The malleable past: How easy is it to “fake” history? – Sean Munger

Denial of certain historical facts involves a misconception of what history is and how it works.

On the previous incarnation of my history blog, in December 2013, I did an article about the Rape of Nanking, the horrific orgy of violence visited upon the Nationalist Chinese capital when Japanese troops took it over in 1937. Months later I received a comment that I did not let through the moderation queue. The comment, very short, questioned: “But did Nanking really happen? Or is this Chinese propaganda?!”

I chose not to approve the comment because it was not productive or germane to the real issues in that article, nor did I want to enter into a pointless debate with the commenter on the existence of an indubitably true historical fact—one which the tone of the comment led me to believe the person who made it does not believe. This is far from the first or most prominent example where I’ve heard basic historical facts that I present in my work questioned or even flat-out denied. It is certainly not an isolated point of view. There are many people out there who seem to think it’s fairly easy to “fake” history, and that doing so is a common occurrence.

The truth is, though it’s quite easy to misconstrue, misinterpret or draw the wrong conclusions from a real historical event—this happens a lot, for instance, when politicians start misusing the word “appeasement”—it’s actually very hard to flat-out fake a historical event, especially a major one. Historical events, especially ones in modern history, leave considerable and often overwhelming evidence in their wake. For the Nanking massacres, which happened 84 years ago, there are voluminous eyewitness accounts from people of many nations, not just Chinese, but also Americans, Britons, Germans, and the Japanese themselves. (There was an international settlement in Nanking at the time). There are also photographs, newsreels, newspaper accounts filed from the scene and nearby, military reports and government documents. In the gruesome case of the Nanking affair there was plenty of human and environmental evidence. At least 200,000 civilians were murdered. Their bodies lay strewn around Nanking and surrounding areas. Rivers ran red with blood. The effort it would take to manufacture all of this evidence, if the Nanking massacres did not really happen, is so staggering as to be impossible.

Proof positive that the Nanking massacre happened: here are graves of some of its 200,000 victims, still being exhumed today.

Of course, this presumes that these pieces of evidence—especially the physical ones, like graves—actually exist. Those who believe in historical “fakery” presume that what is known about history generally comes from books, and if it’s a question of writing a few books or creating some false documents, as opposed to manufacturing false physical evidence, a large-scale fake becomes a much more conceivable prospect. It is true, I have never seen a victim of the Nanking massacre with my own eyes, not least because the event occurred decades ago in a different country than the one in which I was born. What I know about what happened there in 1937-38 does come principally from books. But books do not just crib from other books. Real works of history—responsible works—rely not on secondary sources of an event, which is to say what people said happened after the fact, but primary sources, which are documentary pieces of evidence from the time itself.

History is not a vast weight of hearsay that hangs on the slender reed of one or a handful of accounts whose veracity is taken on faith.

Good history is a distillation of vast bodies of evidence, some bits reliable, perhaps others not, but whose compasses generally point in the same direction. This is the essence of history as a discipline. You can easily tell good history from bad history. In academic writing historians have to show their work: that’s what footnotes are for.

Nanking is obviously not the only contentious event in history, nor the only one around which accusations or suggestions of “fakery” have been leveled. In 1915, the government of Ottoman Turkey deported vast numbers of Armenian Christians to remote desert locations and left them to die. The Armenian genocide is well-documented with exactly the same kind of evidence we have for the Nanking horrors, but some people—mainly for reasons connected to nationalism—deny that it took place or suggest it is greatly exaggerated. A tiny but very vocal minority of racists maintain that the Shoah (Holocaust) against Jews, Roma, LGBT people, the disabled and other enemies of Nazi Germany did not take place or is exaggerated.

Some particularly extreme forms of conspiracy theorizing about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 argue that the hijacked airliners that struck the World Trade Center were holographic projections—an incredibly bizarre claim bereft of any sort of intuitive sense, much less any evidence to support it. Yet real people do believe these things. I teach a class on the history of conspiracy theories, so I am well versed in these sorts of subjects.

The Armenian genocide of 1915, which is also denied by some people in the modern world—particularly Turkish nationalists—was well-documented even at the time. The evidence of it cannot be faked.

Belief in the ability to “fake” history stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how we know what we know about the past, and how pervasive the past really is. The statement “history is written by the winners” has some truth to it, but it’s also deceptive, in that it suggests the past is infinitely malleable and that control of sources of information is relatively easy to achieve.

In the real world it’s a bit tougher than that. History textbooks that are written badly, whether from incompetence or some sort of political or social agenda, can and sometimes do distort the past; the Republican Party in the U.S. is, for example, right now trying to make sure that false narratives about the Civil War and racism in U.S. history are taught in schools. Inexcusable as that is, though, it does not change the fact that thousands of books have been published utilizing the first-person narrative accounts of slaves who testify to what they saw and experienced with their own eyes. All one has to do to find them is go to a library.

More recent events are much harder to control. There are literally tens of thousands of people, most of them still alive, who saw planes strike the World Trade Center Towers. If you went to New York City with the intention of finding one of those people, and stood in Times Square and shouted, “Was anyone an eyewitness to 9/11?”, within seconds you would be talking to someone who was actually there, and no one who wanted to “spin” the event would be able to control what they told you. If there was no reality to an underlying event, the lack of real-world corroboration would be instantly recognizable.

History is not a process of blind trust. It’s not about simply parroting what someone else said, as if all historical knowledge is a big game of Telephone where one generation of historians whispers something into the ear of the next, and truths are assumed to be true because you trust who told it to you. This is not how history works.

History is a messy, complex, unwieldy process of making sense of traces that exist in the present of what happened in the past. You can’t fake something like the Rape of Nanking, the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust. It’s just not possible. The implications, interpretations or meaning placed upon historical events is complicated and easy to get wrong, but the actual reality of events in the past is, in the vast majority of cases, absolutely verifiable. To believe otherwise is to live in a fantasy world. So the short answer is, yes, the Rape of Nanking did happen. If you doubt it, go find the evidence for yourself—no one is hiding it.

The header photo (of the Lincoln robot at Disneyland) is by Flickr user Loren Javier and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The modern photo of Nanking massacre victims being unearthed is by Flickr user R0016619 and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The other image is in the public domain.

See all © 2021 Sean Munger. See privacyterms and information collection notice Published on Substack

Sean Munger’s History and Culture Dispatches is on Substack – the place for independent writing

Categories: Guest Blogger, History, reblog

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18 replies

  1. It is incredible to me that people are already denying 9/11. I will never forget sitting up all that night as the drama unfolded. There are still many people living who were there, knew people who were there or were touched in some other way by those events. It wasn’t that long ago.
    I had the same reaction the first time I met a Holocaust denier in the late 1970s I think it was. I could not understand how this man could think it was fake. Why would so many people pretend to be survivors? Many of them had told their stories publicly. A conspiracy of that size seemed nonsensical to me.
    I guess that for many it is just easier to believe the information they are spoon-fed than to search for the facts themselves.


  2. I admit I haven’t read your entire article, yet I’d like to tell you this: in 1987/88 I went to stay near Milwaukee/Wi for one year in order to learn English (I’m from Switzerland/Europe). There I was inscribed at a local college, although my command of English wasn’t sufficient to do all the required reading – especially in HISTORY class. But I still caught on what we were taught in class. There was for instance this very interesting fact, that the content of official American-History school-books will be changed every 4 to 8 years, according to which party becomes presidential. The cover of these books looked exactly the same for decades, but the contents varied – extensively in parts.
    This was long before the times of internet and social media – and even cellphones were unknown back then. I was 20 years old and very amazed, to see with my own eyes, how easily HISTORY “CAN BE CHANGED” and even FAKED. I mean ofcourse HISTORY can NOT be changed, but, depending how one looks at it, it will be interpreted differently. The narrative CAN be changed ofcourse – and it’s being done all the time … . All this is easily verifyable if you go to a school-library.


    • Lately, they aren’t even pretending to teach history anymore.

      History — EVENTS — can’t be changed. You can get some people to believe anything, but the reality of an event doesn’t change. How the event is viewed — or for that matter, if it is seen at all by younger generations is up to the book designer/dealers — is easy to change, but not the event. You can’t make the Holocaust “not” happen or 9/11 or Pearl Harbor or The French Revolution. The events occurred. You can argue forever about what the event means or meant, but not whether or not it happened.

      Interpretation is NOT the same as unmaking an actual events which is what these particular bozos are trying to do. What they have really done is make history a subject no one studies at all. I suppose that would make human history — all of it — as faked? We appeared yesterday and surprisingly, we are still here today?

      If we are ready to believe that, we are too stupid to have our own planet anyway.


  3. But surely too, it’s not always the things that happened that are at issue, more why they happened, who was involved in them happening and what was it that people actually witnessed, or in some cases, thought they witnessed. E.g. Governments and private institutions are very good at filing away/destroying inconvenient data and records, some of which may never be retrieved.


    • The whys, rights, and wrongs are always at issue — and since they aren’t fake history, they are arguable. And if historians like anything better than an argument, i don’t know what it might be.

      But the thing is, they ARE denying that 9-11 happened. Some of them are too young to have been around when it DID happen, others weren’t near enough to really feel it as we did here in the northeast where the planes took off (Boston) and where they hit the towers (New York) — 256 miles by road in a car. People ARE denying actual events that have been photographed, filmed, AND witnessed.

      That we have citizens stupid enough to deny endless amounts of live videotapes from HUNDREDS of devices and cameras is hard to fathom and hard for me to accept. Are we really THAT stupid? There really are people out there who seem sure the world is flat — very much as Terry Pratchett described it. They think people live in the middle of the earth and we never flew to the moon.

      My son wants to know how we got this stupid. He doesn’t remember everyone being this stupid when he was 30 years younger. I don’t know what to say. Terrible education in this country? Education that leaves out the educational parts and just teaches kids to do better on standardized tests?

      I have a hat (actually, EVERYONE in the house has one) that says “MAKE AMERICA INTELLIGENT AGAIN.” Nice hat. Everyone assumes it’s liberal thing, even though there is absolutely NO identification with any party. Intelligence is now considered to be a LIBERAL trait which makes stupidity the top trait for conservatives?

      Being uneducated, ignorant, AND stupid is the new wave.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. P.S. I’m currently watching a 6-part series on National Geographic titled 9/11 in which survivors share their TRUE stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think this is exactly why they produce such shows, so that people who were there have a chance to get their memory/knowledge on the record. I know that’s what this also did with aging Holocaust survivors.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m so glad they do. I just self-published an insignificant-to-most small children’s book about the history and places in my home state of Missouri. In my notes from the author I shared (yes, to ages 6- 10 years of age) that “the best sources are primary such as: first-hand accounts, reports, speeches, artifacts, and photos (yikes, let’s talk about fake photos?). I guess everyone’s reality is what they make it to be. It’s shocking to me the conspiracy theories about the virus and immunizations (some from my own family). To some it’s easier to go with the madness of the loudest majority then to seek the truth.


  5. A brilliant post! I read this twice as I’m a lover of history. And truth. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love it too. I wonder how much of what we perceive as stupidity starts with a bad educational system where history is either not taught at all, or taught wrong. Maybe if our schools were better, we’d turn out smarter kids!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely! I taught and was an administrator for 15 years. My Dad was a history teacher and administrator. Sadly, I suffered a brain injury from a motorcycle accident years ago that decided to wreak more havoc on me. But nothing was more unhealthy than the toxicity of the politics, the drop of important subjects (such as history) to only assess students in the narrowed objectives set by a board of people who weren’t in the field. It was time for me to get out. I don’t fit. I wanted to teach a mixed level of ages in one hall. After visiting the Teton School of Science in Wyoming I was sure I could teach 2nd-4th graders a variety of skills based solely on the journey of Lewis and Clark. AND get them outside, working together cooperatively, researching and sharing their findings. Some looked at me like I was crazy. Oh well. Sorry I took off on a tangent!


        • That sounds like a brilliant way to teach. I had what was in my day a decent (not great) public education. But I was a reader and most of what I knew came from — OF COURSE — books. I was a smart kid and no one knew what to do with me. After a while, they just let me read and write book reports. They gave up work books and other structured “social studies.” I was very weak in the number department. Pity they couldn’t leave me to read everything else and try to teach me how numbers work. It might have changed my whole way of looking at the world.

          Well, maybe. Maybe not.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you, Marilyn. I remember creating projects for the kids who didn’t need me. They would present them to the other kids. But I was weird in the early 90’s because the kids didn’t sit in rows and the ones on the upper end of whatever is “normal” needed differentiated instruction. To most my room might have looked a bit different, but it seemed the kids did well if I met their needs as individuals instead of a mass expected to learn the exact same things at the exact same rate (solely based on their date of manufacture 🙃). I don’t remember much of what I learned as I was a good reader and did well. But I sure remember the people that impacted me. Have a safe and great holiday weekend!

            Liked by 1 person

      • I’m waiting for my friend, Martha to jump in on this convervsation. She lived some truths during her days working in China. And the two of you remind me of each other.


  6. Thank you for sharing the very interesting information, Marilyn! Yes, there are a lot of faking history around. Without true sources its at least impossible finding out what really had happened. Since I am a little involved in the clarification of cases of abuse of the Rom.-Kath. Church, I am currently experiencing first-hand, how one wants to manifest certain selfproduced semi-true opinions through further scriptures, as fully true. It gives an little insight, how this on other topics could have happened also in the past. Best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think there is a real difference between looking for truth when the truth is not fully known — for example when solving a legal case, criminal or otherwise — versus denying history that happened and which many people saw. In person.

      In solving a case, you are seeking evidence. With history, you have (with modern history) a huge collection of people who were THERE and saw “it” happen. If you can stand in Times Square and ask “how many people saw the towers go down on 9/11” and get dozens of people who saw it, THAT is not something for which you need “search” for an answer. It happened. We saw it happen as did many others. It’s on film. It was on everybody’s TV set. It took years to clear away the rubble. There’s no question about what happened. Yet people deny it despite it not requiring many more witnesses. There were THOUSANDS of witnesses.

      It’s not like having a suspicion or even some evidence of something and setting out to prove it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is a “preaching to the choir” piece for me.

        I encountered the “fake news” accusations myriad times during my 40 plus years as a TV (and radio) News reporter.

        I still encounter “doubting Thomases” in retirement and role as “walking historian”. When questioned about the validity of certain major incidents, I hold my tongue until I’m forced to say “I was THERE. I personally witnessed the incident you are questioning”. I can always tell when “I was there” isn’t enough to convince the conspiracy folks. There also is “The media doesn’t tell the truth” line which leaves me either chuckling or grinding my teeth.

        People who are so prone to question history don’t read much, usually have loads of comic books and are dedicated FOX news viewers.

        So the Civil War was fabricated by documentary master Ken Burns?


      • Its always great having evidence shared by many people. Thank you for also writing about this topic. Very interesting, and a honour to remember what had happend in the past. Its a duty remembering the victims. xx Michael


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