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In historiography, the term historical revisionism identifies the re-interpretation of the historical record. It usually means challenging the orthodox (established, accepted or traditional) views held by professional scholars about a historical event, introducing contrary evidence, or reinterpreting the motivations and decisions of the people involved. The revision of the historical record can reflect new discoveries of fact, evidence, and interpretation, which then provokes a revised history. In dramatic cases, revisionism involves a reversal of older moral judgments.

At a basic level, legitimate historical revisionism is a common and not especially controversial process of developing and refining the writing of history. Much more controversial is the reversal of moral findings, in which what had been considered to be positive forces are depicted as being negative. This revisionism is then challenged by the supporters of the previous view, often in heated terms, and becomes an illegitimate form of historical revisionism known as historical negationism if it involves inappropriate methods such as the use of forged documents or implausible distrust of genuine documents, attributing false conclusions to books and sources, manipulating statistical data and deliberately mis-translating texts. This type of historical revisionism presents a re-interpretation of the moral meaning of the historical record.[2] The term "revisionism" is used by negationists to portray their efforts as legitimate historical revisionism. This is especially the case when it is applied to Holocaust denial.

Historical scholarship


Historical revisionism is the means by which the historical record – the history of a society, as understood in its collective memory – continually integrates new facts and interpretations of the events commonly understood as history, about which the historian and American Historical Association member James M. McPherson, said:

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, 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.[4] 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:

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.[6] 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:

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:

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:

Developments in the academy, culture, and politics shaped the contemporary model of writing history – the accepted paradigm of historiography; the philosopher Karl Popper said: "each generation has its own troubles and problems, and, therefore, its own interests and its own point of view", and that:

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.[11]

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 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 Death, 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.[12][13]

Influences


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.[1] New sources in other languages: 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.
  • 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.[14] 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 historians to debate the meaning and importance of race and indeed current identities.[15]
  • 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: 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. Wars are contests between enemies, and the postwar histories in each selects the facts and interpretations to suit their internal needs, The Korean War for example has sharply different interpretations in textbooks in the countries involved.[16]
  • Culture: For example, as regionalism has regained some of its old prominence in British politics, some historians have been suggesting that the older studies of the English Civil War are too England-centered 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.[17]
  • 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.
  • Release of public documents Compared to past decades, a huge volume of archived government records are now available under the Thirty-year rule and similar laws. These can provide new sources and therefore new analyses of past events.

Revised versions


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.[18][19]

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,[20] she has published her initial findings,[21] 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.[22]

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, avoiding the word "discovery."[23]

In his 1990 revisionist book, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, Kirkpatrick Sale argued that Christopher Columbus was an imperialist bent on conquest from his first voyage. In a New York Times book review, historian and member of the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Committee William Hardy McNeill wrote about Sale:

McNeill declares Sale's work to be "unhistorical, in the sense that [it] selects from the often cloudy record of Columbus's actual motives and deeds what suits the researcher's 20th-century purposes." McNeill states that detractors and advocates of Columbus present a "sort of history [that] caricatures the complexity of human reality by turning Columbus into either a bloody ogre or a plaster saint, as the case may be."[25]

The military historian James R. Arnold argues that:

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.[28]

The military leadership of the British Army during 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").[29] 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.

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.[30] 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)[31]

Prior to the collapse of the USSR and the archival revelations, western historians estimated that the numbers killed by Stalin's regime were 20 million or higher.[32][33] After the Soviet Union dissolved, evidence from the Soviet archives also became available, providing information which led to a significant revision in death toll estimates for the Stalin regime,[34] usually in the range from 3 million[35] to 9 million.[36]

The orthodox interpretation blamed Hitler and Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan for causing the war. 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.[37] Other notable contributions to this discussion include Charles Tansill, Back Door To War (Chicago, 1952); Frederic Sanborn, Design For War (New York, 1951); and David Hoggan, The Forced War (Costa Mesa, 1989). British historian A. J. P. Taylor ignited a firestorm when he argued Hitler was a rather ordinary diplomat and did not deliberately set out to cause a war.[38]

Patrick Buchanan,[39] an American conservative pundit, argued the Anglo–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. Buchanan further argued the British pact with Poland ensured the country would be invaded, as Stalin knew the British Empire would not be able to declare war on Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.

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.[40] 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."[41]

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 (1955–75), for which the author was criticised and supported for belonging to the revisionist school on the history of the Vietnam War.[42][43] 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:

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,[42] Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (2006), by Mark Moyar,[45] and Vietnam: The Necessary War (1999), by Michael Lind.[46]

See also


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