Late in the new movie The Report, Adam Driver’s Dan Jones argues with his prospective defense attorney over who really said, “History is written by the victors.” The lawyer (played by Corey Stoll) attributes the quote to Winston Churchill, but Jones counters by pointing to an earlier iteration of the sentiment by Hermann Göring, Churchill’s enemy in World War II. So: Who said it first, the victorious Churchill or the vanquished Göring?
Neither of them. At a bare minimum, Driver’s Jones is correct to point out that Göring is indeed recorded as having voiced this sentiment at the Nuremberg trials. In the original German, Göring is reported to have said, “Der Sieger wird immer der Richter und der Besiegte stets der Angeklagte sein,” which more or less translates to the quote Driver utters in the film, “The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused.”
As for Churchill, while he is strongly associated with the aphorism, as seen on inspiring Pinterest macros, at Brainy Quote, and in taunting tweets from WWE wrestlers, there’s actually no concretely documented instance in which he’s known to have uttered “History is written by the victors.” There’s a good chance part of the confusion here comes from a joke Churchill actually did say, in a speech before the House of Commons on Jan. 23, 1948: “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.” Churchill was apparently fond of the line, as he had been trotting out versions of it since the 1930s. He even tried another version of the witticism on Josef Stalin.
So who really coined the phrase? It was in use long before either Churchill or Göring uttered their variations. “I believe that the adage evolved over time,” says Garson O’Toole, proprietor of the indispensable site Quote Investigator. “There are versions of the saying in English, French, Italian, and German. But most of the early instances … do not contain the adage in general form. These instances are precursors.”
For example, on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, quote researcher Ken Hirsch has pointed to instances in French from 1842 (“[L]’histoire est juste peut-être, mais qu’on ne l’oublie pas, elle a été écrite par les vainqueurs” or “[T]he history is right perhaps, but let us not forget, it was written by the victors”) and Italian from 1852 (“La storia di questi avvenimenti fu scritta dai vincitori”—or, as Hirsch translates it, “The history of these events was written by the winners”). And by 1844, as Hirsch noted, at least one of these narrower statements had made it into English. A description of defeated Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobin hero during the French Revolution, described the state of his reputation like so: “Vanquished—his history written by the victors—Robespierre has left a memory accursed.”
But in each case these were not broad pronouncements about the nature of history itself. Those arrived toward the end of the 19th century. For example, in 1889, as O’Toole told me, one biographer’s description of the 1746 Battle of Culloden in Scotland laments that we will never know how many members of his subject’s clan died on the battlefield, because “it is the victor who writes the history and counts the dead.”
Two years later, the saying was in use in United States. In 1891, Missouri Sen. George Graham Vest, a former congressman for the Confederacy who was still at that late date an advocate for the rights of states to secede, used the phrase in a speech, reprinted by the Kansas City Gazette and other papers on the next day, Aug. 21, 1891. “In all revolutions the vanquished are the ones who are guilty of treason, even by the historians,” Vest said, “for history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.” In other words, the world has rewritten history to credit the saying to one of the 20th century’s greatest victors, but it’s always been very popular with history’s biggest losers.
Thanks to the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro, and to the Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole, for critical research into the central question of this article.