would or could be written. Accurate ﬁgures, objective accounts of what was happening, simply did not exist. And if I felt that even in 1937, when the Spanish Government was still in being, and the lies which the various Republican factions were telling about each other and about the enemy were relatively small ones, how does the case stand now? Even if Franco is overthrown, what kind of records will the future historian have to go upon? And if Franco or anyone at all resembling him remains in power, the history of the war will consist quite largely of “facts” which millions of people now living know to be lies. One of these “facts”, for instance, is that there was a considerable Russian army in Spain. There exists the most abundant evidence that there was no such army. Yet if Franco remains in power, and if Fascism in general survives, that Russian army will go into the history books and future school children will believe in it. So for practical purposes the lie will have become truth.
He went on to say that:
This kind of thing is happening all the time. Out of the milions 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 devestating 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.
History Future Now thought about George Orwell’s comments at a recent TEDx talk held at Eton, England, on 14th March 2017. Misan Sagay, a black British screen writer and film producer, talked about how our perception of history is typically biased towards the white British writers who wrote about British history. Her talk was excellent and worth watching in full. She showed two photographs of the Burma campaign in World War Two; one was of a group of white British soldiers (actually Alex Guinness staring in the classic movie “A Bridge over the River Kwai”); the other was of Indian colonial troops serving the British Empire. Both were there, but British people are typically only aware of the white English troops and not the colonial troops. She argued that there was more to history and to storytelling than the white perspective.
She clearly has a point. It also makes for more interesting history — the white perspective has been chronicled extensively and historians of all ethnic backgrounds continuously search for new ways of telling old stories. It keeps them employed.
But it also highlights the change in the ethnic makeup of Britain and other European countries. After World War Two, millions of Europeans were forcibly moved from one country to another as the post war borders were established. Countries were, in essence, ethnically cleansed and what was left was a series of nation states made up of groups of people from one major ethnic group. By the end of the war some 60 million Europeans had been displaced. Some academics estimate that over 12.5 million Germans were kicked out of former German lands in eastern Europe and became refugees. New Germany became more German. New Poland became more Polish. The Ukraine became more Ukrainian. This was a refugee crisis of epic proportions.
The histories told in those countries typically have their ethnic group as being the stars of the story. That makes sense, in the same way that selfies are one of the most popular forms of photographs. We like to see how we look, not just to ourselves but to others as well.
As mass immigration has swept over Europe, with Europeans taking full advantage of free movement of people as part of the European Union experiment and non-Europeans entering from former colonies and the developing world, the post-war monoculture has ended.
For non-natives, the dominant narrative of history of their adopted country seems either false, or irrelevant to them. For example, many Muslim immigrants to Europe do not necessarily see the Holocaust as a terrible stain on European morality — as perceived by most native Europeans — but as either exaggerated nonsense promoted by Jews to justify policies in Israel or as something that did not go far enough. Anti semitism is on the rise in Europe — but it is not native Europeans who are pushing this agenda.
As the non-native population of European countries increases every year, the old ethno-centric narrative history that was understood as “fact” by a country will change. In Britain, the Burma campaign will not be about a few white British officers but will be about the suffering of Indian troops. The European discovery of America will not be a triumph of European ingenuity and expansion but will be a shameful epic of genocide of native amerindians.
As Misay Sagay said, history provides more than just an interesting story. It conveys to a group a sense of worth. It is a defence against those who would wish us harm. While we may be defeated, we can point to the triumphs of our ancestors and grasp onto a sense of value and importance. It is completely rational for non- native Europeans who live in Europe to want to insert themselves into the narrative of history. The traditional history that they see is alien or irrelevant. They need to establish their own value and importance within the European story.
But it is also an issue for native- Europeans at the same time. While they may live in a European country, their own narrative history is being challenged by the new history of the non-native Europeans. Native Europeans used to be the stars. They are gradually moving out of the limelight and eventually, as the non-native European numbers inexorably increase year after year, they will be pushed into the shadows. Their own heroes may even be co-opted by the new Europeans: Misay Sagay described, in her TED talk, the famous French writer Alexandre Dumas — he who wrote The Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo — as being “black”. Dumas was born and lived his entire life in France. His grandmother was a black slave from what is now Haiti, his other three grandparents were white French. That does not make him black. If Misay Sagay’s story is recounted often enough “the lie will have become truth.”
George Orwell was right when he said that “history is written by the winners.” The winners are the group that dominates, either after a battle, or simply by sheer numbers. Native Europeans are losing the numbers game, and with it they will lose their history.