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Why Shouldn’t We Alter Historical Mistakes?

By Pin Yang

[This Article does not represent the opinion of DYNAMUN, but simply an intentionally offered, alternative viewpoint from one of our esteemed co-chairs.]



Joachim Peiper, a Nazi Panzer commander, once said, “History is always written by the victor, and the histories of the losing parties belong to the shrinking circle of those who were there.” Ironically, the more famous version of this quote belongs to the victor, Winston Churchill, as “History is written by the victors.” For those of you who enjoy soaking yourself in the world of History television shows or books, you might often fascinate yourself to a certain character that may have lost the battle of his era, making you wonder, what would the world be if not he lost?


John Holland Rose summarized in his biography of Napoléon Bonaparte that Napoléon did not suffer a conventional definition of “failure”. The major difference between Napoléon and the images of other military commanders and dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin is that Napoléon won the battleground of ideas despite losing on the battlefield of war. When considering the achievement of Napoléon, he seldom receives criticism. People compare the First French Empire to the period that follows – the Bourbon Restoration: the former is more liberal, equal, honored; the latter is pathetically conservative, dictatorial and unfair whether in terms of rights of a plebian or equality between different aspects. Even in England, the victor, Duke Wellington, received much less accolade than Napoléon.


How does psychology explain such a phenomenon? According to research conducted by Professor Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University in 2002, people tend to treat the “positive thoughts” derived from their expectation as “the truth”. This is known as “Wishful Thinking Bias”. Applying this theory to the example of Napoléon mentioned earlier, we are more easily moved by positive results and persuading points, therefore, the words of “Napoléon is the father of liberty in Europe” took root in our minds. We think about how Napoléon could have spread the spirit of liberty to all of Europe and engineered a movement as far-east Russia, if they had only lured Napoléon successfully. We pity his failure instead of being relieved by his defeat. Nevertheless, we seldom consider why these policies were originally tossed out. We ignore the fact that the majority of the articles in the Code Civil des Français had been explored in the era of Directoire Exécutif, not to mention Napoléon personally removed some content in order to smoothen his regime. Yet people cannot accept that, therefore, they continue the dream of changing the history of tragic heroes through his or her rosy retrospection.


In Mainstream Media, the popular TV series “El Ministerio Del Tiempo” produced by RTVE of Spain discussed this very issue throughout the course of the series. The series supposed that human beings can travel in time through “la Puerta” in the ministry, however, they can only go as far forward as the present (21st century). In the final episode of Season 2, the confrontation between leaving history untouched and to amend the mistakes of the past had reached its peak. The episode aired in May 2016 and was set in the time following the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Out of total dissatisfaction, the monarch of the day, Philip II, decided to travel back in time and reset the outcome of the war. Soon, he realized he could change the course of history for the next five centuries, which he did so immediately: effectively restoring the Spanish Inquisition in 2016, read all forms of literature and made sure the Spanish-American war was not lost, among a full assortment of other interventions. He ruled through time and called himself “El Rey del Tiempo” (The King Of Time). The main character, Pacino, alongside with Amelia and Alonso, were, however, doing other missions in time, so they still recalled the traditional version of history, or how it “was supposed to be like”. The show ended with Pacino threatening to slaughter the childhood Philip II, by travelling back to that time, and risk erasing Philip II from royalty, before he could reach adolescence. Philip II had no choice, he returned to the post-Spanish Armada era and accepted the fact that he had lost the naval battle that ended the Golden Age. History was restored. However, is there justice or logic in it?


The most common thoughts that might derive from our minds are that he “embraces the values of the Divine Rights of Kings” and therefore, what he did was morally wrong. Indeed, setting up an inquisition and ruling without a constitution, as well as emphasizing how females shall stay at home contradicts the value that many people accept nowadays, yet, this is a questionable way to interpret this event. In fact, this is a transitioned example of “Victor’s Justice”. We judge the act based on our own values (See Do Not Embrace A Better World to learn more about Spiral Silence), and we believe what we’ve done is correct, while others are wrong. This is known as “Choice-Supportive Bias.” Nonetheless, it is almost certain that people from the 25th century will judge us with a bothered attitude, believing that we are absurd and lack progressivity. In the battle of time, however, the winner belongs to the latter generation, so we shouldn’t be blaming the king, just as what Louis XVI of France said, “I die innocent of all the crimes imputed to me. I pardon the authors of my death, and pray God that the blood you are about to shed will never fall upon France.” We should never the beliefs of other’s wrong, but why are we doing this to a monarch?


The Butterfly Effect can help us with our interpretation. The only “given” result of how history will develop is through the current stage as it is set. Even if we adjust a tiny bit of history, we cannot predict the outcome. Who knows if killing a young, pale man in the garden might demolish Simón Bolívar’s life and thus the liberation of Latin America? We will never know how one historical figure is related to a present-day counterpart unless we actually travel back in time and remove that individual from existence. Therefore, the belief behind it is simple: “Since the current version of history is tolerable, let it be, lest it should become worse.” If Napoléon remained in power, how can we ensure that he will stay as sharp as he was? Even if this did occur, what influence would this have on his successors? In fact, we can already observe a decline of his regime, along with all the “Golden Eras” of the world. The accumulated power of the predecessor will be exhausted one day, as it has become a natural rule of history.


In conclusion, there is no need to pity the end of a golden age or wishing that it could have panned out differently. As Måns Zelmerlöw sang in eurovision, “Don't tell the gods I left a mess, I can't undo what has been done.” Just let the most beautiful parts remain in your mind before it corrodes. Let it be.

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