It’s said that “history is written by the victors.” That saying has always been troubling to me because of the power implied. To be able to dictate how events will be remembered is a powerfully dangerous tool. Anytime someone tells a story, their perspective inevitably taints it, and subsequently changes how their listener judges the events detailed. Here is one of my favorite examples: “The War of the Rebellion,” “The War of Northern Aggression,” and “The Freedom War” are all different names given to the American Civil War. Although each name refers to the same war, they carry different connotations. “The War of the Rebellion,” used by people who supported the Union, implies the war was about (Southern) states misbehaving, while “War of Northern Aggression,” used by people who supported secession, paints the opposite picture: that of being provoked, and “The Freedom War” romanticizes the quest for freedom of enslaved people. Each storyteller has the power to frame the same set of events the way they want to, and history has shown that the power is usually reserved for the victors.
In the case of WWI the victors were most certainly not the Germans. Since Germany had the disadvantage of not getting to give her side, time has not been kind to her, and the Allies made sure to pencil her people into history books as villains. So to go solely off of the story told by the Allies would be a gross misrepresentation of what actually transpired. I loved reading “The War From Below” by Stibbe because, if anything, it let me see a side of war not often represented: the human side. Increasingly aware of my own ignorance, I found myself wondering why I had never bothered to think about the extent to which the Germans suffered during the war. After all, exacerbated political tensions led to regular strikes, desperate women turned to prostitution, they were plagued with starvation, and the list goes on. Why was I not aware of this? Maybe it’s because I’m not the most well informed when it comes to history, but perhaps it’s also because the sources I usually read related to this matter have no problem detailing the damage inflicted by Germany, yet conveniently leave out the suffering that befell her people. A lot of such readings, I realize, come “from above,” written by people in power, those who got to control, tweak, and leave things out (at their discretion) of the narrative.
Reading about things “from below” I found that things mattered on the micro level just as much as they did on the macro level. Sure, looking at the big picture makes it easy to discern trends, yet events on the micro level were the ones actually developing and influencing those trends. They complete the story. The story of German surrender, for instance, is not complete without knowing the mindset that completely enveloped the German generation: an almost desperate eagerness to emulate the heroic past to which they were both “heirs to and prisoners of,” as put by Schivelbusch in “Culture of Defeat.”
The beauty of learning about history “from below” is that you don’t have to have so called “authority” to tell the story the way you do to tell it “from above.” It can be told through something as simple as a journal entry, a letter, a photograph… It is personal sources such as these that make history relatable and understandable. When looking at the masses it can hard to fathom how such utterly terrifying events could arise. Yet when you look at the humans that make up the masses, you start to make sense of the facts and try to understand the motivations. “From above” is where we get the facts. “From below” is where we get the why; where we see that history isn’t as dichotomous as it may seem as when told “from above,” and that it’s not just a matter of good vs. evil. This is the opportunity for those who didn’t win to tell their story.