How Revisionist History Works


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Not long ago, American schoolchildren learned a quaint ta­le in history class about the nation's first president. It had to do with a precocious George Washingto­n cutting down a cherry tree against his parents' wishes. When confronted by his angry father, Washington had to decide whether to lie and avoid punishment or own up to the offense. As the tale goes, young Washington replied that he couldn't tell a lie and confessed to axing the tree.

Today, we know that Washington did no such thing. When archaeologists discovered the site of Washington's boyhood home in 2008, they found no cherry trees on the landscape. The story was fabricated by early Washington biographer Mason Locke Weems to bolster the first president's heroic image. Omitting the cherry tree story from curriculum had no significant impact on our collective memory of George Washington and made him no less important to shaping the early history of the United States.

That's a simple example of revisionist history. Scholars find inconsistencies or outright fallacies in historical narratives and make the necessary edits, or they examine the reasoning behind historical facts. Was George Washington truly heroic? How did his character mold the United States in its infancy?

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Retracing recorded history can be more like navigating a minefield than pleasantly strolling down memory lane. That's because the past isn't always as simple as the initial version of the story would have you believe. Revisionist history is complicated by the fact that people's identities are strongly linked to their histories; challenging long-held claims about past events draws criticism and controversy. The field itself isn't cut and dry -- revisionist historians work from angle­s. Often, revisio­nist history is from one of three major perspectives:

 

  • Social or theoretical perspective to re-examine the past through different lenses
  • Fact-checking perspe­ctive to correct the record of past events
  • N­egative perspective that views revisionism as an intentional effort to falsify or skew past events for specific motives

­Since the days of ancient Greek and Roman scholars, such as Plutarch and Tacitus, people have been editing recorded history. But modern historical revisionism originated in the 20th century, after the first global military conflict that shocked the world: World War I. The aftermath of the war would alter the way scholars and laymen alike viewed historical preservation.

Perspectives and Origins of Revisionist History

German students protest against the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1932. Reaction to the treaty after World War I marked the beginning of modern historical revisionism.
German students protest against the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1932. Reaction to the treaty after World War I marked the beginning of modern historical revisionism.
Imagno/Getty Images

When you hear the word "square," you need context to know whether it refers to the shape, the mathematical operation or a slang insult for a conventional person. The term "revisionist history" can be similarly vague when standing alone since it usually connotes one of the three perspectives discussed on the previous page.

Let's consider the legacy of Thomas Jefferson to understand how you can apply these different perspectives. People accept that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as the third president of the United States. But another biographical fact is that Jefferson had a slave mistress named Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered children. Despite people's discomfort with that nugget of information, DNA evidence in the late 1990s confirmed it was true. So what did that discovery mean for revisionist historians?

  • Considering the evidence from a social or theoretical perspective allowed scholars of African-American history to draw interpretations about the earliest interactions between blacks and whites in the United States.
  • From a fact-checking perspective, the evidence of the affair and the offspring was enough to merit exploration of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship in new biographical accounts of Jefferson.
  • Until DNA evidence proved the Jefferson-Hemings affair, skeptics who held the negative perspective maintained that the claim was false revisionist history meant to sully the Founding Father's legacy.

Just like a journalist must report events devoid of bias, so must the historian. But complete objectivity is nearly impossible since history often takes the form of a continuous, chronological narrative. That sense of continuity helps us grasp concepts, but in reality, events don't happen always in perfect sequence like a trail of dominos. The roots of modern revisionism sprang from that theoretical struggle for objectivity.

Once the dust settled to some degree after World War I, historians were left with the enormous task of sorting through the rubble. How would the military conflict be depicted in the years to come? How did the countries involved contribute to the war? Attempting to answer such questions, historians realized that complete objectivity was impossible. Even choosing what to include and omit about the war felt subjective. This was an issue scholars had wrestled with since the late 19th century.

The conditions of the Treaty of Versailles that effectively ended the war in 1919 contained severe punishments for Germany and planted the seeds of modern revisionism. As the German government declassified war documents, it appeared to some scholars that the country was vilified unjustly for its role [source: Lukacs]. Although the German-borne revisionism of the origins of World War I was a more radical approach, the League of Nations also moved in 1925 to create new standards and review criteria for the history textbooks of its member countries to remove signs of bias and xenophobia [source: Pingel].

A similar strand of war-related revisionism was beginning in the United States. This ideological shift was reflected in a 1931 speech given by American Historical Association President Carl Becker. Becker defined history as a living, evolving entity that's molded by human memory and individual perspective [source: Becker]. Claiming that history is open to interpretation and revision contested the widely held idea that history is a set of immutable truths that hold little bearing on the present.

By challenging the authoritative historical record of the war, these post-World War I historians opened the door to a new form of historical study. No longer was the past a two-dimensional collection of facts and dates, but rather a living, evolving dialogue. The scholars involved with the second major wave of historical revisionism that started in the 1960s recognized the difficulty of chronicling a living history. Consequently, specific social lenses emerged in that turbulent era's historical records.

Revisionism Through Social and Theoretical Lenses

A crowd protests the Vietnam War outside the U.S. Capitol building in 1971.
A crowd protests the Vietnam War outside the U.S. Capitol building in 1971.
Dave Watt/Getty Images

 

Historians refer to the years immediately following World War II as the age of historical consensus [source: Foner and Garraty]. A strong sense of patriotism and unity dominated the historical framework during that time. Then, that stability began to crack apart with the turmoil and uncertainty of the 1960s. No longer was the country sitting victorious after succeeding in World War II. The combination of the protracted war in Vietnam and the struggle for equality throughout the Civil Rights movement changed the tone across the United States radically. Technicolor Uncle Sam and victory gardens were replaced by race riots and student protests. Revisionist historians understood that these events affected groups in different ways, which reshaped the overall narrative of U.S. history.

Six main occurrences set the stage for this development:

How did these second-wave revisionists alter the narrative? Instead of looking just at the history of the United States as one overarching theme of destiny and triumph, they began to look at it through previously untouched lenses. They inspected the events of history as they related to seemingly marginalized segments of society, such as women and minorities. Four major types of social lenses that gained more attention from the 1960s onward are political, economic, racial and sexual:

  • Political lens: Political revisionism covers foreign policy, local political structures and nationalism. The 1960s saw the rise of politically leftist strands of revisionism emerge due to the Cold War. Marxist historical revisionism, for example, outlines history as a struggle between classes, often taking a more wary approach when depicting the prominent leaders of society rather than lauding them.
  • Economic lens: Historian Charles A. Beard was the pivotal figure in this revisionist approach. He argued most famously that the Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution with the intention of favoring upper classes economically [source: Foner and Garraty]. Economic histories of the United States also emphasize capitalism's influence in society and leadership.
  • Racial lens: Older historical narratives concentrated most of their attention on the experiences of white members of society. The Civil Rights movement in particular provoked more scholars to examine the roles of blacks and other minorities in shaping the country. Consider the more recent inclusion of the all-black Tuskegee airmen and Japanese internment camps of World War II in history textbooks.
  • Sexual lens: Women's history examines the social roles and contributions of females. The people taught in history classes used to be older white males primarily, but women's history has highlighted female revolutionaries, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth.

But like a diligent journalist editing an article, historians re-examining past events may discover errors or misinterpretations. Advances in technology and collaboration with scholars from other fields have also helped correct the basic facts we learn about history.

Revisionism as a Means of Correcting the Facts

Pocahontas was around 11 years old when she met Capt. John Smith.
Pocahontas was around 11 years old when she met Capt. John Smith.
MPI/Stringer/Getty Images

Recounting­ historical events through the centuries can be similar to playing a game of telephone. Th­e first person starts with something simple, like the meeting of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas in Jamestown. By the time the message reaches the last person in the circle, it's become primped and polished into a colonial love story. Revising history can untangle that string of miscommunication.

In the Disney version of the Pocahontas story, the Native American is a leggy, attractive woman who falls madly in love with Smith. Aside from the musical numbers, the plotline from the animated film isn't too far from the history lesson that was taught in schools. But like the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree, that of Pocahontas and John Smith has been revised. Thanks to Smith's journals and other written sources, we know now that the famous Native American was probably 11 years old when they met -- there was no steamy romance or marriage between the couple. Instead, Pocahontas married a widower named John Rolfe and died around the age of 21 [source: LaRoe].

Archeology, anthropology, forensic science and other disciplines all contribute to revising history in the most basic sense of correcting facts. As time passes, people may share old secrets, such as the revelation that Mark Felt was the Watergate informant given the nickname Deep Throat. Documents may become declassified, which happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Whenever new facts are unveiled, they alter -- and hopefully enhance -- our understanding of past events.

But updating history isn't always as simple as adding in a couple of sentences here and there in textbooks as newsworthy events take place. First, scholars and researchers develop new historical theses and theories that they publish. Then, academics, teachers and textbook authors meet in conferences to compile recommendations for which of the new facts should be included in upcoming textbook editions. They also analyze current textbooks for accuracy and tone. The Institute for International Textbook Research, for example, analyzes the language of the text and the diversity of topics covered to ensure that they aren't skewed toward particular races, genders or cultures [source: Sidhva].

From there, teams of scholars usually collaborate to write the textbooks for publishing companies. But there's a time lag that takes place during all of this. Publishers often don't have the budget to print a new edition of schoolbook to cover every new bit of pertinent history. Instead, many history textbooks are written with the goal of a 10-year shelf life [source: Pingel]. As a compromise, some publishers may print supplemental material to incorporate with older texts.

Even when the facts are correct and updated, revisions aren't always embraced warmly. For instance, when the American Historical Association submitted its updated National History Standards for textbooks in 1994, the organization received heaps of negative feedback. Some decried the downplaying of heroic characters, such as Daniel Boone or Thomas Jefferson, and the greater representation of less famous historical figures like Harriet Tubman [source: Freitag]. This isn't terribly surprising since, generally speaking, historical revisionism doesn't carry positive connotations.

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Revisionism as a Negative Term

Lee Harvey Oswald's mug shot. The inconsistent quality of revisionist theories, including those surrounding JFK's assassination, contributes to the low credibility of historical revisionism.
Lee Harvey Oswald's mug shot. The inconsistent quality of revisionist theories, including those surrounding JFK's assassination, contributes to the low credibility of historical revisionism.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In popular c­ulture, revisionist history has become synonymous with telling lies or embellishing the tr­uth. For instance, in 2003, President Bush used the term "revisionist historians" in reference to the media covering the war in Iraq. He claimed that certain reporters had wrongfully questioned the reasons for invading the Middle Eastern country and muddied the public's opinion of the conflict. Some professional historians didn't take kindly to Bush's comment because it cast an unflattering light on the academic study of history. After all, they reasoned, all histories are revisionist at some point. A few years later, in 2006, Florida passed a law banning "revisionist and postmodernist history" from being taught in the state's public schools [source: History News Network]. The language of Florida's Education Omnibus Bill stated that students should learn facts, not "constructed" elements of American history -- essentially equating revisionism with lies.

Why does revisionist history have a bad reputation? First, it's associated sometimes with highly contentious theories, such as Holocaust denial. Recall the public furor in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2007 speech at Columbia University, when he stated that the Holocaust didn't happen. Historians emphasize that people who deny the events of the Holocaust during World War II aren't practicing revisionist history but rather negationism. Another revisionism-related scandal occurred recently in Japan, also concerning World War II. The general of the Japanese air force authored an essay asserting that Japan was bullied into Pearl Harbor by the United States and only engaged in combat as a defensive measure [source: Economist].

This brings up the issue of credibility that has marred the field of historical revisionism. When you hear a new theory about, say, who shot John F. Kennedy, you have to consider the source. Is the author a peer-reviewed scholar or an amateur historian? What kinds of research methods were involved? Is the author motivated by fame and fortune -- or is he or she in true academic pursuit of the facts? And even when the source checks out as legitimate, revising an accepted historical narrative can be controversial. The public tends to view revisionist theories of well-known historical incidents tied closely to its own lineage with more skepticism than those regarding more obscure events [source: Mortimer]. It's well-known that Mary Todd Lincoln was mentally instable, but you can bet that if a historian proposed a similar claim about her husband Abraham Lincoln, people would scoff at the notion. Such a revelation would challenge Americans' collective memory of President Lincoln, whereas someone from another country probably wouldn't have as much difficultly accepting it.

In the end, only a small quantity of revisionists histories are eventually accepted as fact [source: Loewen]. Yet the rise of modern historical revisionism in an academic environment has had a significant impact on the discipline. It's leveled the playing field, so to speak, of recorded history by addressing the victims as well as the victors and everyone in between. Despite the skeptical public regard for it, the discipline of revising history will continue as long as we come up with new questions to answer and fresh angles to analyze. Sure, the narratives aren't always as Hollywood-ready when they get the revisionism once-over. At some point, we probably want to believe that the people who shaped our national identity were wholly altruistic and morally upright because, in a way, their characters also define part of our own identities. But as everyone knows from his or her personal history, the past isn't always as rose-colored as a young president refusing to tell a lie or an epic romance between an Englishman and a Native American princess.

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Sources

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