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

Earlier this week I received an attempted comment–I call it “attempted” because I did not approve it–on a blog post I did back in December 2013 about the Rape of Nanking, the horrific orgy of violence visited upon the Nationalist Chinese capital when Japanese troops took it over in 1937. You can read the article at that link to see what happened and what I thought of it, but 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, and I also did not 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. Over the past few days, though, I’ve thought about that comment and other times where I’ve heard basic historical facts 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–look what happens, for instance, when politicians start talking about the Munich Agreement of 1938–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 78 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 of which because the event occurred decades before 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. 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, homosexuals 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.

armenian genocide pd

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 is another historical event that some people claim is “faked.” Here are some of the victims of the massacre. Do they look real to you?

I think 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; there are recent examples in the U.S. South of textbooks and school curricula that minimize or gloss over the facts of slavery or misrepresent the causes of the Civil War, for instance. 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 photo is in the public domain.


  1. Another factor in the denial of history is the mistrust of those who are under educated. These are people that cling to their mistrust of those that have more ability and resources than them. They feel that the public is being manipulated into doing something that they wouldn’t otherwise have done before the incident that they deny occurred, or that it is to discredit the beliefs that they have. I have seen this with those who deny the Holocaust, the moonlandings, 9/11, slavery in the south ect. They paint others as sheep that are being brainwashed by those in charge, when in fact they are victims of their own pride and fear.

  2. It is my opinion history is misconstrued and misrepresented frequently. In grad school I studied and wrote my thesis on the history of the church from 16-18 century in Latin America. Every bit about the surface history is misconstrued to say the least. Millions of innocent people were mass murdered and tomorrow we honor Christopher Columbus for his “discovery”? Really?

  3. When I think of historical fakery the Nazis and Communists were masters of it in the last century. During their rise to power the Nazis tried to find “proof” of the “Aryan” – German link making them mankind’s dominant race. This included looking for mystic items like the spear that pierced Christ on the cross, or the ark of the covenant (yes really – it is not just a matter that Stephen Spielberg’s film made up), and the lost civilization of Atlantis. Had they won the war, frightening thought as that is, they would have built a special museum on the Jews in Prague – I imagine they would have tried to slant history permanently against the Jews as a grasping, leech like group that the Nazis heroically destroyed. Horrible thought that.

    The Communists sometimes pulled boners about this. They had submitted copies of their great international encyclopedia to all the major libraries in the world, but in 1954 they had a problem. One of the articles had to be removed and replaced. The article was a biography of Stalin’s last, ruthless KGB head, Lavrenti Beria. While Stalin was living everyone hated and feared Beria, who would arrest and kill them and their families at Stalin’s whim. But in March 1953 Stalin died. Beria was not kept in the Soviet Politburo, and lost his post. Within a few months he was arrested and sent to prison, there was a secret trial, and he was convicted of treason and shot. Immediately after the Soviet Government sent out new pages to be attached to the encyclopedia and a request to put these into the position of the article of Beria – now a “non-person”. The article was about “the Behring Strait”. On the other hand the Communists kept denying their role in the anti-Polish Katyn Forest Massacre of the Polish elite in 1940. The Nazis’ propaganda minister Goebbels, would make hay with this after 1941 to deepen suspicions about trusting the Soviets among the Allies.


  4. As far as the image of the grave is concerned, we do not know who how these bodies died, strange that there are no remains of clothing. I believe the massacre took place but it was perpetrated by the Chinese against their own people, it was called “scorched earth policy” millions were killed. Chiang-Kai-Shek, in just one act alone, blew the dykes holding back the Yellow River, to slow down the advancing Imperial Japanese Army. He killed just over one million of his own people through drownings, starvation and disease. One has to remember, in those times, you had bandits, militia, deserters, warlords, communists, nationalists, all roaming the country side, vying for power, China was a very dangerous country. Go to:南京-大-虐殺-偽

    1. Wow. You just completely missed the point of this article, didn’t you? Thanks, I guess, for illustrating exactly the kind of historical nonsense thinking that this article was intended to combat. Your theories about Nanking are ludicrous and your logical reasoning is quite shallow. You may want to become more familiar with genuine historical methods to be able to tell real history from the sort of nonsense you seem to have fallen for. Good luck.

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