- For the denial and distortion of well-established historical facts see Historical revisionism (negationism).
Within historiography, that is the academic field of history, historical revisionism is the reversal of orthodox views about guilt or process in historical events. The assumption is that the interpretation of an historical event or period as it is accepted needs significant change.
The two leading critical exposés of Holocaust denial in the United States were written by historians Deborah Lipstadt
(1993) and Michael Shermer
and Alex Grobman (2000). These scholars make a distinction between historical revisionism and denial. Revisionism, in their view, entails a refinement of existing knowledge about an historical event, not a denial of the event itself, 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 in fact occur. Denial, on the other hand, rejects the entire foundation of historical evidence....
winning historian James McPherson
, writing for the American Historical Association
, described the importance of revisionism:
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. 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:
After World War II “a new and more broadly based generation of scholars”, as the result of the GI 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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Some of the influences on historians, which may change over time are:
- Accession of 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 released 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 Second 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 academic areas. 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 and measuring oxygen isotopes in bones in the last few decades have provided new data with which to argue new hypotheses. The new area of 'ancient DNA', recovering partial results, allows scientists to argue for example 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, the "American War of Independence" and the "American Revolutionary War", or the Irish War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish 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 Francois Furet revealed the social situation to be 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
and the 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, but more of a lack of many sources in mainland Europe
The concept of feudalism
has undergone a number of revisions. Revisionist thinking, lead by historian Elizabeth Brown, has rejected the term and concept completely
The Battle of Agincourt
was for centuries believed to be an engagement in which the English army, though overwhelmingly outnumbered 4 to 1 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 and although 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.
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.
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 once widespread 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. Some of this historical writing is revisionist in the ideological sense of the word, such as in portrayals of Columbus as the perpetrator of a genocide, which are arguably polemical
. But even moderate portrayals of Columbus now take into account modern revisionism, and rarely, for example, use the word discovery
without quotation marks.
Slavery and New World Africans
During historical periods of slavery, slaves have not been considered equal to their masters, something that has been reflected in the accepted histories of the time. In the study of the Reconstruction
era of the American South
, the revisionist interpretation of events has completely replaced the Dunning School
interpretation. Additionally, a more Afrocentrist
paradigm increasingly has been utilized in the study of slave societies, and in studying the values, beliefs and traditions of Blacks
in the New World
, emphasizing the continuity of culture between them and Africans.
French attacking formations in the Napoleonic wars
The military historian James R. Arnold argues that:
Military leadership during the First World War
The military leadership of the British Army
during the First World War
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 distance 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
. 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 quasi-official Dunning School
that found the blacks were tools of evil Carpetbaggers
, and instead stressed economic greed on the part of northern businessmen.
Indeed, in recent years the revisionists approach has become standard. "Foner's book represents the mature and settled Revisionist perspective," historian Michael Perman has concluded regarding Ric Foner's Reconstruction: A Finished Revolution (1988)
Versailles Treaty and the causes of World War II
In reaction to the orthodox interpretation which was enshrined Versailles Treaty (it declared that Germany was guilty of starting World War I), the self-described "revisionist" historians of the 1920s rejected the orthodox view and called for a complex causation in which several other countries were equally guilty. Intense debate among scholars raged for decades.
Revisionist historians of World War II, notably Charles Beard, said the U.S. was partly to blame.