In historiography, the term historical revisionism identifies the re-interpretation of the historical record, of the orthodox views about a historical event, of the evidence of the event, and of the motivations and decisions of the participant people; as such, historical revisionism is a continual process of developing and refining the writing of history.
The revision of the historical record is to reflect the contemporary discoveries of fact, evidence, and interpretation, which produce a revised history; however, the scholarly review of history also is misapplied as historical negationism, a form of historical revisionism that presents a re-interpretation of the scholarship of the historical record, which is meant to deny the reality of the historical event in question, and usually contradicts the collective memory of society.
- 1 Historical scholarship
- 2 Negationism and denial
- 3 Influences
- 4 Revised versions
- 4.1 The Dark Ages
- 4.2 Feudalism
- 4.3 Agincourt
- 4.4 New World discovery
- 4.5 French attack formations in the Napoleonic wars
- 4.6 Military leadership during World War I
- 4.7 Reconstruction in U.S.
- 4.8 German guilt in causing World War I
- 4.9 Guilt for causing World War II
- 4.10 American business and the "Robber Barons"
- 4.11 Cold War
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
Historical revisionism is the means by which the historical record — the history of a society, as understood in their collective memory — continually integrates new facts and interpretations of the events commonly understood as history; about which the historian James M. McPherson, said:
The fourteen-thousand members of this Association, however, know that revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue, between the present and the past. 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. There is no single, eternal, and immutable “truth” about past events and their meaning.
The unending quest of historians for understanding the past — that is, revisionism — is what makes history vital and meaningful. Without revisionism, we might be stuck with the images of Reconstruction [1865–77] after the American Civil War [1861–65] that were conveyed by D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation  and Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era . Were the Gilded Age [1870s–1900] entrepreneurs “Captains of Industry” or “Robber Barons”?
Without revisionist historians, who have done research in new sources and asked new and nuanced questions, we would remain mired in one or another of these stereotypes. Supreme Court decisions often reflect a “revisionist” interpretation of history, as well as of the Constitution.
In the field of historiography, the historian who works within the existing Establishment of society, and who has produced a body of history books, from which he or she can claim Authority, usually benefits from the status quo. As such, the professional-historian paradigm is manifested as a denunciative stance towards any form of historical revisionism — either of fact or interpretation, or both. In contrast to the single-paradigm form of writing history, the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, said that, in contrast to the quantifiable hard sciences, characterized by a single paradigm, the social sciences are characterized by several paradigms that derive from a “tradition of claims, counterclaims, and debates over [the] fundamentals” of research. About resistance against the works of revised history that present a culturally comprehensive historical narrative of the U.S. — the perspectives of Black people, women, and the labour movement — the historian David Williams said:
These, and other, scholarly voices, called for a more comprehensive treatment of American history, stressing that the mass of Americans, not simply the power élites, made history. Yet, it was mainly white males of the power élite who had the means to attend college, become professional historians, and shape a view of history that served their own class, race, and gender interests at the expense of those not so fortunate — and, quite literally, to paper over aspects of history they found uncomfortable. “One is astonished in the study of history”, wrote Du Bois in 1935, “at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. . . . The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value, as an incentive and [as] an example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth”.
After the Second World War, the study and production of history in the U.S. was expanded by the G.I. Bill, which funding allowed “a new and more broadly-based generation of scholars” with perspectives and interpretations drawn from the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, and the American Indian Movement. That expansion and deepening of the pool of historians voided the existence of a definitive and universally accepted history, therefore, the revisionist historian presents the national public with a history that has been corrected and augmented with new facts, evidence, and interpretations of the historical record. In The Cycles of American History (1986), in contrasting and comparing the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Russo–American Cold War (1945–91), the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said:
. . . but others, especially in the United States . . . represent what American historians call revisionism — that is a readiness to challenge official explanations. No one should be surprised by this phenomenon. Every war in American history has been followed, in due course, by skeptical reassessments of supposedly sacred assumptions . . . for [historical] revisionism is an essential part of the process, by which history, through the posing of new problems and the investigation of new possibilities, enlarges its perspectives and enriches its insights.
Revisionist historians contest the mainstream or traditional view of historical events, they raise views at odds with traditionalists, which must be freshly judged. Revisionist history is often practiced by those who are in the minority, such as feminist historians, ethnic minority historians, those working outside of mainstream academia in smaller and less known universities, or the youngest scholars, essentially historians who have the most to gain and the least to lose in challenging the status quo. In the friction between the mainstream of accepted beliefs and the new perspectives of historical revisionism, received historical ideas are either changed, solidified, or clarified. If over a period of time the revisionist ideas become the new establishment status quo a paradigm shift is said to have occurred. Historian Forrest McDonald is often critical of the turn that revisionism has taken but he nevertheless admits that the turmoil of the 1960s in the United States changed the way history was written. He wrote:
The result, as far as the study of history was concerned, was an awakened interest in subjects that historians had previously slighted. Indian history, black history, women’s history, family history, and a host of specializations arose. These expanded horizons enriched our understanding of the American past, but they also resulted in works of special pleading, trivialization, and downright falsification.
Historians are influenced by the zeitgeist (Spirit of the Time), and the usually progressive changes to society, politics, and culture, which occurred after the Second World War (1939–45); in The Future of the Past (1989), the historian C. Vann Woodward said that:
These events have come with a concentration and violence for which the term revolution is usually reserved. It is a revolution, or perhaps a set of revolutions for which we have not yet found a name. My thesis is that these developments will and should raise new questions about the past, and affect our reading of large areas of history, and my belief is that future revisions may be extensive enough to justify calling the coming age of historiography an “Age of Reinterpretation”. The first illustration [the absence from U.S. history of external threats, because of geography] happens to come mainly from American history, but this should not obscure the broader scope of the revolution, which has no national limitations.
Developments in the academy, culture, and politics shaped the contemporary model of writing history — the accepted paradigm of historiography; the philosopher Karl Popper said that “each generation has its own troubles and problems, and, therefore, its own interests and its own point of view”, and that:
it follows that each generation has a right to look upon and re-interpret history in [their] own way. . . . After all, we study history because we are interested in it, and perhaps because we wish to learn something about our [contemporary] problems. But history can serve neither of these two purposes if, under the influence of an inapplicable idea of objectivity, we hesitate to present historical problems from our point of view. And we should not think that our point of view, if consciously and critically applied to the problem, will be inferior to that of a writer who naïvely believes . . . that he has reached a level of objectivity permitting him to present “the events of the past as they actually did happen”.
As the social, political, and cultural influences change a society, most historians revise and update their explanation of historical events. The old consensus, based upon limited evidence, might no longer be considered historically valid in explaining the particulars — of cause and effect, of motivation and self-interest — that tell How? and Why? the past occurred as it occurred; therefore, the historical revisionism of the factual record is revised to concord with the contemporary understanding of history. As such, in 1986, the historian John Hope Franklin described four stages in the historiography of the African experience of life in the U.S., which were based upon different models of historical consensus.
Negationism and denial
The historian Deborah Lipstadt (Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, 1993), and the historians Michael Shermer, and Alex Grobman (Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, 2002) distinguish between historical revisionism and historical negationism, the latter of which is a form of denialism. Lipstadt said that Holocaust deniers, such as Harry Elmer Barnes, disingenuously self-identify themselves as “historical revisionists” in order to obscure their denialism as academic revision of the historical record.
As such, Lipstadt, Shermer, and Grobman, said that legitimate historical revisionism entails the refinement of existing knowledge about a historical event, not a denial of the event, itself; that such refinement of history emerges from the examination of new, empirical evidence, and a re-examination, and consequent re-interpretation of the existing documentary evidence. That legitimate historical revisionism acknowledges the existence of a “certain body of irrefutable evidence” and the existence of a “convergence of evidence”, which suggest that an event — such as The Black Plague, American slavery, and the Holocaust — did occur; whereas the Denialism of history rejects the entire foundation of historical evidence, which is a form of historical negationism.
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Some of the influences on historians, which may change over time are:
- Access to new data: Much historical data has been lost. Even archives have to make decisions based on space and interest on what original material to obtain or keep. At times documents are discovered or publicized that give new views of well established events. Archived material may be sealed by Governments for many years, either to hide political scandals, or to protect information vital for national security. When these archives are opened, they can alter the historical perspective on an event. For example, with the release of the ULTRA archives in the 1970s under the British 30 years rule, a lot of the Allied high command tactical decision making process was re-evaluated, particularly the Battle of the Atlantic. The release of the ULTRA archives also forced a re-evaluation of the history of the electronic computer.
- Developments in other fields of science: DNA analysis has had an impact in various areas of history either confirming established historical theories or presenting new evidence that undermines the current established historical explanation. Professor Andrew Sherratt, a British prehistorian, was responsible for introducing the work of anthropological writings on the consumption of currently legal and illegal drugs and how to use these papers to explain certain aspects of prehistoric societies. Carbon dating, the examination of ice cores and tree rings, palynology, SEM analysis of early metal samples, and measuring oxygen isotopes in bones, have all provided new data in the last few decades with which to argue new hypotheses. Extracting ancient DNA allows scientists to argue whether or not humans are partly descended from Neanderthals.
- Nationalism: For example, when reading schoolbook history in Europe, it is possible to read about an event from completely different perspectives. In the Battle of Waterloo most British, French, Dutch and German schoolbooks slant the battle to emphasise the importance of the contribution of their nations. Sometimes the name of an event is used to convey political or a national perspective. For example, the same conflict between two English speaking countries is known by two different names, for example, the "American War of Independence" and the "American Revolutionary War". As perceptions of nationalism change so do those areas of history that are driven by such ideas.
- Culture: For example, as regionalism has become more prominent in the UK some historians have been suggesting that the English Civil War is too Anglo-centric and that to understand the war, events that had previously been dismissed as on the periphery should be given greater prominence; to emphasise this, revisionist historians have suggested that the English Civil War becomes just one of a number of interlocking conflicts known as Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Furthermore, as cultures develop, it may become strategically advantageous for some revision-minded groups to revise their public historical narrative in such a way so as to either discover, or in rarer cases manufacture, a precedent which contemporary members of the given subcultures can use as a basis or rationale for reform or change.
- Ideology: For example, during the 1940s it became fashionable to see the English Civil War from a Marxist school of thought. In the words of Christopher Hill, "the Civil War was a class war." In the post World War II years the influence of Marxist interpretation waned in British academia and by the 1970s this view came under attack by a new school of revisionists and it has been largely overturned as a major mainstream explanation of the middle 17th century conflict in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
- Historical causation: Issues of causation in history are often revised with new research: for example by the middle of the twentieth century the status quo was to see the French Revolution as the result of the triumphant rise of a new middle class. Research in the 1960s prompted by revisionist historians like Alfred Cobban and François Furet revealed the social situation as much more complex and the question of what caused the Revolution is now a closely debated one.
The Dark Ages
As non-Latin texts, such as Welsh, Gaelic and the Norse sagas have been analysed and added to the canon of knowledge about the period and a much more archaeological evidence has come to light, the period known as the Dark Ages has narrowed to the point where many historians no longer believe that such a term is useful. Moreover, the term "dark" implies less of a void of culture and law, but more a lack of many source texts in mainland Europe. Many modern scholars who study the era tend to avoid the term altogether for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate for any part of the Middle Ages.
For centuries, historians thought the Battle of Agincourt was an engagement in which the English army, though overwhelmingly outnumbered four to one by the French army, pulled off a stunning victory—a version especially popularised by Shakespeare's play Henry V. However, recent research by Professor Anne Curry using the original enrollment records, has brought into question this interpretation. Though her research is not finished, she has published her initial findings, that the French only outnumbered the English and Welsh 12,000 to 8,000. If true, the numbers may have been exaggerated for patriotic reasons by the English.
New World discovery
In recounting the European colonization of the Americas, some history books of the past paid little attention to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, usually mentioning them only in passing and making no attempt to understand the events from their point of view. This was reflected in the description of Christopher Columbus having discovered America. The portrayal of these events has since been revised, and much present scholarship examines the impact of European exploration and colonization on indigenous peoples (see Postcolonialism). Historians like Kirkpatrick Sale and James Loewen exemplify Columbian revisionism.
French attack formations in the Napoleonic wars
The military historian James R. Arnold argues that:
The writings of Sir Charles Oman and Sir John Fortescue dominated subsequent English-language Napoleonic history. Their views [that the French infantry used heavy columns to attack lines of infantry] became very much the received wisdom.... By 1998 a new paradigm seemed to have set in with the publication of two books devoted to Napoleonic battle tactics. Both claimed that the French fought in line at Maida and both fully explored French tactical variety. The 2002 publication of The Battle of Maida 1806: Fifteen Minutes of Glory, appeared to have brought the issue of column versus line to a satisfactory conclusion: "The contemporary sources are ... the best evidence and their conclusion is clear: General Compère's brigade formed into line to attack Kempt's Light Battalion." The decisive action at Maida took place in less than fifteen minutes. It had taken 72 years to rectify a great historian's error about what transpired during those minutes.
Military leadership during World War I
The military leadership of the British Army during the World War I was frequently condemned as poor by historians and politicians for decades after the war ended. Common charges were that the generals commanding the army were blind to the realities of trench warfare, ignorant of the conditions of their men and were unable to learn from their mistakes, thus causing enormous numbers of casualties ('lions led by donkeys'). However, during the 1960s historians such as John Terraine began to challenge this interpretation. In recent years as new documents have come forth and the passage of time has allowed for more objective analysis, historians such as Gary D. Sheffield and Richard Holmes observe that the military leadership of the British Army on the Western Front had to cope with many problems that they could not control such as a lack of adequate military communications, which was not known before. Furthermore, military leadership improved throughout the war culminating in the Hundred Days Offensive advance to victory in 1918. Some historians, even revisionists, still criticise the British High Command severely, but they are less inclined to portray the war in a simplistic manner with brave troops being led by foolish officers.
There has been a similar movement regarding the French Army during the war with contributions by historians such as Anthony Clayton. Revisionists are far more likely to view commanders such as French General Ferdinand Foch, British General Douglas Haig and other figures, such as American General Pershing, in a sympathetic light.
Reconstruction in U.S.
Revisionist historians of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War rejected the dominant Dunning School that stated the blacks were used by Carpetbaggers, and instead has stressed economic greed on the part of northern businessmen. Indeed, in recent years a "neoabolitionist" revisionism has become standard, that uses the moral standards of racial equality of the 19th century abolitionists to criticize racial policies. "Foner's book represents the mature and settled Revisionist perspective," historian Michael Perman has concluded regarding Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988)
German guilt in causing World War I
In reaction to the orthodox interpretation enshrined in the Versailles Treaty (which declared that Germany was guilty of starting World War I), the self-described "revisionist" historians of the 1920s rejected the orthodox view and presented a complex causation in which several other countries were equally guilty. Intense debate continues among scholars (see Causes of World War I).
Guilt for causing World War II
The orthodox interpretation blamed Hitler and Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan, for causing the war (see Causes of World War II). Revisionist historians of World War II, notably Charles A. Beard, said the U.S. was partly to blame because it pressed the Japanese too hard in 1940–41 and rejected compromises. British historian A. J. P. Taylor ignited a firestorm when he argued that Hitler was a rather ordinary diplomat and did not deliberately set out to cause a war.
The American conservative, Patrick Buchanan, argued that the British–French guarantee to Poland in 1939 encouraged Poland not to seek a compromise over Danzig, though Britain and France were in no position to come to Poland's aid, and Hitler was offering the Poles an alliance in return. He argues that they thereby turned a minor border dispute into a catastrophic world conflict, and handed East Europe, including Poland, to Stalin.
American business and the "Robber Barons"
The role of American business and the alleged "robber barons" began to be revised in the 1930s. Termed "business revisionism" by Gabriel Kolko, historians such as Allan Nevins, and, later, Alfred D. Chandler emphasized the positive contributions of individuals who were previously pictured as villains. Peter Novick writes, "The argument that whatever the moral delinquencies of the robber barons, these were far outweighed by their decisive contributions to American military [and industrial] prowess, was frequently invoked by Allan Nevins."
In the historiography of the Cold War a debate exists between historians advocating an "orthodox" and "revisionist" interpretation of Soviet history and other aspects of the cold war such as the Vietnam War.
America in Vietnam (1978), by Guenter Lewy, is an example of historical revisionism that differs much from the popular view of the role of the U.S. in the Vietnam War (1945–75), for which the author was criticised and supported for belonging to the revisionist school on the history of the Vietnam War. Lewy's reinterpretation was the first book of a body of work by historians of the revisionist school about the geopolitical role and the military behavior of the United States in the country of Vietnam.
In the Introduction to America in Vietnam, Lewy said:
It is the reasoned conclusion of this study . . . that the sense of guilt created by the Vietnam war in the minds of many Americans is not warranted and that the charges of officially, condoned illegal and grossly immoral conduct are without substance. Indeed, detailed examination of battlefield practices reveals that the loss of civilian life in Vietnam was less great than in World War II [1939–45] and Korea [1950–53] and that concern with minimizing the ravages of the war was strong. To measure and compare the devastation and loss of human life caused by different war will be objectionable to those who repudiate all resort to military force as an instrument of foreign policy and may be construed as callousness. Yet as long as wars do take place at all it remains a moral duty to seek to reduce the agony caused by war, and the fulfillment of this obligation should not be disdained.— America in Vietnam (1979), p. vii.
Other reinterpretations of the historical record of the U.S. war in Vietnam, which offer alternative explanations for American behavior, include Why We Are in Vietnam (1982), by Norman Podhoretz, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (2006), by Mark Moyar, and Vietnam: The Necessary War (1999), by Michael Lind.
- Biblical criticism
- Black Legend
- Christ myth theory
- Historical revisionism (negationism)
- The Inquisition myth
- Japanese textbook controversy
- Korean Air Lines Flight 007 alternate theories
- New Historians – An ongoing historical revisionism debate dealing with the early period of the Arab–Israeli Conflict.
- Pearl Harbor advance-knowledge conspiracy theory
- Nasser Pourpirar
- Selective omission
- Revisionist Historians
- Kuhn, Thomas N. (1972) . "Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research". In Lakatos, Imre; Musgrave, Alan. Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (second ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 0-521-09623-5.
- Williams, David. A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom.(2005) pp. 10–11.
- Williams p. 11
- Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. The Cycles of American History.(1986) p. 165.
- McDonald, Forest. Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir. (2004) p. 114
- Woodward, C. Vann (1989). The Future of the Past. Oxford University Press. p. 76. ISBN 978-0195057447.
- Novick, Peter (1988). That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge University Press. p. 395. ISBN 978-0521357456.
- African-American History: Origins, Development, and Current State of the Field | Joe W. Trotter | Organization of American Historians Magazine of History
- Lipstadt 1993:21; Shermer & Grobman 200:34
- Ronald J. Berger. Fathoming the Holocaust: A Social Problems Approach, Aldine Transaction, 2002, ISBN 0-202-30670-4, p. 154.
- In 1972, before the release of official documents about ULTRA, Herman Goldstine wrote in The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann page 321 that: "Britain had such vitality that it could immediately after the war embark on so many well-conceived and well-executed projects in the computer field." In 1976 after the archive were opened Brian Randell wrote in The COLOSSUS on page 87 that: "the COLOSSUS project was an important source of this vitality, one that has been largely unappreciated, as has the significance of its places in the chronology of the invention of the digital computer."
- Obituary of Andrew Sherratt in The Independent 6 March 2006
- Shindler, Michael (2014). "A Discussion On The Purpose of Cultural Identity". The Apollonian Revolt. Retrieved 10 April 2015.
- Snyder, Christopher A. (1998). An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400–600. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. pp. xiii–xiv. ISBN 0-271-01780-5., for example. This work contains over 100 pages of footnoted citations to source material and bibliographic references (pp. 263–387). In explaining his approach to writing the work, he refers to the "so-called Dark Ages", noting that "Historians and archaeologists have never liked the label Dark Ages ... there are numerous indicators that these centuries were neither "dark" nor "barbarous" in comparison with other eras."
- Jordan, Chester William (2004). Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Supplement 1. Verdun, Kathleen, "Medievalism" pp. 389–397. Sections 'Victorian Medievalism', 'Nineteenth-Century Europe', 'Medievalism in America 1500–1900', 'The 20th Century'. Same volume, Freedman, Paul, "Medieval Studies", pp. 383–389.
- Page 288. Matthew Strickland The Great Warbow. Pub Sutton, 2005, ISBN 0-7509-3167-1
- Anne Curry. Agincourt: A New History, Pub Tempus, 2005, ISBN 0-7524-2828-4
- Richard Brooks Henry V's payroll cuts Agincourt myth down to size May 29, 2005
- Arnold, James R. A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War Oman and Historiography, The Napoleon Series, August 2004.
- James R. Arnold, "A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Napoleonic Wars" Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research LX no. 244 (Winter 1982): pp. 196–208.
- Lions Led By Donkeys
- Thompson, P.A. Lions Led By Donkeys: Showing How Victory In The Great War Was Achieved By Those Who Made the Fewest Mistakes T. Werner Laurie, Ltd. 1st English Edition. 1927
- Bournes, John. "Lions Led By Donkeys", Centre for First World War Studies, University of Birmingham.
- Bernard Weisberger, "The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography", The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Nov., 1959), pp. 427–447 in JSTOR
- Michael Perman, "Review: Eric Foner's Reconstruction: A Finished Revolution", Reviews in American History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 73–78 in JSTOR
- See Selig Adler, "The War-Guilt Question and American Disillusionment, 1918–1928", Journal of Modern History, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Mar., 1951), pp. 1–28 in JSTOR
- Samuel Flagg Bemis, "First Gun of a Revisionist Historiography for the Second World War", Journal of Modern History, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Mar., 1947), pp. 55–59 in JSTOR
- Gordon Martel, ed. The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered: A.J.P. Taylor and the Historians. (2nd ed. 1999).
- Patrick J. Buchanan (2009). Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War: How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 978-0307405166.[page needed]
- Kolko, Gabriel. "The Premises of Business Revisionism" in The Business History Review, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1959), p. 334
- Novick, Peter (1988). That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical profession. Cambridge University Press. p. 343. ISBN 978-0521357456.
- Horwood, Ian. "Book review: Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965". Institute of Historical Research.
- Divine, Robert A.; Lewy, Guenter; Millett, Allan R. (September 1979). "Review: Revisionism in Reverse". Reviews in American History 7 (3): 433–438. doi:10.2307/2701181. JSTOR 2701181.
- Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, p. VII.
- Mark Moyar (2006). Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965. ISBN 0-521-86911-0.
- Michael Lind (1999). Vietnam: The Necessary War. Free Press. ISBN 978-0684842547.[page needed]