|Fiction over fact
|How it didn't happen
“”Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. [...] The unending quest of historians for understanding the past — that is, "revisionism" — is what makes history vital and meaningful.
|—James M. McPherson
Historical revisionism is a practice in historiography in which historians reinterpret traditional views of causes and effects, decisions, explanations, and evidence. It is said that "history is written by the winners". Thus, it is instructive to look at history with a critical eye. As such, revisionism is an accepted and important part of historical endeavor — it serves the dual purpose of constantly re-examining the past while also improving our understanding of it. Indeed, if one accepts that history attempts to help us better understand today by better understanding how we got here, revisionism is essential. Only idiots take history wholeheartedly as indisputable facts.
Issues arise, however, when a historian presents a revisionist thesis, such as "America was founded by a radical Zionist cabal" or "Communism had its origins in Picasso's Blue Period", and do not back it up with anything resembling credible facts. They may even deny the credibility of those facts (see the section on denialists below) or ignore contradictory evidence (it was the Rose Period that was plastered with anti-capitalist messages, not the Blue). This happens very rarely, but when it does happen it usually gets much more publicity than "boring" academic revisionism. This second type is often shading into outright pseudohistory, especially considering that much of the claptrap in this genre (as seen from the examples below) is generated by people who have no professional credentials or experience as historians and don’t apply anything remotely resembling the tools used by actual historians (most importantly an understanding of historiography, as well as an attempt to fairly assemble and evaluate facts via source criticism in particular and critical thinking in general).
Origin of term
Following World War I, "revisionism" first came into use to denote the views of those who wanted to revise the 1919 Treaty of Versailles as unfair to Germany given the new evidence emerging. This movement primarily grouped together progressive sociologists and historians associated with the New Republic, The Nation, and the Christian Century. It aimed to debunk wartime propaganda (especially as it related to drawing the United States into the war) and the question of sole German guilt for starting the war. Groups with other views on the Treaty of Versailles, the so-called "Salvagers" and "Bitterenders", wanted to keep the treaty as-was.
After the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, this sort of revisionism became a moot point, the other terms were forgotten, and revisionism acquired its current meaning — applicable to any subject. For a while in the middle 20th century, the term suffered from redundant overuse (Pearl Harbor "revisionism", "revisionism" about the Joe Hill and Sacco/Vanzetti cases, etc.). The distasteful connotations of the term appear to date from around 1979 when negationists such as Willis Carto appropriated the term and began calling themselves "Holocaust revisionists". Henceforth, historical revisionism has sometimes been used as a snarl word, and accusing someone of peddling revisionist history became a cheap way of brushing them off by implying they are of the same ilk as the Holocaust deniers. This is unfortunate, given that historians continually discover new facts and re-tell historical narratives, making revisionism a legitimate practice and a continuous process: in a sense, saying "revisionist history" is redundant to just calling it "history".
Types of revisionists
A majority of revisionist historians do very legitimate work; however, just as science will always have to deal with pseudoscience and economics will always have to deal with Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, historiography must deal with its share of denialists, negationists, and fringe authors.
Much historical revisionism involves the re-examination of historical periods and events from the point-of-view of a specific group, such as women, Black Americans, Native Americans, the working class, etc. Revisionists taking this approach feel that the traditional views have ignored or downplayed the role a particular group played in events — early Reconstruction historiography (for example) largely ignored the economic and social gains of freedmen, focusing on the "plight" of the Southern whites. Examples of this type of revisionism include:
- Robert Harvey, former assistant editor of The Economist, author of A Few Bloody Noses, a British-based interpretation of the American Revolution, which stresses the oppression of Native Americans in the conflict.
- Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, who argues that while Black Americans did not attain full equality during Reconstruction, it represented a "foot in the door" of equality, and was the precursor to the civil-rights movement a hundred years later.
All writers of history, and historians, are influenced by the historical zeitgeist, the "spirit of the times":
- Rampant racism in late 19th century America was the reason the then-contemporary Dunning school of Reconstruction (God, the name is perfect) historiography all but ignored Black people, for example. Thus, when cultural attitudes undergo dramatic shifts, historians also seek to re-examine history from the new cultural perspective.
- Carl Oglesby, whose The Yankee and Cowboy War frames 20th century U.S. politics as a power struggle between two competing aristocracies, one based in the north and east in banking, Wall Street, and prep and Ivy League social networks; the other in the south and west in oil, real estate, energy, and high tech.
- Philip Jenkins, left-wing historian, author of A History of the United States. Originally British, now claims American citizenship. Focuses on the influence of the far-right in his studies; tends to attribute wingnut conspiracy theories for much of the American social failures from 1950 onward.
Just like there are economic historians, there are revisionist economic historians, such as:
- Charles Beard's enormously influential (but still controversial) 1913 book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States argued that the economic situations and interests of the Constitutional Convention attendees greatly influenced them.
- A Monetary History of the United States, by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, presented much of American history from a "monetarist" point of view.
Marxist revisionists use social class, the social relations of production, and economic conditions as their main lens, and see these as the primary catalysts for social change throughout history, as Karl Marx himself did. Marxist historians are not necessarily communists, though most tend to be left-leaning. One major flaw of Marxist history is that its hypotheses are often not provable or falsifiable, since it asserts that historical figures and events were influenced by socio-economic factors which may not have been apparent at the time:
- Marxist historians of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, particularly Christopher Hill, have argued that many of the grassroots Puritan movements emerging in this time, such as the proliferation of spontaneous religious sects during the English Civil War and Interregnum, were actually expressing social and economic frustrations. These movements' revolutionary criticisms and demands were couched in religious terms, since Christianity was the dominant worldview through which all ideas were expressed and, according to Marxist theory, the movements' leaders and members would have been unable to express their discontent in secular terms.
Revisionism has another meaning in Marxist circles, which means misusing the ideas of Karl Marx and abandoning his true ideology. Interestingly, the term is usually used by people who misuse the ideas of Karl Marx and have little to no understanding of his ideology.
These examples fall into two general genres. One is often referred to as "triumphalism", which is the attempt to use history to create a Passion Play—type morality tale to extol the virtues of an ideology or a group (such as American exceptionalism or Christianity). This is sometimes given the pejorative nickname "Whig history" or "Whiggishness" in reference to triumphalist histories pushed by British Whig[note 2] politicians in the early 20th century. The other is almost the polar opposite of triumphalism and could be called "depravitism" or "degeneratism".[note 3] It seeks to blame any number of (current) ills on some historical bogeyman and uses fear mongering about a looming apocalypse to scare its adherents into line, typically with rosy nostalgic stories of the good old days. One example is the hatred of the Age of Enlightenment among some religious fundamentalists, whose Passion Play version of history depicts it as a latter-day parallel to original sin and the Middle Ages as a golden age.
Fox News had a habit of saying "history will be the judge" of the administration of George W. Bush — an interesting way of deferring responsibility for current events to a hazy future.[note 4] Neocons have even begun to write the implied history favorable to the Bush White House, especially his main foreign policy faux pas. American conservatives and reactionaries have also long endeavored to rewrite history from the point of view of extremist exceptionalism and Americentrism. Here are some examples:
- William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, who is even now busily rewriting the history of the United States's glorious successes in the Iraq War.
- In a more recent (March 2010) example, illiterates won the vote to revise Texan history and social studies textbooks to promote American superiority,
laissez-fairethe "free enterprise" system,[note 5] and "Christian values." Considering Texas is the largest buyer of textbooks in the United States, this will have a big impact on history classes in schools across the country, if only the "Texas version" is available to smaller school systems.
- B.G. Burkett, whose book Stolen Valor is a complete rewrite of the conventional wisdom about the Vietnam War. According to the book: Agent Orange, PTSD, homeless vets, and anti-war vets groups are all inventions of liberals trying to expand the welfare state, most of the popular nonfiction on the war is riddled with fraudulent testimonies, most atrocities attributed to U.S. troops never actually happened, and nobody is really a Vietnam vet, even if they really were in Vietnam, unless they hew to his noxious brand of neoconservatism. This late 1990s book swiftboated John Kerry in this way several years before swiftboating was even a word.[note 6]
- William Bennett, drug warrior, moral panic purveyor, and author of such works as America: the Last Best Hope, which attempts to tell the story of America from the perspective of strong American exceptionalism, and the pretentiously titled The Book of Virtues.
- The nonsense from wingnuts that a) Hitler was a lefty; b) the Confederacy they used to love so much was liberal all along; c) Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement were conservatives; and d) Bush kept us safe. No, seriously.
- The Japanese internment camps were justified and right! See Michelle Malkin and her book literally titled In Defense of Internment.
- Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism were right all along. See Ann Coulter.
- The New Deal destroyed the economy, which, as every historian/economist knows, would have picked up by itself much more quickly without FDR's help. Also, Herbert Hoover was a socialist disguised as a conservative (well, when your only tool is a hammer, all your problems look like nails).
- The New Left took over the Democratic Party and liberalism in general in the 1960s. A favorite for those who make this claim is that JFK lowered taxes, proving that he was more conservative than today's liberals, even though it was primarily a Keynesian demand-side cut, with the supply-side cut being considered secondary in importance. Kennedy was also largely taking the advice of his economist when it came to taxes, and he personally preferred to use government spending to stimulate the economy, and he was more liberal on other issues than many of today's Democrats.
- Obama caused the Great Recession, though it officially began a year before he took office and was over after his first six months. A variation: when it looked like Obama would win the presidency in 2008, the economy promptly tanked in response. This ignores the fact that John McCain was ahead up until the stock market took a nosedive; polls showed voters trusted Obama more to deal with the economy, and he pulled out in front to reflect this.
- The American Civil War wasn't about slavery, it was about states' rights — never mind that the Southern states at the time specifically named slavery as a primary motivation for seceding. See "Lost Cause of the South" for a fuller account of Civil War–related revisionism.
- The openly neo-Stalinist Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the second most popular political party in Russia as of today, argues that Stalin was a great man and only did what was necessary. Indeed, their website refers to the development of the USSR prior to World War II as "peaceful". Like the GOP, they are very apologetic towards any wrongdoings their nation may have committed, especially while it was under the control of their revolutionary heroes.
- Attempts to downplay the brutality used against Muslims during the Bosnian War, such as claiming it doesn't really qualify as genocide or that it was a legitimate act of self-defense.
- Attempts to downplay the brutality used against Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, such as claiming it led to a human rights victory instead of more ethnic cleansing.
- While rare, there are those who claim South Korea started the Korean War, or that North Korea had no choice but to declare war to protect itself from the South.
- Denial of the Cambodian genocide and the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, by Noam Chomsky and others on the far left. The logic here goes: American imperialists are doing bad things in Southeast Asia; the Khmer Rouge are anti-imperialist; therefore they must be the good guys! (To his credit, Chomsky later recanted and acknowledged genocide had happened; however. he believes the recently revealed evidence actually supported some of his prior views and that 1.2 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge and the other 800,000 were killed by American bombing. Excavation of mass graves indicates at least 1,386,734 were executed by the Khmer Rouge, and outside of those graves, 2.18 million were killed by the Khmer Rouge overall and "only" between 30,000 and 500,000 were killed in the U.S. bombing of Cambodia so Chomsky's statistics are still wrong). Following this evidence, leftists have acknowledged that the Khmer Rouge was evil; however, there is a common belief that the CIA had a role in it.
“”Pretty decent guy if you got to know him, dude would give you the shirt off his back (well as long as you weren't Jewish). Adolf loved his dogs and wife, often times he around the holidays the family could be seen caroling and preforming other festive activities around Auschwitz day camp for the Jewish, unfortunately his plans for renovations to turn the camp to a water park were canceled due to his death too bad there would have been some sweet rides there
|—Urban Dictionary on Adolf Hitler, complete with grammatical errors
Legitimate historical revisionism acknowledges a certain body of irrefutable evidence that confirms that an event (like the Holocaust) did occur. Denialism, on the other hand, rejects the entire foundation of historical evidence, and is closely related to historical negationism. Here are a few examples:
- David Irving, historian and Holocaust denier.
- Communists, Fascists, and other totalitarians. In the USSR, "history" was constantly edited to reflect the current Party line, while Nazi Germany had the Dolchstosslegende, the idea that Germany had lost World War I because Jews had stabbed the country in the back.
- During the early 2000s, the Japanese government approved several history textbooks that downplayed Japan's own war crimes prior to and during World War II. It's no surprise that the Chinese and the Koreans (from both North and South) reacted strongly to this. (As Stephen Ambrose put it, "The Japanese presentation of the war to its children runs something like this: 'One day, for no reason we ever understood, the Americans started dropping atomic bombs on us.'")
- But apparently, that doesn't stop the Chinese government from doing the very exact same thing when it comes to fessing up to their own atrocities.[note 7]
- Harry Elmer Barnes, a respected academic historian before World War II who did much to establish historical revisionism as a legitimate academic field — then lost his credibility and endorsed Holocaust denial.
Intentionally distorted history
History by its very nature has a bias, but there are those who intentionally ignore current or new evidence:
- The start date of WWII: Much of the West is in a "let's just ignore the fact that Japan was going through Asia on a conquest spree from 1931 on and say the war really started in 1939 in Poland"–mode.[note 8]
- Columbus "discovered" America: Vikings? Who counts them? Same goes for the Native Americans. Oh, let's ignore the fact that Columbus died believing that all his trips had been to Asia while we are at it.
- Sinking of the Titanic: Replace Scottish Ship's First Officer William McMaster with a German named Peterson to show the people of the Third Reich how superior they are to the British and Americans.
Refighting lost battles to reset current political discussions
As George Orwell safely pointed out in 1984: "He who controls the past controls the future;" followed immediately by "and he who controls the present, controls the past." Hence, why some of those, such as Amity Shlaes, who seek to influence current political discussions on the role of government in the economy spend time refighting Depression era battles against the New Deal to show that FDR was terrible and that laissez-faire will always see us through with nary a problem. Another example is the pro DDT “Rachel Was Wrong!” post mortem campaign against Rachel Carson, portraying her as a genocidal hard green mass murderer who cared more about vague green ideals than suffering malaria victims, which is basically an attempt at discrediting environmental regulation in general. The idea is that if you can convince people that previous examples of a certain, historical course of action was wrong, you have a ready-made argument against pursuing it in the present and future.
Special category: More supporters of the historically illiterate
During the run-up to the 2012 presidential campaigns, multiple GOP candidates made famous verbal gaffes. Rather than admit that they had made mistakes, these candidates continued to claim that their inaccuracies were factually correct. And their supporters — who would doubtlessly balk at any hint of "pinko commie" historical revisionism — realized that they could edit Wikipedia to support these alternate versions of history. And that's exactly what they did:
- On 2 June 2011, Sarah Palin said the following:
“”He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin' sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.
- Of course, not a single bit of this description of Paul Revere's midnight ride is correct. (In fact, it doesn't even really match up with the heavily-romanticized version popularly taught to schoolchildren.) Still, this didn't stop Caribou Barbie's supporters from relentlessly revising Revere's page on Wikipedia. In response, Wikipedia was forced to lock the page to prevent any further
- Not to be outdone, on 28 June 2011, Michele Bachmann claimed that John Quincy Adams was one of the Founding Fathers. On 4 July 1776, he was one week shy of his ninth birthday. Perhaps she was confused by the similarity of his name to the name of his father John Adams (who really was one of the Founding Fathers). But then again, when pressed on this, Bachmann stated:
“”Well, John Quincy Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.
As with Palin's backers, Bachmann's backers took their shots at editing the John Quincy Adams page on Wikipedia.
There are a number of reasons historical revisionism occurs and that the first perspective on a period or event does not remain the orthodoxy forever.
As with many other disciplines, if new data become available, current conclusions must be reassessed. In history and historiography, the following may occur:
- Documents and objects are discovered.
- Governments release classified information to the public.
- As languages are deciphered, more sources become available. The most striking example of this is perhaps the 19th century decipherment of hieroglyphics, which changed how the world views Ancient Egypt forever
- Advances in science and technology make more data accessible, such as the ages and authenticity of artifacts like the Shroud of Turin.
As cultures develop and change, new perspectives arise, and with them new perspectives on history. See above.
Ideology can be a major motivating factor for revisionism. The previously mentioned "Texas textbook massacre" is an example of a reevaluation of America's founders from a far-right point of view — removing references to "democracy" and replacing it with "constitutional republic" (it's the same fucking thing) and removing mentions of Thomas Jefferson, for instance. Ideologically motivated revisionism is generally frowned upon, as it tends to lead to bad places.
“”He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
|—George Orwell 1984
Use of historical revisionism plays a significant role to many of the more plausible dystopias seen in classical works of science fiction, such as Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. The role of historical revisionism and other misinformation within these works echoes their role in real life repressive and totalitarian regimes from the age in which these works were written, such as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, where national myths and distorted accounts of history were used for propaganda purposes. Such practices continue in totalitarian regimes, such as North Korea which is sometimes likened to Orwell's dystopian vision in 1984.
- Alternate historical chronology
- Burning the evidence
- Memory hole
- Nationalist pseudohistory
- This isn't necessarily done intentionally, since someone may simply have confused the two phrases.
- The predecessors of today's Liberal Democrats, making this a real world example of liberal bias.
- A historical example could be the fin de siècle style of history in the late 19th and early 20th century.
- This is especially funny considering that the same people openly declared Barack Obama to be the worst president in U.S. history before his term was even over.
- Because, they explain, you can't very easily say, "You free enterprise system supporting pig!"
- On the other hand, he does expose a few deserving (and obvious) targets like David Duke.
- Good luck trying to learn about the Tiananmen Square Protests and Chinese cultural/demographic oppression of the Tibetans in Chinese government-approved history textbooks.
- This is somewhat justified by the argument that these conquests constituted a series of Sino-Japanese conflicts, while other great powers did not declare war (similar to the Spanish Civil War). On that basis, one revisionist view sets the start of WWII around 1937 with the simultaneous Second Sino-Japanese War and Battles of Khalkhin Gol, the latter of which drew in the Soviet Union, whose responses were tied into its relations with Nazi Germany, appeasement and the likelihood of war in Europe (cf. Goldman, Stuart (2013) Nomonhan, 1939 – The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II, Naval Institute Press).
- Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row. 1988. ISBN 0-06-015851-4.
- Review of McGuire' s To Form a More Perfect Union, The Independent Institute
- The Texas Textbook Massacre
- NY Times Article
- David Gibbs, The Guardian
- Sharp, Bruce (April 1, 2005). "Counting Hell: The Death Toll of the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia" http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/deaths.htm
- Valentino, Benjamin (2005). Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century. Cornell University Press. p. 84. ISBN 9780801472732. James A. Tyner, The Killing of Cambodia: Geography, Genocide and the Unmaking of Space (Routledge, 2017) Rummel, Rudolph. "Statistics Of Cambodian Democide: Estimates, Calculations, And Sources". Retrieved 2018-02-06. "FRONTLINE/WORLD . Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow. Chronicle of Survival. 1969-1974: Caught in the crossfire | PBS". www.pbs.org https://books.google.com/books?id=LQfeXVU_EvgC&q=30%2C000-150%2C000#v=onepage&q=30%2C000&f=false https://books.google.com/books?id=NgokDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT97&dq=nixon,+cambodia,+killed,+civilians&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjXnbKPua7YAhUikeAKHW1VAd0Q6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=over%20500%2C000&f=false https://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP4.HTM http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/cambodia/tl02.html
- Stephen Ambrose, To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, 112.
- See for instance, the chapter entitled ”Denialism rides again” for an in-depth coverage of the Rachel Carson brouhaha in: Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Press, 2011. ISBN 1-608-19394-2, pp. 216-239
- Malcolm, Andrew. "Sarah Palin claims Paul Revere warned the British", Los Angeles Times blogs, posted 3 June 2011.
- Stephanopoulos, George. "John Quincy Adams a Founding Father? Michele Bachmann Says Yes", ABC News website blog George's Bottom Line, posted 28 June 2011.
- Somanader, Tanya. "John Quincy Adams Wikipedia Page Edited To Describe Him As A ‘Founding Father’", Think Progress website, posted 28 June 2011.