Monday, April 18, 2016

History; Is it Truth or propaganda?

If you are a regular reader of my blog posts, you know I like history.  Our past has always fascinated me, and has become a passion, especially since I have become an author.

You might also know, from time to time, I will point out inaccuracies about history which we commonly think of as fact.   I sometimes might seem harsh about my commentary on those who wrote the history, but now I am going to be more lenient toward them.

To make a point, I want to travel back to a moment my childhood.

When I was in grade school, I think in the fourth grade, we saw a movie about Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. It showed the President Lincoln refusing to accept some paper from some senators riding with him in a train; and instead wrote the speech down on a paper bag that he had carried his lunch in.

After he gave his address, he felt disappointed because few people were clapping for his speech.  Later in the movie, he visited a hospital across the street where he spoke to a soldier who was blind in an injury he had received at the battle. During this conversation (the president did not reveal himself to him), this young soldier said the speech was more than just a speech, and clapping would be like clapping after a sermon.

First, there are soooooo many inaccuracies with the account featured in the above movie, and I am not going to get into them right now. This movie was spooned fed to kids, as more of a propaganda film to promote into them a sense of patriotism, and respect for the office of the president and in our government. If I remember we even had a test afterwards. 

I bring the movie about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because many people believe this was the way it happened. They do not realize the speech by Lincoln was received with mixed reviews depending on the person’s politics. It was not until after his assassination that people from that time finally looked back at his work and realized that indeed this was a great speech.

The movie itself was melodramatic crap at its highest level; guess what? So is history, or at least how it is presented to us.

We all remember the quote, “History is written by the victors”, and this in itself is attributed to several people, from Winston Churchill to the cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin.

Although it is simple to say that the ones who win wars are the ones who write history; it should also be considered those who are LEFT to write history, write it. This is important to remember, even today.

Imagine yourself in an ancient world; the monarchy is perceived as being in power by the right of God. By not agreeing with the monarchy you were arguing over religious doctrine and you could be deemed as a heretic, both of these options often resulted in death.

Imagine now, you are one of the lucky people who could read and write (now you understand why monks were often the only ones allowed to learn this craft), and you are employed by your monarch to write the tales of recent battles.

Do you write the truth, about how your king was safely behind your defenses protected by thousands of his soldiers, or do you modify the truth and describe how he rallied his troops by riding in the front lines to face the enemy?

Now, imagine you are on the losing side and was lucky enough to escape to a neutral or friendly country?  Do you write how the victors boldly fought, and that prominence was on their side? Or do you write about how their win was somehow due to a failure of a discredited general who betrayed his country, and that after winning the victors murdered innocent civilians.

So let us look at a good example of how history was modified and changed. Probably one of the best examples of this in ancient Greece is the Battle of Thermopylae. We know this battle because of movies like 300, which shows 300 Spartans holding off a Persian army consisting of over a half of million or more Persians.

First, we now know the Persian army consisted over around 100.00-150,000 soldiers (to be honest this was a very large army at that time). The exaggeration of the Persian army itself is something of a myth written by Greek historians, as was the fact they were held at bay by only 300 Spartans.

At the Battle of Thermopylae, there were more than just the Spartans that were defending the area. There were approximately 7,000-10,000 Greek soldiers at Thermopylae (meaning Hot Gate). Being at this “Hot Gate” meant the Persians had to funnel their forces into one spot, this meant there larger numbers had little effect on overrunning the Greeks.

As the legend goes, the Persian’s had located a path behind the Greek lines. The Spartan commander Leonidas stayed behind to guard their retreat. This is a normal battle strategy; it allows the majority of your army to escape without being routed as they retreated.

The army which remained did not only consist of just the 300 Spartans, but included other Greeks, such as 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans soldiers.  The history of this battle was written by Greeks who wanted to show an overwhelming Persian army, being frustrated by a handful of Spartans, who gave their lives for their cause.  I am not saying that the Spartans should not be given the credit, or recognition for this battle, I am saying by limiting the story to them only, you are dishonoring the others who also stayed and gave their lives for this conflict.

So why did the Greek historians make such a dramatic change to history? Propaganda is the plain and simple answer. Historians at the time were the news, their accounts of battles were told and retold in squares and taught to children in schools (similar to our movie about Lincoln).  To wage war, you must persuade the people, and to do this you must vilify your enemies and make your soldiers saints and martyrs.

Next Week, we will continue this journey about historians and fact. This will include a modern example of how we must change facts to persuade the population.

If you have enjoyed my writings on this blog, may I ask you to please purchase a copy of “Legend of the Mystic Knights”.  As many of you know my publisher is going out of business, this means my novel may not be available until sometime.  This may be your last chance to buy this novel.


  1. I am not a historian by any means. I think that history is about perception more than about fact. I wish things wasn't the case but unfortunately it's not. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. History was my second favourite subject throughout school and college. The more passionate the teacher, the more I enjoyed the lesson.

  3. You said it well William, history is based on perspective and biases. I learned this lesson firsthand living in Hawaii. Most books written about the history of the Islands and the culture were written by non-Hawaiians and in the early days they viewed the Islanders as savages much the same way the pioneers did the American Indians. So their biases colored everything they wrote. I learned a lot about the history of the Islands from a different perspective when I began collecting stories and the few books written by Hawaiian scholars. But to be fair, even these stories are told with biases, but at least they do give us a more authentic view of early life in the Islands. Great topic!

  4. William, I love history now although I didn't feel the same when I was in school. At that time it seemed the emphasis was on remembering dates, rather than events. Anyway, you are certainly opening my eyes to how historians manipulate the facts and I learn more about history from you - and enjoy it - than I ever learned at school.

  5. History is presented in ways that suit various parties. Neither you nor I know what actually happened. How do you know that the statements you make in this post are correct? Exactly, there is no way of knowing so you are just guessing.

    1. You must take in all the historical accounts, which was not just the Greeks in this instance. The point I am making is that sometimes, we get only the partial point of view. Next week I will have some examples of modern historical myths, which will shine a light on how history is manipulated to suit the writers needs.

  6. I had a great history professor in college, Jim Morrison (yes, really)--a Virginia gentleman and one who did a lot to dispel some of those very myths that developed in American history. I took every single class with him I could get because he truly educated us about how things really were.

  7. Such a crucial point, William. I have also though about it so many times. History has never been objective and people around the world are taught in such different ways. It is upsetting, because one day no one will know the real truth

  8. History is storytelling. There is no one left who saw what happened or who experienced the reaction. So, the best story survives. The other thing is that so little of history is based on originaly research. Textbooks are a great example. Those authors are really more re-write specialists than historians. So one bullshit story gets repeated and retold until everyone assumes it is true.

  9. Interesting post, William. I am so glad that in today's world, we are more likely to get more accurate reporting of history, as there are cell phones and video cameras everywhere that are continually documenting history. so it is easier to confirm fact vs fiction. Thx for raising the discussion.

  10. There certainly seem to be a lot of people out there who view Abraham Lincoln as a Christ-like figure, and I reckon we could make up any number of heroic stories about him and a lot of people would believe those stories. But does he really deserve that sort of reverence?

    How many Americans have read Lincoln's 1861 First Inaugural Address? In that address ( Lincoln seems almost pro-slavery and doesn't evince any sympathy for slaves at all.

    In any event, you would think that Americans, of all people, would be skeptical about putting their so-called leaders on pedestals, but this doesn't seem to be the case.

  11. William, once again I have found your insights thought-provoking and enjoyable. (I also enjoy your gentile mode of expression: "melodramatic crap at its highest level." Oh, there must be many movies/documentaries in that category.)

    I agree with Ken's comment that history is storytelling. In a way, how could it be anything but? We ALL have our filters, unavoidable, and many have their agendas to fulfill. Human beings are meaning makers supreme about virtually everything.

    We're talking, for example, and you are looking at me. I can make your look mean all kinds of things: "He likes me/agrees with what I'm saying"; "he's just humoring me"; "he's not really listening"; "he thinks I'm lying"; "he's mad at me," etc, etc, etc. Then I believe that my interpretation is the TRUTH and go from there. Unless I am a particularly conscious human being, it wouldn't occur to me, even for a second, that I may be totally off base. I may even have gone about saying some pretty nasty things about you based on the "truth" that I had, in essence, made up!

    Doreen comments that cellphones and video cameras will provide a "more accurate" picture. To a degree, yes. But still, there is the interpretation of the material that must be taken into account.

    I recall way back in the good ole 60s or 70s when a newspaper printed a photo of a long-haired person situated near people who appeared to be protesting something. The picture showed men in police uniforms taking the person away. (I am trying to use non-interpretive, factual language and it is hard!!) The newspaper's point was to underscore police "brutality." (A "true" interpretation?) Some readers, obviously with a different take on the picture, wrote in about the shameful behavior of young people and what a hard job police were faced with who were merely trying to do their job. "The kid deserved to be treated the way he was treated."

    Anyway, perhaps I think I have said enough. I think you may get my point.

  12. Thanks for clarifying that what we learn as history isn't always a 100% accurate depiction of what really happened. We need to remember that history is written by humans with an opinion. You were a bright kid to recognize that so young.

    I remember there being lots of controversy when I was growing up about slavery not being given as much attention as it should in history books. But slaves mostly never got to write down what they went through. And so were created the history books without their account. And that is just one of many examples of how history gets distorted by who is telling it.