A secret history
(or shadow history
) is a revisionist
interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history
which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed or forgotten.
Secret histories of the real world
Originally secret histories were designed as non-fictional, revealing or claiming to reveal the truth behind the "spin
": one such example is the Secret History of the Mongols
. Secret histories can range from standard historical revisionism
with proper critical reexamination of historical facts to negative historical revisionism
wherein facts are deliberately omitted, suppressed
or distorted. An example of the latter would be the denial of the Holocaust
The exemplar secret history is the Anecdota of Procopius of Caesarea (known for centuries as the Secret History). Although it is not as famous as the Secret History, Procopius' History of the Wars is clearly his most important work. Later, Procopius added an eighth book. The famous Secret History was discovered centuries later in the Vatican Library and published in 1623, but its existence was already known from the Suda, which referred to it as the Anekdota ("the unpublished composition"). The Secret History covers roughly the same years as the first seven books of the History of Justinian's Wars and appears to have been written after they were published. Current consensus generally dates it to 550 or 558, or maybe even as late as 562. The famous Secret History portrays the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian I to the great disadvantage of the Emperor, his wife and some of his court.
Fictional secret histories
Fictional secret histories examples
- In the Doctor Who serial Remembrance of the Daleks, the Seventh Doctor ironically chides his companion for not knowing about such events as the Yeti in the Underground (The Web of Fear) or the Loch Ness Monster's appearance in London (Terror of the Zygons), making a point that the "historical events" of Doctor Who ought to have affected public consciousness in some way, yet clearly failed to do so because of human self-deception and denial.
- Blackadder: the first series has a forgotten King Richard IV of England ascending the throne, rather than dying in his youth. In the third series, Blackadder assumes the identity of George, Prince Regent and presumably ascends the throne as King George IV.
- Dark Skies
- The X-Files
- The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
- Many of the novels of Robert Graves are in this genre, e.g. I, Claudius, Claudius the God, Count Belisarius, Wife to Mr Milton
- The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
- In the Country of the Blind by Michael Flynn is about a secret society that attempts to influence history with mathematics calculated on Babbage analytical engines.
- Harry Paget Flashman is placed at the centre of many 19th century events by George MacDonald Fraser.
- The Shadow Hearts series of video games uses secret histories as its trademark style.
- Fantasy author Tim Powers's predominant style of writing is based on secret histories.
- Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson, both contain elements of secret history.
- Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
- The Plot to Save Socrates by Paul Levinson centers around a secret Socratic dialogue about a plan to save his life, but not change history as we know it – revealing the "real" reason that Socrates refused Crito's offer of escape.
- The Gabriel Knight series of computer adventure games.
- The Secret History, a novel by Donna Tartt, focuses on six Classics students and their pedagogue. (Procopius)
- Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco is both an homage to and parody of secret history stories, wherein a group of scholars and their supercomputer 'discover' a ridiculously far-reaching historical conspiracy that involves the Knights Templar, the Comte de Saint-Germain and dozens of historical personalities.
Secret history is sometimes used in a long-running science fiction or fantasy universe to preserve continuity with the present by reconciling paranormal, anachronistic, or otherwise notable but unrecorded events with what actually happened in known history.
Secret history thrillers
A certain type of thriller can be defined as secret history. In such novels, a daring spy, assassin or commando nearly carries out a coup which would have drastically changed history as we know it. Since this is not alternate history but a secret event in our own history, the reader knows in advance that this attempt would be foiled, that all persons in the know would be sworn to secrecy and all evidence be consigned to a top secret archives, where supposedly it still is. Nevertheless, the plot fascinates many readers who want to see how close history comes to being changed (usually, very very close) and exactly how the attempt would be foiled.
Two highly successful novels are considered to have started this sub-genre:
These two novels set the framework for many later books: following step by step both the fiendishly clever, competent and ruthless perpetrator in carrying out his design (it is usually a man) and the equally clever and competent hunter, hot on his spoor throughout the book, but who would catch up with him only at the (very cataclysmic) end. Typically, historical figures – including very famous ones – appear in some key scenes, but are not major actors.
Many other novels of this type followed, most of them with World War II backgrounds. Follet himself published at least two others:
Works of other writers fitting within this type include:
- Enigma by Robert Harris: an embittered code-breaker nearly betrays to Nazi Germany the vital and closely guarded secret that the Allies are able to read its secret messages.
- The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins: German commandos nearly succeed in kidnapping British Prime Minister Winston Churchill out of wartime England.
- The Last Crossing by Harvey Ardman: German agents nearly succeed in sinking the French luxury liner SS Normandie in late 1939, with 3000 passengers on board including many VIPs.
- The Day They Stole the Queen Mary by Terence Hughes: German prisoners of war transported on board the mutiny and nearly succeed in capturing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his entire entourage, who are also travelling on the same ship; with this ploy foiled, the German mastermind escapes to plot again, and very nearly succeeds in assassinating Churchill (see).
- The Romanov Succession by Brian Garfield: taking advantage of the 1941 Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, Russian exiles attempt to assassinate Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and restore the monarchy.
- The Night Letter by Paul Spike: In 1940, Nazi agents nearly succeed in blackmailing U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt into not running for a third term.
- The Berlin Warning by Nicholas Guild: Nazi Germany in October 1941 nearly succeeds in betraying its Japanese ally and warning the US of the impending Pearl Harbor attack – which would have prevented the US entering the war.
- The Ninth Man by John Lee: a few years later, a Nazi agent penetrates the White House and nearly succeeds in assassinating Roosevelt.
- Stalag Texas, also by John Lee: escaped German prisoners nearly succeed in destroying the American nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos.
- The Scorpion's Sting by Edward A. Politz, Jr.: Nazi Germany does manage to build a nuclear bomb in 1945, and a U-boat nearly succeeds in using it to destroy Boston and thus stave off Germany's final defeat.
- In the 2006 historical detective novel, "The Janissary Tree" by John Goodwin , a power-mad Ottoman general in 1836 nearly succeeds in overthrowing Sultan Mehmet II and proclaiming a republic almost 90 years in advance of Ataturk.
Different types of secret history thriller include:
- The Leader and the Damned by Colin Forbes: Adolf Hitler was assassinated in 1943 but his death was kept secret and the man who led Nazi Germany in the last two years of the war was a double.
- XPD by Len Deighton: Winston Churchill was far more of an appeaser than official history records, and in June 1940 he had secret meeting with Hitler to discuss peace on the basis of recognizing the German domination of Europe; decades later, the documents recording this shameful secret are the subject of an intensive and deadly power struggle.
- An Exchange of Eagles by Own Sela: in 1940, Nazi Germany and the United States both have nuclear programs advanced enough that both powers would have full nuclear arsenals by 1943 and would be likely to use them, turning World War II into a nuclear holocaust; but two courageous officers, an American and a German, make a personal pact to sabotage and retard their countries' respective programs – thus creating the history we know, where nuclear arms appeared on the scene only at the very end of the war, and destruction was limited to two Japanese cities rather than the entire world.
- The mystery series by Elliott Roosevelt in which his mother, Eleanor Roosevelt, is the detective - placing murder mysteries in the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House and other actual locations and involving many historical persons in the fictional events depicted. In one book of the series, "Murder at the Chateau", Eleanor Roosevelt is involved not only in a murder mystery but aso in a high-lever secret conference at Occupied France, which nearly ends with a diplomatic deal to end WWII in 1941.
- The Berkut - Hitler did not really commit suicide in 1945, it was a double who died togther with Eva Braun. The real Hitler tried to escape from Berlin, was captured by Soviet commandos after the long chase making most of the book, and was secretly kept under horrible and degrading conditions in the Kremlin basement until the death of Stalin in 1953, when he was secretly executed.
Secret histories of fictional worlds
"Retcon", alteration of the canonical account of past events in serial fiction, often employs aspects of secret history. A seeming continuity breach might be "revealed" to alter the truth of what readers were previously led to believe was a definitive story. A retcon might equally well convert an established history into a secret history. Such transformations occur with particular frequency in long-running superhero comic books.
Alan Moore revisionist histories
- During the revival of Miracleman in the 1980s, he showed that the original lighthearted adventures had taken place in a virtual reality.
- In Lost Girls, he reveals events of Alice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan as fantasies invented to cover up memories of childhood sexual abuse.
- He revised Swamp Thing's origin twice, revealing the title character's origin not as an altered human but a sentient plant which had absorbed a dead human's memories. Later, he established Swamp Thing as a supernatural plant elemental, rather than a science-based mutated vegetation.
- In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the histories of various characters differ from the books in which they previously appeared, especially their deaths (notably Allan Quatermaine, Dr Jekyll and the Invisible Man); according to Moore's tale, the books contain errors.
- In From Hell, Moore revises the Jack the Ripper murders as being part of a grand conspiracy running through various organizations and social classes in London (the 1979 movie Murder by Decree had a similar premise).
- When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote "The Final Problem" he fully intended to kill off Sherlock Holmes and write no further books and stories about him. Faced with massive pressure and protests by the famous detective's fans, he finally gave in. "The Adventure of the Empty House" revealed that Holmes did not die after all, and recounted a secret history of three years in which Holmes had been wandering the world while everybody – including even his close friend Dr. Watson – believed him to be dead.
- Remembrance of the Daleks also alludes to hidden fictional history, establishing that during the events of An Unearthly Child the First Doctor had in his possession a super-weapon, the Hand of Omega stolen from his own people, the Time Lords. The story also implies that he knew of the Daleks before he "first" met them.
- DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths made years of "established" events and characters from the DC Universe (for example the existence of Krypto) "un-happen". In the revised continuity only a few privileged characters remember the old continuity.
- Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton universe heavily influenced Alan Moore's subsequent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Both these universes tie together many disparate fictional creations in a variety of surprising ways.