10 November 2007

Every Loser Wins, as Nick Berry once said

The other evening in Belfield I went to a talk by Mark Shea, entitled '101 Reasons Not to be a Catholic'. It owed more than a little to the sixth chapter of Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and was as hilarious as it was perceptive, an astute, clever, honest, persuasive argument for how, when you get down to it, there's really only one good reason to be a Catholic.

After the talk, on our way to the Montrose, and I can't remember why, Mark mentioned that what he'd really like to read would be a good popular history debunking the notion that history is always written by the winners.

There's be a lot of mileage in that, but I suspect it's already been done. Mind, I don't know of any such books.

Still, it's surely interesting that the second great historical work we have, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, is an account by a defeated Athenian general of how his city lost her epic war with Sparta. That would surely have to be the starting point. But where then?

On, perhaps, to Polybius, the Greek politician who made it his life's mission to explain to his beaten countrymen 'by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government - a thing unique in history'. Almost everything we believe about Rome's conquest of the Carthaginian and Greek worlds is built on Polybian foundations.

Tacitus' writings, which still serve as the backbone for any analysis or narrative of the Roman Principate, are losers' histories by any reasonable definition. He would surely merit a chapter, as his bitter and cynical analyses of the early Roman emperors surely owe more than a little to his having been a member of that senatorial class that had been terrorised by Domitian.

Who? People tend to know Caligula and Nero, and even - sometimes - Heliogabalus, but in the great rogues' gallery of Roman emperors there's a surprising ignorance of Domitian. You should look him up. It's fascinating to read of him assailing the memory of his predecessor, of his initial extravagance, of how munificently he rewarded the soldiers whose loyalty he most needed. . . but how his initial extravagance gave way to cruelty and paranoia, with him signing his letters as 'Lord and God', demanding that he be addressed in that fashion, becoming increasingly obsessed with the notion that people were plotting against him, executing people for even the most trivial of jokes, in one spectacular case after treating his victim first to a marvellous dinner. All this, we're told, made him everywhere hated and feared.

Interesting character, if our picture of him is even close to accurate. It's surely based on Senatorial sources, after all, on the very people who suffered most at Domitian's hands. But then, if they suffered...

I know, I'm getting off the point, but really, this idea of a history of losers' histories has legs. Take a look at what we know about Viking raids or the Mongol invasions. Almost all our evidence about Viking attacks comes from the quills of those they pillaged, while as for the Mongols, the greatest conquerors in human history were illiterate nomads: we know about them because of what their beaten enemies tell us.

And then we have those defeated generals around whom cults develop, notably Napoleon and Robert E. Lee; indeed, many of the best histories of the American Civil War are written from the viewpoint of the defeated Confederacy. . .

It goes on, really. Part of the problem is that it's often difficult to establish who exactly the winners are. Is victory ever absolute? Take, for example, the Spanish Civil War, where the winners' version of history has, over the past thirty years, been firmly replaced by a history written by losers, uncritically adopted by so many to the point where the beatification of 498 martyrs can be painted as retroactive support for fascism and contemporary opposition to socialism. The Spanish Civil War was never as simple as that, as Felipe Fernández-Armesto points out in Millennium:
The "national" coalition included virtual fascists but partnered them with an uncomfortable wagonful of fellow-travellers: traditional Catholics, fighting to save nuns from rape and churches from incineration; old-fashioned liberal centralists, who were equally numerous on the other side; romantic reactionaries, who in armed thousands yearned to restore a long-excluded line of the former royal dynasty; constitutional monarchists, who wanted to get back to the cosy, remunerative parliamentary system of the previous generation; worshippers of "the sacred unity of Spain," who thought they were fighting to hold the country together; hispanizadores, who wanted to purge supposedly Spanish virtues of foreign pollutants. On the other side, along with all the mutually warring sects of the left, were conservative republicans, who included Catholics as well as secularists; anticlericals of the liberal tradition; admirers of French and English standards of democracy; and right-wing regionalists, who, recognizing the nationalists as the greater threat, supported the republicans as the lesser evil.
It was, in essence, a peculiarly Spanish war about distinctly Spanish matters, despite its international significance as a proxy war between Hitler and Stalin. We all know of the countless crimes of Franco's Falangist regime, but heinous though they were they shouldn't blind us into thinking that the defeated side, had it won, would have been much better.

The losers may have the pulpit now, but while they do it's worth reminding ourselves of George Orwell's observations on his time fighting alongside them.

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