The victors write the history books

In a previous post, I discussed the ways elements of rhetorical discussion can be used to direct a reader’s attention toward certain aspects of a discussion and away from other aspects that may present opposition to the author’s thesis.  The previous discussion focused on the ways officers in the Nazi army used rhetorical devices to dehumanize Jewish prisoners and “justify” their imprisonment and eventual termination.  I ended the former post by describing the ultimate defeat of the Nazi’s and the modern day use of “Nazi” as a metaphor for pure evil.  Although most people would agree with this portrayal of the Nazi army and agenda, the article War, Response, Contradiction made me think about the way history’s victors also use rhetorical devices to portray themselves in a more positive light.

First, I must say that I readily agree with any general, negative statements made about the atrocities committed by the “evil” Nazi party.  However, I also find myself feeling sympathetic with regards to Germany as a nation of people.  Despite the common depiction of pre-WWII Germany as a nation of war-mongering, racist Nazis, there were many people in the country that were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  A great deal of Hitler’s eventual supporters were simply pursuing a happier life when they allowed their country to be overtaken by the Nazi ideology.  Of course this is no excuse for the horrible actions committed in the years leading up to and during the war; but historical information provided from within Germany, has allowed a more complete understanding of the conditions that enabled many moral people to be led so far astray.   In addition to the demoralizing effects of being on the losing side of a war, heavy taxes and other monetary burdens placed on the country after the first world war, made it nearly impossible for many of the average citizens living in Germany to earn a suitable living wage.

In the specific case of Germany during WWII, even their own historical records do not attempt to portray the actions of Nazi-Germany as justified.  However, in other famous wars, we find the differences between the victor’s history and the loser’s to be very different stories.  The American Civil war is one such example, and as many history enthusiasts know; you will hear a different version of the war after crossing the Mason-Dixon line.

I first learned about the Civil War and the events that led to it while living in Atlanta, GA.  While in the south, my teacher’s presented the war as one of independence, similar to America’s own struggles with England in the previous century.  Slavery was an important issue at the time of the war, but as my teachers were quick to point out, the vast majority of the Confederacy’s soldiers did not own slaves; and many of them felt the same as the abolitionists in the north.  According to the things I learned while living in the heart of the south, the war was primarily a result of unfair governmental regulations.  The laws at the time were focused on supporting the industrial north, often at the expense of the southern economy.

Once I moved to Pennsylvania, I found the entire story was different.  Sure, the ending was the same no matter where you lived, but in the north, southerners were evil people that beat their slaves and dated their relatives.  The war, as viewed in my new hometown, was a morally justified effort to purge the new nation of evil.  And that was, in a nutshell, all that was explained about the Civil War during my high school years in the north.

In recent years I have spent a considerable amount of time reading unbiased reports to learn a more accurate history of America’s Civil War.  I found it interesting to discover that both the northern and southern representations of the war were slightly distorted.  Both sides notably use an appeal to ethics, however the northern rendition often focuses heavily on emotional appeals.  Southern history of the war is often apologetic, while at the same time highlighting the important role it played in the cultural development of the modern south.  No matter which “version” of the Civil War you are familiar with, it pays to study both and discover the truth of the war, or at least as close of an approximation as can be achieved without a time machine.  Finally, a thorough study of the winning and losing sides history with regards to any war, allows a reader to appreciate the finer points of rhetorical argument and to see it used in action.


One thought on “The victors write the history books

  1. Josh,

    Thank you for this response. One of the things I know is this . . . history or the writing of it, is a human endeavor. I was a history major in college and, in fact, I once took an interim class on the Civil War. If you come to my office, I have a coffee cup that has the following saying on it: “Without fear, there is no courage.” This is a quote that it’s on a cup that I bought at Gettysburg. While I have tried to find the author of the quote, the closest consistent person I have found is Eddie RIckenbacker, the WWII pilot. That might be true, but if so, then again you have the title of your post proven. We will take things out of context and use them as we will.

    What you have again is the use of a rhetorical strategy that demonstrates that people will do a number of interesting things to create a persuasive situation. One that goes much beyond just history, but can be employed in almost every area of our existence.

    Dr. Martin

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