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Dead Men Do Tell Tales · Original Minific ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 400–750
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One day, Alex asked, “How much of what we know about World War 2 comes from biographies written by Nazis?”

“About a third of it,” her advisor said.

“Okay.” She folded her hands in her lap, not sure what else to do with them. “But the rest comes from allied reports?”

“Yes,” her advisor said, adding, “mostly biographies written by communists. The USSR published their official version of events in 1956.”

A faint frown appeared on Alex’s face, and it was only after a moment that she said: “What about American or British reports?”

“Well, those are alright,” he advisor replied, “but by the time western allies were in Europe, the war was pretty much over. Most of the fighting occurred before that. It’s frustrating, but we have to go with the sources we have.”

That evening, Alex filled her apartment with books that were very concerning to her roommates: books with red covers and books with swastikas on the cover, books dedicated to the workers revolution, and books dedicated to those who perished fighting the “international jew.” They asked her if she’d been watching too much YouTube lately, or perhaps if she should uninstall social media from her phone until after the election.

The next day, she returned to campus and her advisors office, not having slept in the interim. She was still wearing the same clothes, though they were more rumpled than they had been. She smelled of sweat and coffee.

“In this biography,” she said, holding up a black book, “General Manstein says that the southern assault at the Battle of Kursk was a rousing success, and they’d have crushed the Soviets if Hitler hadn’t forced them to pull back.”

“Yes,” her advisor said, “what of it?”

“He was the commander of the southern assault.” She pointed at the book, as though its black cover might somehow support her accusation. “He’s evaluating his own performance in a battle that he lost.”

“He’s the only high-ranking German officer from the southern Kursk assault who survived the war. He’s the only source we have.”

“He’s the only German source we have.” She fished out another book, this one with a red cover. “Field Marshall Zhukov says that Manstein is an idiot, that the southern assault was a disaster, and that Hitler pulled him back to save what was left of the German fourth army from complete destruction.”


After a pause, she pointed at that book as well, wide-eyed: “So our two major sources completely disagree about how the battle went.”

“That’s not true,” her advisor said, “Zhukov and Manstein both agree that Kluge was an idiot who bundled the northern assault.”

“Kluge didn’t survive the war. He doesn’t have a biography.”

“True,” her advisor said. “Read enough of these books and you’ll notice that a lot of things get blamed on people who aren’t around to disagree.”

After a moment of incredulous silence, her eyes wide, her manner sharp, Alex snapped: “So do we know anything?”

“We know the Germans lost Kursk, no matter what any biographies say,” her advisor replied, “We know which men survived and which didn’t. We know how it mattered to the rest of the war.”

“But for what actually happened, we’re relying on whoever got their book published.” Alex rubbed her face, letting the two biographies fall back into her lap. “So, when historians write about our era, is the highest authority going to be… I don’t know. Whoever got the most retweets? Does PewDiePie get to write a future history textbook on early 21st century American culture?”

“Is that any different from how it works now?” her advisor asked, a small smile on his face.

Alex paused, her stare exhausted and uncomprehending. “I don’t understand.”

“Even if everything you saw on the news was true,” he raised a hand to her, “which it’s not, do you think CNN decides who gets coverage on the basis of what is strictly factual and fair? You think a murder in southern Somalia gets the same coverage as the murder of a pretty white girl in Washington DC?”

“Then…” For a time, Alex stared at nothing, perhaps vaguely in the direction of her advisor’s desk. “Why be a historian?”

“Do you care about what actually happened? Do you want to know the difference between truth and stories?”

“Yes,” she snapped, “yes of course!”

“Most people don’t.”
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#1 ·
· · >>No_Raisin
Was everybody writing at the last minute? Some more low-level editing mistakes in this one.

I'm already a little put off by the premise from the first page. There were plenty of Allied personnel in the midst of the fighting. If they weren't, then who were the Nazis fighting? Plus you're localizing "World War 2" as specifically Europe, whereas the Americans were very much in the thick of it in the Pacific. All that has me anticipating this as a "the Axis won the war" story. Except that you're detaching the Soviets from the Allies, and Alex's roommates find the Russian and Nazi symbols disconcerting.

Then it turns into either a comment on modern politics, or another one of these entries about meme culture. It even asks one of the same questions: why care about history? It's odd that that's come up repeatedly for a prompt that doesn't directly ask the question.

I hope this doesn't come off as a rant, but this feels like a strawman story to me. Now that I know the specific battle in question was one only the Germans and Russians were involved in, it makes the point more pertinent about the lack of US or British sources. But it would be a matter of known historical fact, with some degree of uncertainty involved, which military units were there, what actions they took, what losses they suffered, what orders were given, and the outcome. It wouldn't be too big a task for a military strategist to analyze them and decide which moves were good or bad. There are many such books, where people not involved in the action look at the records after the fact and piece together what happened. I take your point that "history books are written by the victors" in some sense, where the victory in this case is getting your account published whether or not you won the battle. And while that might apply to specific lesser-known battles, in broad strokes, historians do a pretty good job of getting it right. Once enough time has passed that historians wouldn't be biased by a personal stake in the analysis, especially, and in the more modern world where that doesn't mean the records are lost to time, there's a whole lot more available for a dispassionate analysis. I just feel like it's taking an over-simplified view of things and picking one specific (and somewhat egregious) example as support.

The Somalia vs. DC question, as an example, is also one that has many practical reasons for it beside the fatalistic ones the professor implies. Not that those are wrong, but it's not as simple as he's making it, and by leaving it at that, you're letting him fall into a stereotype that's probably making him less of a sympathetic character than he could be. Same as his truth vs. stories point. Most people do care about the difference, but just don't always realize which things are stories.

As a story, though, this works well. It builds up the tension nicely, but it could use more in resolving it. It doesn't have to resolve it completely, but without following through, I don't know whether this has any impact on Alex. What insight does she get out of that question? Was this whole thing just an exercise made up by her professor to lead her to that realization? He poses the question, but we don't get the first inkling of how she might answer it, or that she's learned anything from it. Was her crisis just in locating the truth, or was she having one about her educational path as well? Some of that is going to be limitations of the word count, and maybe this is just a story that won't fit in this one. It's a kind of issue that could use some more nuance and a stronger thematic bow tied on it. It's close, thematically. Alex definitely has a strong reaction, but it's unclear what this will change for her, or why this is a new concept to someone so far along in her education. Her naivete comes across strong early in the story, making me think this would be framed as some idealistic society centuries from now, but by the end, I guess this is more present day?
#2 ·
Big ideas presented here! I like your ambition. And I thought that, at least from a literary standpoint, the ending was a fun snappy little slap in the face.

Not being a historian, I may be wrong here, but I would have to believe that given the scale of a major battle like Kursk, at least a few other primary sources would have written about it enough to fill in some gaps. So I don't know how well that works as an example in this particular sense. Without taking any stabs at your "history is written by the victors" and "we lose a great deal in the sands of time" arguments, I thought this was solidly written, if not a bit on the "talking heads" side of things. That's to be expected with a 750-word cap, so no points docked there as far as I'm concerned.

Thank you for sharing!
#3 ·
This story theme is needed to be told in something that didn't have 750 word limit. Ending feels like walking into a brick wall. Still like it.
#4 ·
Honorable Mention:
“True,” her advisor said. “Read enough of these books and you’ll notice that a lot of things get blamed on people who aren’t around to disagree.”

So once again we have a female student getting schooled by a presumably more knowledgeable authority figure. And once again we examine a peculiarity of what we might call the postmodern landscape, but this time taking on that classic Emerson saying about how there is no history, only biography. The lack of objective truth in a world where there are many sources, but many of them are mutually exclusive.

Personally I would've much preferred if Alex and her advisor talked about something that has far shakier historical ground than the Battle of Kursk, such as the life of Socrates. Socrates was no doubt a real person, but our only accounts of him come from people who supposedly knew him and talked with him, but who were not Socrates. I supposed that's not putting enough emphasis on the "biography" part of the equation, though. Anyway, Alex and her advisor don't seem to know much about WWII, which I suspect was intentional. Even the advisor's more enlightened viewpoint is racked with ignorance and oversimplification, which could very well contribute powerfully to the message here, but the advisor is written as too much of a mentor figure for me to put confidence into this. Also weird how Alex, inexplicably, equates a famous YouTuber with major military figures from 70+ years ago. Seems like a really bad point of comparison.

There's a lot to unpack here, certainly. It's more or less a Socratic dialogue (bringing up that prick Socrates again, I know) about the nature of objective truth, and how history is ultimately written by people who are able to write about it in the first place. Even primary sources can be hard to trust with this thing in mind. Sort of reminds me of Melville's The Confidence Man, but not as abstract, and honestly I think the modern references in this entry undermine it. Alex and her advisor could be having this conversation in 2020 or 1980, it shouldn't make too much of a difference. And, like >>Pascoite, I find myself tumbling down a rabbit hole with this line of thinking.

That must be saying something, though, that we're thinking about it as much as we are. It is, if nothing else, a story of big ideas squished into a cage fit for a hamster.