Historical fiction becomes fact, hiding useful lessons

Summary: Historical fiction often blurs into real history. Too many historical facts are fabrications. We must learn to better distinguish between the two, and gather useful lessons from each.

An inspiring snapshot of history. Unfortunately, reality is more complex.

Statue of man with horse-AdobeStock-110535745
At the Natural History Museum in Vienna. By TRFilm, AdobeStock-110535745.

Bad information drives out the good

“Bad money drives out good.”
Gresham’s Law, discovered in 1860 by Henry Dunning Macleod. It’s equally true of information.

History and historical fiction are both useful but need to be distinguished. Unfortunately, we often confuse the two genres. Often journalists – and sometimes even scholars – are unclear if they want to write an unbiased description of the dry facts or a work of fanciful fiction.

This is not a new phenomenon. Ancient historians, such as Plutarch (Greek Lives, Roman Lives), were often liberal with the facts. Instead, they focused on presenting a narrative with moral lessons for their readers. Other writers, like Julius Caesar writing about his military exploits (The Gallic War), sometimes put characters of questionable realism into their memoirs to act as a voice presenting an important point in the narrative. This is not a moral failure. Most writers of the ancient world saw themselves as tellers of stories, teaching lessons that people can apply to their own lives, cities, and civilizations.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds – some brought forth by the Hellenes [Greeks], others by the barbarians [Persians] – not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other.
— Opening sentence of The Histories, the great history by Herodotus of the Persian Wars (Wikipedia).

Looking back, today we can see that these stories were propaganda of the cultures that created them, and were often inaccurate – or made up altogether.

Case Study: Character Assassination of a General

Statue of Hannibal

A famous example of a fictional narrative overwhelming history is Maharbal, a Numidian commander who served the legendary Hannibal, who led the Carthaginian army in a brutally destructive campaign against Rome in the Second Punic War. Hannibal’s stunning campaign reached its high point with his crushing defeat of the entire Roman field army at the Battle of Cannae on 2 August 216 BC.

In the aftermath of the battle, there was a famous exchange between Hannibal and Maharbal. The Numidian aggressively questioned Hannibal’s plans for exploiting the victory and defeating Rome for good. Dissatisfied with Hannibal’s unwillingness to take risks to decisively end the war, Maharbal chastised him with a line that became famous: “You, Hannibal, know how to gain a victory; you do not know how to use it.”

This line sells a narrative: Hannibal wast was overly cautious and as a result lost the war. But there is little evidence that Maharbal said this. Worse, the narrative is overly simplistic. Hannibal was indeed hesitant to directly attack Rome as Maharbal suggested, but he had compelling reasons. Carthage refused to send not only reinforcements but even supplies. Hannibal believed it was a better strategy to isolate Rome from the peoples it had subjugated. This caused rebellions in Macedonia, Sicily and even within Italy itself. But not enough, while his army dwindled due to lack of support. Then Hannibal was forced to abandon the expedition completely when Scipio Africanus launched a direct attack against Carthage in 204 BC.

Hannibal made sensible strategic decisions, and there is a compelling argument that his defeat was due to factors beyond his control. But Romans and future Western historians they influenced found it more appealing to depict Hannibal as inferior to the heroic Roman generals and their brave legionaries.

The Hegemonic Narratives of History

Hegemonic: ruling or dominant in a political or social context.

History is written by the victors. Hannibal’s ultimate defeat is presented in popular culture as a moral lesson about a commander hesitating when he should have been bold. Such entertaining narratives drowns out the actual facts of history.

Manufacturing conversations and even people, to sell a narrative continues in our time. There is one key difference, however. The classical historians presented themselves as storytellers. There was a self-awareness that they were being a little liberal with the truth, and few pretended otherwise.

Little has changed in the essentials of publishing a work of history over the past two millennia. Readers still love real events told an exciting format. But modern media often blur the distinction between truth and fiction

In my own reading for one of my upcoming books, The Silver Cord: A Story of the Night Witches (see the introductory chapter) I encountered a pervasive inability to distinguish truth from fiction. The 588th Night Bomber Regiment is one of the few all-female regiments in history, and the most decorated. While they were always heroes in their home communities, these woman aviators were mostly unknown in the West.

That changed in 1981 when Bruce Myles published Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II. Myles is an excellent author, and his book is filled with colorful descriptions of the young women and their day-to-day lives, from the terror of battle to funny anecdotes of sleeping, eating and coexisting in a tightly packed military dugout.

As excellently written as it is, Night Witches has little resemblance to the people and events it is allegedly about. His looseness with the facts begins with the title. Myles shares stories of these women, including some remarkably accomplished pilots and the only women flying aces (Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak). But only the 588th Night Bombers were “Night Witches.” Myles presumably decided to use it as a blanket term for all the women’s regiments. One can only guess why he did this. Maybe because Night Witches is such a catchy term.

It gets worse from there. The Night Witches were not a “Russian” unit. They were a Soviet unit; some were from Russia, particularly Moscow, but they were a diverse group with members from states across the continent, including Kazakhstan, Crimea, Siberia, and Ukraine. At least one of the pilots was a Tatar. While technically within Russian borders, Tatars are a distinct people with their own language and culture. Again, why did Myles do this? Most likely because “Russian” is more easily recognizable. Maybe he wanted to distance his book from the Cold War anti-Soviet politics of the time.

Photo of 3 "Night witches."
Luchinkina Valentina Stepanovna of the 46th Guards Taman night bomber aviation regiment with fellow soldiers Evgenia Pavlova and Nina Buzina, 1945.

The New Narrative

When the Night Witches achieved international fame, in large part due to Myles’ book, their story immediately began to clash with a hegemonic narrative of the modern world: feminism. It’s a clash that seems strange at first glance. Why would brave female flyers be contradictory to feminism? Particularly in the last several decades when there’s been growing pressure to include more women in Western militaries. Ultimately, the feminist narrative isn’t about women fighting. It’s about why they fight.

As stated earlier, bad information drives out the good. Myles succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination; the Night Witches have been featured or referenced in history books, novels, movies, and television many times since then. Unfortunately, many, perhaps most, of these works rely on Myles’ book, and those works’ creators assume Myles is a reliable source, when even a cursory glance at the text shows it isn’t. Myles’ imaginary account was a best seller and remains popular to the present day. More accurate accounts, including, ironically, the published works of the Night Witches themselves are drowned out. Though some of these accounts were eventually translated into English, most are out of print, and none came close to the distribution that Myles enjoyed.

This brings us to the most important question: Why? It’s the narrative. The hegemonic narrative of Western Civilization today is feminism. The primary enemy of feminism is the patriarchy. Myles depicted the Soviet military bureaucracy as sexist and discriminatory toward women. This message only grew in later books. Articles and documentaries published by the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and other major outlets often depict the Night Witches’ own country as their primary adversary. This fits the “G.I. Jane” narrative of a determined female soldier overcoming bigotry of her own male team members. Her goal is recognition for her achievements.

In reality, there’s really no significant evidence of sexism in the Soviet war machine of the time. None of the female aviators of the Great Patriotic War expressed any feeling of mistreatment publicly, and their private diaries and letters that have been released don’t either. They volunteered for the front to fight the Nazis, and that’s what they did.

Their male counterparts don’t appear to have felt any hostility toward the women’s air regiments either. Quite the opposite, men heaped praise on them for leaving the safety of home to fight.

General Konstantin Vershinin commanded the 4th Air Army, with five newly-awarded Heroes of the Soviet Union from the Night Bomber Regiment in 1944. Vershinin was skeptical when the Night Witches first arrived, but quickly became one of their biggest supporters. Even during periods they fell outside his command, he sent advice and encouragement.

Night Witches did face sexism, but not from the Soviets. The Germans did not appreciate being bombed by women.

“My co-pilot and I had agreed we’d never land on enemy territory. We decided better to crash the plane than be taken prisoner. A lot of us took that decision. You wouldn’t want to be a Night Witch in captivity. We’d have been doomed to torture.”
— Klavdia Deryabina, interviewed in 2001 by the LAT.

Nor did Russia’s allies share the enthusiasm for women in combat. The unit’s regimental commander sent one of her most highly decorated pilots, Maria Smirnova, to an anti-fascism conference in 1944. The Western news media couldn’t believe that a woman was capable of flying in combat.


We have more information at our fingertips than ever before. But half of it is wrong, and we often don’t know which half. This problem isn’t insurmountable. Healthy skepticism is a good practice. When reading, watching, or otherwise digesting any form of media, compare it to the framework of what you know of that culture and time period. If a statement contradicts your pre-established beliefs, then one of the two is wrong. After that, it’s a matter of finding out which.

About the author

See Ian Michael’s bio. Contact him at LinkedInTwitter, or Facebook. See his other articles on the FM website …

For More Information

Ideas! For some holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see other posts about WWII, and especially these posts …

  1. Putting women in combat: a quick look at the other side of the debate.
  2. About the future of an American army with women as combat soldiers.
  3. Women in combat are the real Revolution in Military Affairs.
  4. News about the battle for women’s equality in our armed forces.
  5. Martin van Creveld looks at Amazons: women warriors in the real world.
  6. Martin van Creveld looks at the experience of women in the Israel Defense Forces.
  7. Martin van Creveld: women are a problem in the military, not the cure.

Books about the Night Witches

These are just a few of the history books about that unit. There are several works, like this post, of historical fiction about them.

The first big-selling English-language book about the Night Witches is Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II by Bruce Myles (1990).

Ian highly recommends A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle (1994).

Ian also recommends The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II (English 2017 of a 1985 original in Russia) – a profound book about Soviet women in WWII by oral historian Svetlana Alexievich.

Night Witches: A History of the All Female 588th Night Bomber Regiment by Fergus Mason (2014).

The Soviet Night Witches: Brave Women Bomber Pilots of World War II by Pamela Jain Dell (2017).

“Tonight We Fly!” The Soviet Night Witches of WWII by Claudia Hagen (2017).

Night Witches at War: The Soviet Women Pilots of World War II by Bruce Berglund (2019).

Night Witches: The Amazing Story Of Russia's Women Pilots in World War II
Available at Amazon.
"Tonight We Fly!" The Soviet Night Witches of WWII
Available at Amazon.


10 thoughts on “Historical fiction becomes fact, hiding useful lessons”

  1. Well stated, Ian.

    The worst aspect of the modern internet is the very strong (and understandable) desire of the organizations presenting information to charge money for it even though they have done minimal fact-checking. I don’t mind paying good money for reliably good information but I hate paying for bad information, in part because we all have limited funds which forces us to choose news sources if they all charge.

    This frequently leads to people choosing news sources that support rather than challenge their personal biases with unfortunate but predictable results.

  2. The Man Who Laughs

    Although one of life’s pleasures is re-learning about history based on more accurate information. I was given a copy of William Westmorland’s book A Soldier Reports for Christmas as a young man. So I got to enjoy learning about what really happened later. I also read a book about Vietnam by one of Westmorland’s staff officers, and there were tells that he and Westmorland were having us on.)

    I also recall being told by my grandmother that the slaves were ‘happy people” I agree that hisotry really ought to be told with some respect for the truth, but there were historical episodes that I really did enjoy reading about from a more factual perspective.

  3. He [name withheld] was declared Roman emperor at the age of 25.

    In the first year of his reign:

    Destroyed the old emperor’s treason papers.
    Declared that treason trials were a thing of the past.
    Recalled the exiles.
    Helped those who had been harmed by the Imperial tax system.
    Banished sexual deviants (his once disguised virtue in action).

    In the second:

    Published the accounts of public funds.
    Aided those who lost property in fires.
    Abolished certain taxes.
    Gave out prizes to the public at gymnastic events.
    Allowed new members into the equestrian and senatorial orders
    Restored the practice of democratic elections.

    These actions were met by hostility from the oligarchy who came to see the Senate as their own personal domain. Their reaction was an economic boycott to force the young emperor to come back under their thumb. The emperor counter-attacked:

    He levied taxes on lawsuits, marriage and prostitution (all of which were monopolies to the moneyed classes by then).
    Forced centurions who kept the spoils of war as their personal property to turn it over to the state.
    Highway commissioners who embezzled and wasted money by incompetence were made to repay it back.
    He auctioned all the luxury items in the imperial palaces to fund the state.

    The emperor embarked on many public works to provide work for the landless lower classes of Rome, who were depended on grain dole from either the oligarchy or the state:

    Improved the harbours at Rhegium and Sicily.
    Completed the temple of Augustus and the theatre of Pompey.
    Began an amphitheatre beside the Saepta.
    Expanded the imperial palace.
    Began the aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus, considered engineering marvels.
    Built a large racetrack known as the circus of Gaius and Nero,
    Had an Egyptian obelisk transported by sea and erected in the middle of Rome.
    Repaired the city walls and the temples of the gods at Syracuse.
    Built new roads and pushed to keep roads in good condition.

    All this in the short years of his reign, if he had lived longer he would have done more: “He had planned to rebuild the palace of Polycrates at Samos, to finish the temple of Didymaean Apollo at Ephesus and to found a city high up in the Alps. He also planned to dig a canal through the Isthmus in Greece and sent a chief centurion to survey the work.”

    In the third year of his reign the emperor annexed Mauretania, adding the North African coast from Tunis to the Atlantic to the Roman Empire. He prepared the invasion of Britain conducting a training and scouting mission, the invasion [carried out by his successor] would establish him as a true military man as were his ancestors and cast forever the role he had to play to survive the tyranny of the old emperor.

    The old emperor had spent the last decade of his life in his island of infamy, leaving the oligarchy to reign over the people without check. The young emperor’s vigour defence of the people and his actions showed the world that the oligarchy were a hallow power, even their money was no match to him. Sadly the times of old were long gone and the people of Rome were corrupted by their empire to their core.

    The conspiracies against the emperor started with his coronation. The emperor was vigilant having spent his life, since the age of seven, battling shadow enemies. Many a conspiracy was discovered—the mind wonders what he might have achieved if he had been met with loyalty instead of treachery—and those involved executed, but alas the honour of a Roman had become very cheap and at the end the very people charged with his security were bought off. He was killed by his guard in the darkness of an underground tunnel—not like Caesar who was killed by senators in the daylight—no doubt taken for security.

    Did you guess who is this great Roman emperor? Well take a look and see how popular historical fiction presents him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfgDPLkMg-w

  4. Thank you Larry, lots to think about.
    Our search for understanding, for order among the chaos, leads us to create stories; reliant as they are on the perspective of the teller they’re both useful and misleading. Conspiracy theories are a good example of that – connect the dots they say. Which dots I say.
    I was struck by this recently when looking at the complexity and apparent chaos of the night sky. “Connect the dots” and the Southern Cross and Orion’s Belt become familiar, comforting reference points. The thing is though, they’re not real. I’m looking at only two dimensions of three dimensional space. Travel into space and the illusion vanishes, the stars that form the structure can be many light years apart – from a different perspective the imagined but apparently real is seen to be something completely different – or nothing at all. Or the tiny star we perceive as a distant sun is, in reality, billions of suns, an extraordinarily beautiful spiral nebula galaxy.
    We crave the security of the known, the easy and comforting explanation, the belief, the ideology that means we don’t have to confront the chaos of uncertainty. That we don’t have to think.
    It would be a great mistake., however, to dismiss the value of the story and, like fools, miss out on perhaps the most valuable stories of all and the accumulated wisdom of our predecessors.
    Since we’ve all got a fair bit of time at the mo, time to think and learn, I can thoroughly recommend The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories by Jordan Peterson – free on youtube..
    I normally prefer to read than watch but, fair to say, watching this changed the way I viewed the world in many respects and left a great appreciation for those that came before and helped light the path for us today.
    Best Wishes to All,

  5. It appears to me that Western authors wanted to tar the Soviets with the same brush that they themselves are tarred with. To admit that the Soviet military was much less sexist than Western militaries was just too much, to say nothing of the Soviets’ ability to unite various ethnicities. It hurts too much to admit that our enemies had virtues that we lacked.

    1. Interesting perspective but it should be remembered the elimination of differences is an integral part of Marxist ideology. We can see that in the approved artistic representations of women as staunch workers for the glorious state; the qualities of femininity as well as ethnic, regional and religious differences to be subsumed for the collective. No normal human loyalties must be allowed to compete, even down to the level of the family.
      The “uniting of ethnicities” was really the destruction of ethnicities achieved by flooding the outer parts of the empire with Russians, colonisation I suppose you could call it. A similar process is underway today in China with Han Chinese as the colonisers and bureaucrats.
      The deliberate devaluing of the alluring, elegant and maternal feminine doesn’t sound like a virtue to me; a seriously bad ideological obsession more like.
      Vive la différence!

      1. Thank you for the counterpoint. I think I can now combine my thesis and your antithesis into a proper synthesis: Western authors downplayed certain Soviet qualities (that is, the qualities that Western authors envied) not just because they didn’t want to admit that foreigners did those things better, but also because they didn’t want to admit that those qualities came at such a heavy price. Who in the West would openly call for the destruction of human variety in the furtherance of national unity? Better to just pretend that none of it ever happened.

      2. David, unfortunately your description of the Soviet reality is more like a caricature. Elimination of differences is not an integral part of Marxist ideology, it’s an obvious consequence. Marxists say people more or less contribute the same to society, the amount they work, regardless of the kind of work. This is (very roughly) the Labour Theory of Value, the cornerstone of classical Political Economy of Adam Smith, Ricardo and the like. The West eliminated this from it’s economy for ideological reasons at the end of the 1800s, and after that the “science” of Economy has been more or less a state religion (with same predictive power as a religion).
        Furthermore, Marxists don’t glorify the “state” as such, their eventual aim is the dissolution of state (defined as the coercive organ of the ruling class). Heightened class struggle and external threats make it necessary, and the Soviet Union had both.
        As for ethnicities, the Soviet rule was actually milder than what was before (and what is the norm in the West, check pl. the the fate of the American Indians). Arguably, the existence of Ukraine (and the Ukrainian nation) is a Bolshevik invention, Ukrainians are less different from Russians than say a Southern German from a Northern one. Actually, without the quite divergent West Ukraine the Ukrainians are hardly distinguishable from Southern Russians.

  6. Another kind of distortion of history is what we choose to mention or use when thinking about current events. And what we choose to pass over in silence.

    Read Dikotter on China, Hilberg on the Holocaust, Conquest on the Soviet Union, along with Figes, A People’s Tragedy. Also Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder.

    Then read Hobsbawm and look up the interviews he gave. Read what Milne, now a trusted advisor to Corbyn, had to say about Conquest’s second edition of The Great Terror.

    Three countries in the last century, the Soviets, the Germans and the Chinese, installed or collaborated with regimes which engaged in systematic mass murder. That ‘s a fundamental fact about them. Its occasionally still denied, but more often its minimized and condoned and the demand is that we treat these countries as perfectly normal and just like us without thinking about their history.

    That too is a form of denial.

  7. Pingback: 历史小说成为事实,隐藏了有用的教训 – B新聞

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