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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, forgotten, or ignored by established scholars. Secret history is also used to describe a type or genre of fiction which portrays a substantially different motivation or backstory from established historical events.
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.
The exemplar secret history is the Anecdota of Procopius of Caesarea (known for centuries as the Secret History). It was discovered, centuries after it was written, in the Vatican Library and published in 1623, although its existence was already known from the Suda, which referred to it as the Anekdota ("the unpublished composition").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, possibly as late as 562. It 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
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; for instance, in the Star Trek universe, Greg Cox's novels The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh cast the devastating Eugenics Wars of the 1990s (still well into the future when first mentioned in an episode from 1967) as shadow wars most people never knew about, in which such real-life events from that era as the Smiling Buddha nuclear test, the Yugoslav Wars, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots were all part of one wider conflict.
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 archive, 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:
- Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett: a German spy in 1944 nearly succeeds in foiling D-Day;
- The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth: an assassin nearly succeeds in killing Charles De Gaulle, president of France, in 1963.
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 and the equally clever and competent hunter, hot on his heels throughout the book, but who would catch up with him only at the very 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:
- The Key to Rebecca: a German spy in Cairo nearly succeeds in letting Erwin Rommel win in El Alamein.
- The Man from St. Petersburg: a Russian anarchist in 1914 Britain nearly succeeds, by assassinating a key envoy of the Tsar, in averting the First World War.
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 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 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.
- In the 2006 historical detective novel, The Janissary Tree by Jason 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.
- In the thriller The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø, a former WWII Norwegian collaborator with the Nazi occupation nearly succeeds in assassinating the Norwegian Crown Prince.
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 a 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.
- 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 also in a high-level secret conference in Occupied France, which nearly ends with a diplomatic deal to end WWII in 1941.
- The Berkut - Adolf Hitler did not really commit suicide in 1945, it was a double who died together 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 Joseph Stalin in 1953, when he was secretly executed.
- Many of the "Blackford Oakes" spy novels, by conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr., which are secret-history thrillers claiming that historical events considered to have been setbacks for the United States were actually brilliant strategic coups by the CIA which were merely allowed to look like defeats for security purposes, or at least were the product of the US's moral superiority. For instance, in Who's on First, Oakes deliberately chooses not to stop the Soviet Union from launching Sputnik ahead of the otherwise-superior US satellite program, in order to protect the life of a Soviet contact (and thus the seeming Soviet technological triumph was actually authorized by a US agent, who allowed it to happen); in Marco Polo, if You Can, Oakes is the real-life U2 pilot Gary Powers, and allows himself to be captured while flying over the Soviet Union in order to create a cover story for a secret US intelligence operation (and thus the U2 incident was actually planned from the start, Gary Powers was not shot down by the Soviet military but deliberately set up his own capture, and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's subsequent humiliation by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev never happened).
An interesting example of a science-fiction secret history novel can be found in the BBC Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventures novel Imperial Moon, which sees the Fifth Doctor and his companions Vislor Turlough and Kamelion learn about a secret trip to the Moon by the British Imperial Spacefleet in 1878. On first hearing of the expedition, the Doctor notes that Victorian science could have built a structurally sound spaceship capable of going to the Moon, with the only thing beyond them being a conventional propulsion system; the events of the novel reveal that information about how to create the ships' engines was secretly provided by an alien race trapped on the Moon who sought to escape to Earth. At the novel's conclusion, after the alien race decimates the spaceport where the ships returned to Earth before being defeated by the Doctor and his companions, the Doctor arranges for Queen Victoria to cancel the space program as he recognises that Victorian Britain isn't psychologically ready to travel in space, with all records of the expedition being destroyed apart from the expedition leader's diary, which he entrusts to the Doctor for safe keeping.
Fictional "secret" versions of historical events
- Elizabeth Bear's "Promethean Age" series constitutes a massive secret history of Elizabethan England, with considerable fantasy elements. Among other things the series asserts that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was a secret illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I; that Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's spymaster, did not die in 1590 as history records but lived in secret for another five years; that playwrights Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were all secret agents of the Queen and underwent dangerous missions in her service, in addition to their theatrical activities; that the plays of all three had profound secret political and magical meanings; that Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene was not a fictional work but was based on a true Kingdom of Faerie, whose Queen had a secret pact of mutual help with the English Queen Elizabeth; that Christopher Marlowe was not assassinated in 1593 as history records but was taken into Faerie where he became the lover of the witch Morgan le Fay; and that Shakespeare had also visited Faerie and personally met with Puck and other supposedly legendary characters depicted in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
- The first series of Blackadder, in which Henry VII comes to power in a completely different way and removes the reign of Richard IV from the history books. Note that in reality England had only three kings named Richard.
- The Assassin's Creed video game franchise is built around a conspiracy-laden story involving a "New World Order" organization that originated with the Knights Templar. According to the game's fiction, many historical figures were secretly Templars, manipulating history and those around them in a quest for power. They were opposed by the Assassins, another secret order that considered themselves defenders of humanity's free will. It is implied, and confirmed in Assassin's Creed II, that certain powerful artifacts that the Templars sought in their quest for power were remnants of a secret "First Civilization", the basis for most real-world religion and mythology. The true history of the world has long been lost and/or intentionally obscured, possibly by the Templars.
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.
- 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. What differentiates this case from many other retcons and reboots is the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not need to alter the initial stories in any ways, since he had never given any substantial evidence that Sherlock Holmes died, in the first place : the "death" of the Great Detective was only a mistake on the part of the police and Dr Watson who misread the signs on the place of his apparent death.
- The Doctor Who serial Remembrance of the Daleks also alludes to hidden fictional history, establishing that during the events of the serial 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, making it "secret".
- 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.
- Warren Ellis's comic book series Planetary offers a secret history look at the origin of comic book and literary type superheroes.
- Philip José Farmer's The Other Log of Phileas Fogg reinterprets Jules Verne's famous tale with the assumption that in fact Fogg was the immortal foster child of a race of humanoid aliens known as the Eridani, and that his travel around the world was part of a secret mission on their behalf.
- Many of the novels by American Tim Powers are secret histories. For example, his 1987 novel On Stranger Tides had a different interpretation of pirate Blackbeard's death at Ocracoke Inlet. After finding the Fountain of Youth, Blackbeard planned to go in battle and knew it would lead to his death, which he wanted to be legendary. After Blackbeard's death, his head was cut off and hung on the bowsprit, in which the pirate's blood fell into the seas, thereby letting the effects of the Fountain work. Blackbeard's soul would gain a new body, where he would assume a new identity as "Edmund Morcilla" until he was killed again, once and for all, by the book's protagonist Jack Shandy. Powers's 2001 novel Declare presents a secret history of the Cold War, with America and the UK jousting with the Soviet Union over the control of powerful supernatural forces.
- The Secret History, English translation (Dewing, 1935) at LacusCurtius
- Monette, Sarah. "An Interview with Elizabeth Bear, conducted by Sarah Monette". Subterranean Press. Retrieved 4 October 2012.