How Revisionist History Works

By: Cristen Conger

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.