Drawing from both fictional and non-fictional sources, this article traces the way history was conceptualised in twentieth-century Ethiopia by secular educated elites, charting the changing power relations between Ethiopia's hegemonic historiographical paradigm and the alternative historical visions that challenged this ‘Great Tradition’ over the course of the century. While the Great Tradition extols Ethiopia's past and future glories, the counter-histories focused instead on the country's failure to develop and democratise. Against the interpretation that the counter-histories supplanted the Great Tradition in the late 1960s, the article examines them in terms of complementarity. The intellectual interventions of young student radicals in the late 1960s constitute a break, but not a drastic paradigm shift from the past. The Great Tradition had already been called into question by older generations of intellectuals, even if they proved unable or unwilling to translate their disillusionment into political action.