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Historical revisionism

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Historical revisionism

In historiography, historical revisionism is the reinterpretation of orthodox views on evidence, motivations, and decision-making processes surrounding a historical event. Though the word revisionism is sometimes used in a negative way, constant revision of history is part of the normal scholarly process of writing history.

Scholarly process

Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson, writing for the American Historical Association, described the importance of revisionism:

The 14,000 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 after the American Civil War that were conveyed by D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Claude Bowers's The Tragic Era. Were the Gilded Age 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.[1]

Those historians who work within the existing establishment and who have a body of existing work from which they claim authority, often have the most to gain by maintaining the status quo. This can be called an accepted paradigm, which in some circles or societies takes the form of a denunciative stance towards revisionism of any kind. However, the historian and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, pointed out that in contrast to the sciences, in which there tends to be (except in times of paradigm shift) a single reigning paradigm, the social sciences are characterized by a "tradition of claims, counterclaims, and debates over fundamentals".[2] Historian David Williams describes the resistance to the advocates of a more inclusive United States history that would include the roles of women, African Americans, and the labor movement:

These and other scholarly voices called for a more comprehensive treatment of American history, stressing that the mass of Americans, not simply the power elites, made history. Yet it was mainly white males of the power elite 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 an example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth."[3]

After World War II "a new and more broadly based generation of scholars", as the result of the G.I. Bill, the nationwide expansion of state universities and community colleges, and the feminist movement, civil rights movement, and American Indian Movement, expanded the scope of American history.[4]

If there were a universally accepted view of history that never changed, there would be no need to research it further. Many historians who write revisionist exposés are motivated by a genuine desire to educate and to correct history. Many great discoveries have come as a result of the research of men and women who have been curious enough to revisit certain historical events and explore them again in depth from a new perspective. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in contrasting the United States with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, wrote:

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 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.[5]

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.[6]

Historians, like all people, are inexorably influenced by the zeitgeist (the spirit of the times). Historian C. Vann Woodward sees this as a positive influence. Speaking of the changes that occurred after the end of World War II, he wrote:

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 United States’ history of external threats due to its geographic isolation] happens to come mainly from American history, but this should not obscure the broader scope of the revolution, which has no national limitations.[7]

Developments in other academic areas, and cultural and political fashions, all help to shape the currently accepted model and outlines of history (the accepted historiographical paradigm). For example, philosopher Karl Popper echoed Woodward’s sentiments regarding revisionism when he noted that "each generation has its own troubles and problems, and therefore its own interests and its own point of view" and:

It follows that each generation has a right to look upon and re-interpret history in its own way.... After all, we study history because we are interested in it, and perhaps because we wish to learn something about our problems. But history can serve neither of these two purpose 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 naively believes ... that he has reached a level of objectivity permitting him to present "the events of the past as they actually did happen".[8]

As time passes and these influences change so do most historians views on the explanation of historical events. The old consensus may no longer be considered by most historians to explain how and why certain events in the past occurred, and so the accepted model is revised to fit in with the current agreed-upon version of events. For example, historian John Hope Franklin in 1986 described four specific stages in the historiography of African American that were based on different consensus models.[9]

Revisionism vs. denial

Deborah Lipstadt (1993), Michael Shermer, and Alex Grobman (2000), authors of critical studies of Holocaust denial, make a distinction between revisionism and denial. Lipstadt notes that Holocaust deniers such as Harry Elmer Barnes often refer to themselves as revisionists so as to obscure their denialism under a guise of academic revision. In the view of Lipstadt, Shermer, and Grobman, legitimate revisionism entails a refinement of existing knowledge about a historical event, not a denial of the event itself, a refinement that comes through the examination of new empirical evidence or a reexamination or reinterpretation of existing evidence. Legitimate historical revisionism acknowledges a 'certain body of irrefutable evidence' or a 'convergence of evidence' that suggest that an event — like the black plague, American slavery, or the Holocaust — did occur.[10] Denial, on the other hand, rejects the entire foundation of historical evidence...."[11]


Some of the influences on historians, which may change over time are:

A U.S. soldier machine-gunned about a dozen SS guards who were being held prisoner in Dachau concentration camp.
  • Access to new data: Much historical data has been lost. Even [14] This was not reported by American newspaper reporters who were embedded with the American troops. When the "I.G. Report" of the Army's "Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau" was released in 1991, the report said that this event had been suppressed by General Patton.[15]
  • 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.[16] 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.
  • Language: For example as more sources in other languages become available historians may review their theories in light of the new sources. The revision of the meaning of the Dark Ages are an example of this.
  • 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.
  • 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.


These are examples of historical revisionist ideas.

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 lot more archaeological evidence has come to light, the period traditionally 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.[17][18]


The concept of feudalism has been questioned. Revisionist scholars led by historian Elizabeth A. R. Brown have rejected the term.


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,[19] she has published her initial findings,[20] 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.[21]


Science historians are taking a new look at alchemy. Traditionally there was little room in the history of science for alchemy, which famously tried to convert lead into gold (lead oxide has a yellow colour), and it has been seen as closer to magic or mysticism than science. However there has been a revival of scholarship on the field and historians are finding reasons to give at least some alchemy a new interpretation. Alchemists, some historians are now saying, contributed to the emergence of modern chemistry as a science.[22]

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.[23][24]

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').[25] 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.[26] 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)[27]

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).[28]

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.[29] 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.[30]

The American conservative, Patrick Buchanan,[31] 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.[32] 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."[33]

Cold War

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.

Vietnam War

America in Vietnam by Guenter Lewy is an example of historical revisionism that substantially differs from the popular view of America's role in the Vietnam War. Lewy's work was the first of a body of work by other historians that form the revisionist school with respect to the behavior and role of the United States in the Vietnam War. Other reinterpretations that attempt to offer alternative explanations for American behavior include those by Norman Podhoretz,[34] Mark Moyar,[35] and Michael Lind.[36] America in Vietnam attracted both criticism and support of Lewy for belonging to the "revisionist" school on Vietnam.[34][37] According to Lewy:
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 and Korea 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.[38]

See also


  1. ^ Revisionist Historians
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Williams, David. A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom.(2005) pp. 10–11
  4. ^ Williams p. 11
  5. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr. The Cycles of American History.(1986) p. 165
  6. ^ McDonald, Forest. Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir. (2004) p. 114
  7. ^ Woodward, C. Vann (1989). The Future of the Past. Oxford University Press. p. 76.  
  8. ^ Novick, Peter (1988). That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical profession. Cambridge University Press. p. 395.  
  9. ^ African-American History: Origins, Development, and Current State of the Field | Joe W. Trotter | Organization of American Historians Magazine of History
  10. ^ Lipstadt 1993:21; Shermer & Grobman 200:34
  11. ^ Ronald J. Berger. Fathoming the Holocaust: A Social Problems Approach, Aldine Transaction, 2002, ISBN 0-202-30670-4, p. 154.
  12. ^ 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."
  13. ^ Albert Panebianco (ed). Dachau its liberation 57th Infantry Association, Felix L. Sparks, Secretary 15 June 1989. (backup site)
  14. ^ Sparks, Felix L. "Dachau and its liberation". Retrieved 23 December 2013. 
  15. ^ R. H. Perez (2002). "Dachau Concentration Camp Liberation (A Documentary)". Humanitas International. Retrieved January 14, 2011. 
  16. ^ Obituary of Andrew Sherratt in The Independent 6 March 2006
  17. ^  , 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."
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Page 288. Matthew Strickland The Great Warbow. Pub Sutton, 2005, ISBN 0-7509-3167-1
  20. ^ Anne Curry. Agincourt: A New History, Pub Tempus, 2005, ISBN 0-7524-2828-4
  21. ^ Richard Brooks Henry V's payroll cuts Agincourt myth down to size May 29, 2005
  22. ^ John Noble Wilford, "Transforming the Alchemists", The New York Times, August 1, 2006
  23. ^ Arnold, James R. A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War Oman and Historiography, The Napoleon Series, August 2004.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ 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
  27. ^ 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
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ 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
  30. ^ Gordon Martel, ed. The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered: A.J.P. Taylor and the Historians. (2nd ed. 1999).
  31. ^  
  32. ^ Kolko, Gabriel. "The Premises of Business Revisionism" in The Business History Review, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1959), p. 334
  33. ^ Novick, Peter (1988). That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical profession. Cambridge University Press. p. 343.  
  34. ^ a b Horwood, Ian. "Book review: Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965". Institute of Historical Research. 
  35. ^ Mark Moyar (2006). Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965.  
  36. ^ Michael Lind (1999). Vietnam: The Necessary War. Free Press.  
  37. ^ Divine, Robert A.; Lewy, Guenter; Millett, Allan R. (September 1979). "Review: Revisionism in Reverse". Reviews in American History 7 (3): 433–438.  
  38. ^ Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, p. VII.
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