Historical revisionism

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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 the accepted "facts" and interpretations of history, with an eye towards updating it with newly discovered, more accurate, and less biased information. Broadly, it is a skeptical approach, that history as it has been traditionally told may not be entirely accurate, and that perhaps an accurate history is as unobtainable as a dispassionate autobiography.

While reinterpreting past events in light of new facts is the essence of good scholarship, some distort these facts as a means of influencing readers' beliefs and actions for politically biased reasons. For a detailed discussion of the political aspects of historical revisionism, see historical revisionism (political).


Historical revisionism

All writings of history are in some way revisionist. If there was a universially accepted view of history there would be no need to research it. Many historians who write revisionist exposs 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.

Those historians who work within the existing establishment, 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. Revisionist historians often contest the mainstream or traditional view of historical events, they raise views at odds with traditionalists, which must be freshly judged. Oftentimes historians who are in the minority, such as feminist historians, or ethnic minority historians, or those who work outside of mainstream academia in smaller and less known universities, or the youngest scholars, who have the most to gain and the least to lose, by shaking up the establishment. In the friction between the mainstream of accepted beliefs and the new perspectives of historical revisionism, received historical ideas are either changed, or solidified and clarified. If over a period of time the revisionist ideas become the new establishment status quo a paradigm shift is said to have occurred.

"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." –Napoleon Bonaparte.

Historians, like all people, are inexorably influenced by the zeitgeist (the spirit of the times). 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). 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, the accepted model is revised to fit in with the current agreed-upon version of events. Some of the influences on historians, which may change over time are:

  • 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". As perceptions of nationalism change so do those areas of history which 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 which 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 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 the British Isles(IONA).

A second common usage of the phrase "historical revisionism"

Another usage of the term "historical revisionism" is to refer to attempts to revise history so as to present a more positive image of a previous event or person that is not supported by the true facts. This is basically another form of propaganda. For example, people and groups that claim that the facts generally accepted about the holocaust are grossly inaccurate, such as claiming that no where near six million Jews where killed or that none were gassed, have claimed to be "historical revisionists". See "Holocaust revisionism".

The popular news media have picked up on the term "historical revisionist" as used by some people who deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence to describe themselves and have used it as a derogatory label. In a number of circles, because it has come to be associated only with this second meaning as a derogatory label, the term can have a purely negative connotation even when describing legitimate historical revisionism. See Historical revisionism (political).


These are examples of historical revisionist ideas that have resulted in a fundamental change in perspective on historical concepts.

The "Dark Ages"

As non-Latin texts such as Welsh, Gaelic 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 were many historians no longer recognize that such a term is useful.


The concept of feudalism has undergone a number of revisions. Recently some revisionist thinking has rejected the term and concept completely saying it is invalid and should not be used at all.

New World "discovery"

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 and Scandinavians, very few would dispute the assertion that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. However, 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.


During historical periods of slavery, slaves have not been considered equal to their masters, something that's 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.


The Battle of Agincourt was for centuries believed to be an engagment in which the English army, though overwhelmingly outnumbered (supposedly 4 to 1) by the French army, pulled off a stunning victory. However, as professor Anne Curry discovered from original enrollment records, the French only outnumbered the English and Welsh 12,000 to 8,000. The numbers had been exaggerated for patriotic reasons by the British.

Other Examples

Other efforts at historical revision have not succeeded and may never succeed in winning such support, because they demand sweeping changes in our view of the past. Nevertheless, such attempts can be notable, if only for the audacity of their revisions:

New Chronology

The New Chronology 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. The most famous adherent of this theory, which was created by the mathematician Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko, is the chess champion Gary Kasparov.

Heribert Illig

Heribert Illig believes the approximately 300 years between 614 and 911 are an invention and never happened. The basis of Illig's claims is the paucity of archaeological evidence that can be securely dated to this period known commonly as the "Dark Ages".

See also

External link

  • Gary Kasparov (http://www.revisedhistory.org/view-garry-kasparov.htm)

de:Revisionismus es:revisionismo histrico fr:Rvisionnisme ja:歴史修正主義 pl:Rewizjonizm zh:历史修正主义


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