Secret history  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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 respectable scholars.


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published in 1623, although its existence was already known from the Suda, which referred to it as the Anekdota ("the unpublished composition").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.

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 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:

Works of other writers fitting within this type include:

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.
  • 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-level secret conference in 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 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 Stalin in 1953, when he was secretly executed.

Fictional "secret" versions of historical events

  • Nana Sahib, a major leader of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (the blackest of villains in British eyes at the time, a hero to many Indians and recognized as such in present-day India) has disappeared after the failure of the rebellion and his eventual fate was never discovered. Jules Verne in the 1879 novel "The End of Nana Sahib" (also published as "The Steam House") presented a fictional account of how he met his end and why this remained a secret.
  • In 1137 the bones of the Welsh Saint Winifred were disinterred at the small Welsh village where she had been venerated for hundreds of years before, and taken to Shrewsbury - then a major English city and bustling center of commerce. This is an actual historical event, of some significance in the religious and social history of Medieval England and Wales. However, according to the version presented in Ellis Peters' "A Morbid Taste for Bones", first book in the successful "Brother Cadfael" series, the Saint's bones were in fact secretly reinterred at her original resting place, and the bones taken to England and venerated there until the time of Henry the Eighth were of an entirely different (and far from saintly) person.
  • It is a well-known historical fact that the dissident Spanish Civil War revolutionary leader Andrés Nin was killed in 1937 by orders from the Soviet Union, but the precise circumstances remain shrouded in mystery and controversy. In the James Bond novel From Russia, with Love, Ian Fleming claims that Rosa Klebb - the book's main villain - had been Nin's co-worker and mistress between 1935 and 1937, while in fact being an agent of the OGPU; that it was she who murdered him, on orders from Moscow; and that it was this coup which put her on the road to high power within the Soviet espionage apparatus and eventual confrontation with James Bond. Thus, this portion of the Fleming's book can be considered as secret history.
  • As depicted in John Madden's 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, the play which became "Romeo and Juliet" was originally intended as a comedy, but developed into the tragic play which we know due to a doomed love affair which Shakespeare himself underwent at the time.
  • 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 illgitimate 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 Marlow, 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 "Faerie queen" 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 Marlow was not assasinated in 1593 as history records but was taken into Faerie where he became the lover of the witch Morgan la Fay; and that Shakespeare had also visited Faerie and personally met with Puck and other supposedly legendary characters depicted in "Midsummer Night's Dream".

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.
  • 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".
  • 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" reinterpretes 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 thier behalf.


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Secret history" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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