Official history

An official history is a work of history which is sponsored, authorised or endorsed by its subject. The term is most commonly used for histories which are produced for a government.[1] The term also applies to commissions from non-state bodies as company histories, i.e. histories of commercial companies. An official biography (one written with the permission, cooperation and perhaps participation of its subject or the subject's heirs) is often known as an authorized biography.

Official histories frequently have the advantage that the author or authors have been given access to archives, could interview subjects and use other primary sources that would be closed to independent historians. Because of the necessarily close relationship between author and subject, such works may be (or be perceived to be) partisan in tone and to lack historical objectivity. Such bias varies and some official histories are little more than exercises in public relations and promotion, whereas in other cases the authors have retained sufficient independence to be able to express negative as well as positive judgements about their subjects.

Early official histories

There is a long tradition of history being written or published under official patronage: they include, for example, the Anglica Historia (drafted by 1513 and published in 1534), a history of England written by Polydore Vergil at the request of King Henry VII and William Camden's Annales Rerum Gestarum Angliae et Hiberniae Regnate Elizabetha (1615–1627), a history of the reign of Elizabeth I of England. In early modern Europe, certain royal courts appointed official historians: these included the Rikshistoriograf in Sweden from 1618, the Historiographer Royal in England from 1660 and the Historiographer Royal in Scotland from 1681; the Scottish post is still in existence. Each book in the Twenty-Four Histories records the official history of a Chinese dynasty. Sixteen of the histories were written between the 7th and 15th centuries. The first is Records of the Grand Historian, authored by Sima Qian in the Han Dynasty and the last is History of Ming in 1735. The official histories were compiled since the Tang Dynasty by a government office for historiography. They were revised and expanded over the course of a dynasty, up until the point that a final edition is published by the succeeding dynasty.[2]

Modern official histories

The modern form of official history began in the mid-nineteenth century in reports written as military guides for later officers. The histories were detailed descriptions of events, not easy reading for a lay audience and left judgements to the discretion of a mainly professional readership. After the First World War, the New Zealand government decided that after a total war, its official histories should be written for a public who had fought in the war or supported the war effort. After the Second World War, the low academic standard of military education, especially in historical analysis, led to a view that professionally-trained historians should write official histories, applying their academic training to explain why as well as describe what. Since many of the academics had participated in the war, they could be expected to have experience of military service and knowledge of the war inform their writing. The contemporary view is that official history should incorporate the three points of view, containing the detailed description needed for works of military instruction but also to be suitable for a general readership and to show how participants tried to solve problems, drawing lessons from their successes and failures. None of the points of view to be served by the production of official history is immune to error, because work by a military historian might be fraudulent for personal or political reasons, distorting the record. Populist history can dilute the story to the point of worthlessness and civilian academics can be prone to select facts and interpretations according to ideals, ideology and preconceived ideas. [3]

Military histories written as textbooks might be thought to have a basis in truth, necessary to teach useful lessons to students and the British Report of the Committee on the Lessons of the Great War (Kirk Report, 1931) drew on the published volumes of the British official history and the conclusions were incorporated into a new edition of Field Service Regulations. That operations might be conducted in Iraq and Iran, led to official history volumes being produced against the objections of the Foreign Office. Military histories concentrated on the doings of national contingents, rarely referring to those of allied and opposing armies; comparative analysis is absent and national bias, due to ulterior motives like mythologising, can also be found. The Australian Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 edited by Charles Bean contains exaggerations of the significance of the Australian contribution, the prowess of Australian soldiers and disparagements of soldiers from Britain and its allies. Australian failures and casualties are sometimes blamed on British higher commanders, when high-ranking Australian officers could justly be criticised. The post-war Royal Air Force (RAF) was at risk of abolition and needed a function that could not be replicated by the army or navy to justify its existence and the parts of The War in the Air (1922–1937) written by H. A. Jones gave undue emphasis to strategic bombing, unbalancing the work.[3]

Embarrassing events can be disguised by underwriting as happened in Histoire de La Grande Guerre, where the French Army Mutinies of 1917 occurred in 43 percent of the French Army, yet were passed over in a few paragraphs in Les Armées Françaises dans la Grand Guerre. Many of the historians, editors and contributors to the History of the Great War (1915–1949) had been senior officers during the war, which had the advantage of bringing first-hand knowledge of events and experience of military art to the work but this risked allowing a desire to protect reputations leading to unfair blame, particularly on outsiders. Volume III of the Royal Navy history Naval Operations (1923) had the narrative of the Battle of Jutland (1916) and the draft text was revised at the request of some serving officers present at the battle, to remove critical remarks about them. When a revised edition was published (1940), many of the officers were retired or dead but the excised passages were not restored.[4] The British Army Military Operations.... volumes have been criticised for dishonesty in not blaming General Headquarters (GHQ) for the extent of British casualties and for exculpating Sir Douglas Haig (commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from December 1915). That the history is a description of events, rather than an analytical work with criticism and conclusions, means that Haig and other commanders escape blame, yet it also leaves the reader free to form conclusions.[5]

Military official histories








New Zealand

United States

South Africa


  1. MacIntyre 2001, Official History.
  2. Hartman & DeBlasi 2012, p. 18.
  3. 1 2 Wells 2011, pp. 9–10.
  4. Wells 2011, pp. 10–11.
  5. Wells 2011, pp. 11–12.
  6. Wells 2011, pp. 112−116.
  7. Wells 2011, pp. 106–111.
  8. Wells 2011, p. 116.


  • Hartman, Charles; DeBlasi, Anthony (2012). "The Growth of Historical Method in Tang China". In Foot, Sarah; Robinson, C. F. The Oxford History of Historical Writing: 400–1400. II. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-923642-8. 
  • MacIntyre, Stuart (2001). "Official History". In Davison, Graeme; Hirst, John. The Oxford Companion to Australian History (Online rev. ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-551503-9. 
  • Wells, N. J. (2011). Official Histories of the Great War 1914–1918. Uckfield: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84574-906-4. 

Further reading

External links

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