What exactly is ‘fake history’? Some clarification

The famous plaque on a Trump golf course commemorating an American Civil War battle that never happened © CNN

A while back I wrote a post for history blog The Many-Headed Monster on ‘fake news’, a phenomenon which has always been with us. ‘Fake news’, however, is primarily a headache for the historians of the future. The historians of the present are having to grapple with another phenomenon, ‘fake history’. Perhaps the most egregious recent example is the plaque erected by Donald Trump on one of his golf courses claiming that a non-existent battle of the American Civil War, ‘the River of Blood’, was fought there. But ‘fake history’ has cropped up again as a trending topic on social media as a result of controversy surrounding the ethnic diversity of Roman Britain. However, widespread use of the term makes me uneasy, because people are actually talking about more than one thing. All of these things are bad for real history, but they are not the same and need to be distinguished.

  1. Egregious falsification of accepted historical fact*. Trump’s golf course plaque probably falls into the category of egregious falsification – fabrication of specific claims that can quickly be debunked by historians. This category would also include Stalinesque photoshopping of images to add or delete elements, and of course pseudo-historical claims that run counter to vast quantities of evidence and the eyewitness testimonies of thousands of living people, such as Holocaust denial. This, in my view, is ‘fake history’ proper.
  2. Generalised, unfalsifiable yet implausible historical claims. These are historical conspiracy theories, the well-trodden domain of ‘alternative history’, which usually involves the Knights Templar, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, extraterrestrials or some combination of all four. The claim that the ancient Egyptians or Mayans were taught by extraterrestrials is not technically falsifiable – the aliens might, after all, have taken careful steps to eliminate the evidence – but it is wildly implausible to most people and especially to experts in the field. Is this ‘fake history’? I think it is probably fairer to call it ‘alternative history’ – everyone with good sense recognises this term and knows that it is something to avoid, except for entertainment…
  3. Reluctance to discard discredited and obsolete historiographies. This is perhaps the most interesting category of what has been labelled ‘fake history’, because there is often a fine line between attachment to discredited historiographies and deliberate fabrication. When someone claims that the inhabitants of Roman Britain were exclusively white Europeans, that claim is as much based on prejudices imbibed from reading books based on obsolete historiography as it is on a desire to deliberately fabricate evidence. The historiography of, say, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Green’s History of English People is outmoded, discredited and obsolete. It may also be racist. Yet many people with limited education have imbibed a version of history based on nineteenth-century historiography. This problem has been well documented – advances in historiography take many, many decades to filter down to popular perceptions of history. Take, for example, the widespread belief that megalithic monuments were associated with abominable rites of human sacrifice – a claim debunked by archaeologists forty years ago but which still has the power to stick in the popular imagination. I am not sure it is always right to accuse those whose view of history is based on popular misconceptions of peddling ‘fake history’; to do so is to misdiagnose the problem, which is ignorance and a lack of historical education rather than wilful fabrication of specific facts. However, when confronted with up-to-date historiography, many of those whose historiography is outmoded cling on to their interpretation by any means available, including outright denial of demonstrable historical evidence. This is when attachment to obsolete historiography tips into ‘fake history’ proper.
  4. Myth-making. No-one would think of describing Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain as ‘fake history’, even though it is almost all made up, because we all recognise that Geoffrey’s purpose was not to write history in any modern sense but rather to weave a national myth. This, it seems to me, is a legitimate activity – or, if not legitimate, it is an indelible part of human nature. We all want to tell stories that imbue us with a sense of identity. It is very difficult to shake people’s attachment to powerful historical narratives. Furthermore, sometimes people are able to believe simultaneously in a national myth and recognise that it is probably unhistorical, and such national myths do not lose their cultural importance when they are challenged by the historical evidence; and I am not sure that is a bad thing. It is up to historians to mark out clearly the boundary between history and myth, but it is not our job to destroy myths per se – although we should always challenge myths that perpetuate racism and harmful nationalism.
  5. Bad history. Sometimes the term ‘fake history’ is used to describe bad history – when someone has not bothered to look at all the evidence, when they stretch too little evidence too far, or when they twist the evidence to fit a preconceived theory. Some bad history is written with deeply sinister motives, and when this is the case it crosses the line into ‘fake history’ (e.g. the work of David Irving). Most of the time, however, bad history is just bad history and should be called out as such.

There is a danger that if we use the term ‘fake history’ too freely we will devalue its meaning, just as ‘fake news’ has been devalued and is now a virtually meaningless slur that can be hurled around by anybody. ‘Fake history’ needs to be applied selectively, preferably to the first kind of historical abuse described here: egregious falsification of accepted historical fact.

*Yes, I know ‘historical fact’ is a deeply contested concept, but let’s not get into that now…

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