How Biased are History Books? Are They?


Vitamin C under the microscope
Are history books telling us the full story of the past? Can they tell us the full story at all? Why is it that so many history books focus on the “big players”, the kings and rulers, the big events, big politics? What about the “normal” people?

I recently read an interesting poem by the German poet and playwright Berthold Brecht – a poem which got me thinking. You see, this is one of the TOK illnesses, you start to see TOK everywhere, and also in poetry.

In any case, I don’t want to sidetrack again, the poem has a somewhat strange title, it’s called “Questions of a Reading Worker”. The poem describes the thoughts of a worker, who is reading a history book. I imagine him as a down-to-earth type of guy with an open and a questioning mind.

I just want to give you an overview of the poem, without actually translating it from Germal to English. What follows is therefore more of a commentary than a translation.

The poem starts out with the worker, who is reading the history book, asking himself who actually built the city of Theben with its seven doors. That’s a city in Greece. In the book he could only find the names of kings. The kings constructed the city. And the worker wonders if the kings actually carried the bricks themselves.

King so-and-so constructed the city. Yea sure. We all know that. Why does nobody mention the thousands of other people who were involved in the building process? Some of you may now say, “well that’s clear anyway that there were many people involved in the building process, you don’t need to mention this, it’s clear anyway”. Then I am going to say that it should also be clear that somebody had to pay the cash for it, usually a king, had to commission the construction of the city! What’s so special about mentioning a king? Who says that a king is actually more important than the people who do the work?

The poem goes on:

The city of Babylon was destroyed several times, but who was responsible for reconstructing the city? Ah, same story here. The kings reconstructed it….. No mention of the workers and the people and the families who were all involved in the reconstruction of the city. No mention in the history book.

Great Wall of China, where did the workers go to in the evening? Who says that the kings who constructed the Great Wall of China are more important than the workers who spend years of their lives doing hard labor?

And Alexander the Great, he conquered India. How can one person do that? How can one person conquer a whole country?

In the books you can also read that Caesar beat the Gauls. But nobody mentions that he probably also needed a cook who made his food.

You get the point? The history books talk about the “big guys”, the kings, queens, presidents, dictators. But who gives credit to the many smaller people that were involved in the historic events? The uncountable individual contributions, the uncountable individual suffering, where is that mentioned?

Philipp of Spain apparently cried when all of his ships sank in a battle. This you can read in the history book. No body else cried? Why are his tears more important than the tears of the family members of the people who drowned?

The poem concludes with the words: “So many questions”.
“So many questions”.

In my view the poem addresses an interesting and maybe also a bit disturbing point. After having read the poem I asked myself the question: “could it be that some history books are a bit one-sided, biased, in their account?” Or worse yet, “could it be that the books only tell us half of the truth?” They are leaving out so many things! Now I know that this is a pretty strong statement, but I think that there is no need to be pessimistic.

And I think that I can comfort you by telling you that many historians nowadays and archaeologists nowadays are indeed interested in uncovering the little every-day details of the so-called “normal” people. Because the big events are often already understood and known. It’s the daily life that is shifting into focus of historic research.

I want to give you an example: During the first world war there was the pretty ugly “Western Front” running throughout Europe. In the so-called trench warfare, the soldiers dug themselves in into the ground and there was fierce fighting going on on both sides.

Ow nearly hundred years later, after the war, archaeologists are uncovering the trench lines again, because they are interested in finding out how the soldiers actually lived, and also died on the front line. There still so many interesting details yet to be discovered. It is the daily life of the person that is now shifting into focus of historic research.

Questions for Discussion:

  • In the Internet you can find several different translations of the poem (the original language is German). What connections can you identify between the Arts (the poem) and History? What about Language and History?
  • Do you agree with the criticism that history books ignore the actions of the “normal” people, the workers?
  • Take your history book and find examples where the text deals mostly with the rulers and examples where the roles and actions of the workers are stressed.

2 Responses to How Biased are History Books? Are They?

  1. Airi

    Hi, this post is awesome! It’s helpful and gave me a good example for my essay. Thanks 🙂

  2. Osman

    Hi! I really like this article! and I really want to you to write more about history, like: Discuss the role of language and reason in history’ plz

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