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Historical revisionism

In Parson Weems' Fable (1939) Grant Wood takes a sly poke at a traditional hagiographical account of George Washington
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In Parson Weems' Fable (1939) Grant Wood takes a sly poke at a traditional hagiographical account of George Washington

Historical revisionism is the reexamination of accepted history, with an eye towards updating it with newly discovered, more accurate, and/or less biased information. Broadly, it is the approach that history as it has been traditionally told may not be entirely accurate and should be revised accordingly.

The term has many different meanings depending on the context of its use and who is using it and when; some in a positive light, others in a negative sense. Listed below are different usages of the term.

Contents

Didactic revisionism

All writings of history are in some way revisionist. Many historians who write revisionist exposÚs 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 angle.

Because revisionist historians take on the mainstream or traditional view of historical events, they often raise views which traditionalists may not agree with. Often times it is the historians who are in the minority such as women historians, or ethnic minority historians, or those who work outside of mainstream academia, or who work in smaller and less known universities, who have the most to gain, and the least to loose, by shaking up the establishment. Those historians who work within the existing establishment have the most to gain by keeping things as they are.

For example, many history books of the past rarely mentioned, if at all, the relationship the European explorers, colonists, and later the United States had with the Native American population (who were referred to as American Indians or Red Indians). In the past, outside of Native American populations, very few would dispute the assertion that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. Indeed, most of the recent scholarship having to do with Columbus -- and contradicting the image of Columbus as a heroic figure -- can be considered revisionist. Some, too, is revisionist in the ideological sense of the word.

Another example, throughout history slaves have not been considered equal to their masters, which 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.

Political revisionism

Revision of existing historical knowledge can have purely didactic goals, aiming only to bring greater understanding of the past. Other types of revision, however, are motivated by a desire to reshape the understanding of history in the service of a particular political agenda. Such politically motivated revisionism is often associated with propaganda efforts.

During the days of the Soviet Union, dictator Joseph Stalin's regime employed a variety of revisionist tactics to ignore unpleasant events of the past. Soviet school books would constantly be revised to remove photographs and articles that dealt with politicians who had fallen out of favor with the regime. History was frequently re-written, with past events modified so they always portrayed Stalin's government favourably.

There is also a "politically correct" movement in revisionism that can often be found in history materials targeted towards children and young adults. This type of revisionism effectively seeks to censor some of the less pleasant sides of history, lest it should cause controversy or hurt feelings. For example, in some American schools the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. are not presented in their entirety, as King frequently used racial terms such as negro, now considered offensive.

Revisionism has also been accused of becoming a "trendy" pursuit, and indeed, bold revisionist theories often get a lot of attention from historians and the media. Some argue that this fosters an attitude of historical apathy, and is encouraging scholars to focus on sensational or obscure parts of history, rather than the well-known and universally accepted.

In American academia studies of communism, particularly of the Communist Party USA have generally taken a benign view of the Party while minimizing Soviet atrocities and the totalitarian nature of the movement.

Holocaust revisionism

Because of the adoption of the term by holocaust-deniers, historical revisionism has become stigmatized, and revisionist a suspect description of a historical work dealing with the holocaust. Holocaust revisionists insist that they are correcting falsehood, and that their publications represent authentic historical research.

Holocaust-deniers have attached themselves to the issue of the Heimatvertriebenen, and have in the view of their opposition attempted to use the sympathy for the plight of those Germans who suffered to blame the Jews for the suffering of the Heimatvertriebenen, or to retroactively minimise the suffering of the Holocaust.

There is opinion that Zionists have used the Holocaust in an effort to drum up support for their positions, and as cover for questionable activities by the state of Israel. This issue is discussed in the controversial book, "The Holocaust Industry."

Negationism is the denial of historic crimes.

See also Winston Smith.

Garry Kasparov revisionism

The term "historical revisionism", or simply "revisionism" is also sometimes used to refer to specific revisionist theories whos most famous believer is the chess player Garry Kasparov which holds that the events of what are known as the last 3,000 years occurred in either a much shorter or a much longer time frame.

See also

Serdar Argic

Further reading

  • John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial : Historians, Communism, and Espionage, Encounter Books, September, 2003, hardcover, 312 pages, ISBN 1893554724

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45