History where the events that happened have been modified or altered since then to change the perspective people get of the event. Sometimes they go so far as to deny that some things ever happened.

Some white supremacists, for example, have claimed that the holocaust never happened and was a Jewish ploy. Other conviently forget the amount of contributions by blacks, or ignore the slaughter of Native Americans, by the europeans.

A current example of revisionist history is the Turkish record on the Armenian Genocide, the first genocide of the twentieth century. In 1915 to 1923, The Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey), already on the verge of collapsing during World War I, decided that the Christian Armenians, though Turkey had been their homeland for centuries, were pro-Russian and had to be exterminated.

The Genocide received plenty of coverage in the USA at the time (from 1915 to 1923). This was to be expected. At this point, the Ottomans were making no attempt to cover up what was going on. High-ranked officials were even quoted as saying things such as "The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians. We have destroyed them by the sword" (Enver Pasha, leader of the Young Turks movement) and "Turkey is taking advantage of the war in order to thoroughly liquidate these indigenous Christians" (Talaat Pasha).

Even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the founding father of Turkey, Mustafa Ataturk Kemal, spoke on the failure to prosecute the oppressors, saying, "These left-overs from the former Young Turk Party, who should have been made to account for the millions of our Christian subjects who were ruthlessly driven en masse from their homes and massacred, have been restive under the Republican rule." But slowly, over time, as new governments formed and new ideals were presented in the Turkish parliament, Turkey decided that it was in their best interests to claim that the Armenian Genocide was not a genocide at all. Rather, they claim, it was a civil war between the two parties (Turks and Armenians). The Armenian death toll was not 1.5 million as affirmed by most historians, but rather a meager 600,000. One must consider, does it really make Turkey any better that they only succeeded in murdering 600,000 innocent people instead of one and a half million?

Most countries do not accept Turkey's unfounded claims, and rightfully so. Armenian lobbies have worked for decades to get the Armenian Genocide recognized worldwide, despite Turkey's denial. They have succeeded in countries such as Great Britain, Russia, Canada, Greece, Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium, Cyprus, and Lebanon. But these were accomplished with constant threats by Turkey that their relations with the countries in question would suffer. Also, 2000 was a good year for the Genocide recognition, as it was also affirmed by France, Italy, and the European Union. But this year, the US, friendly to their big Middle-Eastern NATO ally, succumbed to immense pressure by the Turkish lobby to not recognize the Genocide. Since the US seemed ready to adopt a Genocide resolution, Turkey proceeded to make threats to the US, both in form of "hurting our relations" and threatening the lives of Americans in Turkey. But that's a whole other story altogether, refer to "Remember the Armenians".

In contemporary Israeli historiography, a school of thought which rejects the traditionally taught history of the foundation of the Israeli state - the vision of Israel as David against the Arab Goliath led heroically by David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan - and particularly its early dealings with the displaced Palestinians and the surrounding states; as accepting these views would undermine the legitimacy of many subsequent actions of the Israeli state as well, they are naturally not met with universal acclaim. Leading figures in this movement include Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim. Also referred to as the "new historians"; the "revisionist" label seems calculated to align them with holocaust deniers and the ilk.

Recommended (but obviously contentious - see mirv's writeup below) reading: Avi Shlaim, The Iron Road

History is typically defined as the records or accounts of past events written in chronological order. History has long served the purpose of enlightening and informing; to be used as general reference, or to serve as items for comparison with recent, similar, events. The Analysis of History is referred to as the Study of History; that which seeks to explain the causes and consequences of those past events. The usage of History is suspiciously absent from any formal definitions of History. History was, apparently, never intended to be used; just learned from to alter and understand current events. It serves the purpose of teaching and explaining society’s current position in a clear, unbiased nature, and to generally teach the truth behind the events of the past. Indeed, the understanding of History must come from all sides; one must know and understand the ideas, reasons, customs, and cultures behind each party involved in a particular historical event in order to gain the best and most meaningful understanding of the event, and how it took shape. Bias towards one of the parties can lead to an incomplete analysis of the event and can portray the other party(ies) in a negative historical light (Macleod).

In this idea, history as the world recognizes it is largely Euro-centric due to the European Imperial Colonization of nearly all the continents of the world in the 19th century. This is an indisputable fact, but it is also, unfortunately, biased in favor of the Europeans. Historians have noted this in recent times, and have begun to shift their focus towards those peoples, cultures, and ideals that were oppressed by the European culture to remove the Euro-centric bias from the textbooks of the world. While this is a noble cause, there have been those that take this a step further and begin to have a bias against the Europeans and their historical influence that directly led to our modern times. Having a bias towards, or in favor of any historical party is now considered Revisionist History, and by many accounts, is an unethical practice amongst Historians.

But having a bias is only one of the very basic definitions of Revisionist History. Revisionist History has an ambiguous definition and an even more ambiguous use in the confines of our modern society. The events of the past, it seems, has fallen sway to the personal preferences of those who interpret them. Revisionist Historians tend to have a goal-oriented reason for their research; other than the general informing of the public. This goal is typically political in nature, and reflects the general trend shift of academic studies towards a bias of political correctness (Mac Donald). A sort of ‘We’re sorry, how can we make it up to you?’ bias in favor of minority peoples and cultures.

Naturally, the politicizing of historical research can lead to great debates. Were these debates and biases left in the scholastic arena and not utilized in public, there would not be an issue to discuss. But the fact of the matter is that Revisionist History is very prominent within the eye of the public without being noticed. From the class room to the Smithsonian Institute, Revisionist History presents a biased opinion of what should be unbiased historical events.

As mentioned earlier, the Euro-centric view on history was predominant until very recently. Within the class room, out of date text books and aging teaching methods have long hindered the development of cultural and racial equality. The racial inequality of the 1950’s and 60’s could largely be blamed for the historical biases taught in white classrooms. The social inequalities of that time era were reflected within the classroom; teachers taught white students that African Americans were inferior, and those students would later grow old and enact these beliefs in public, towards blacks. Currently, the Euro-centric trend continues, but with hope. More and more authors of high school text books are focusing large portions of the books to minorities, women, and people of the lower class. As promising as this seems, too much focus on minority groups can greatly downplay scientific and cultural achievements of whites and Europeans. Children have long learned a great deal about Martin Luther King Jr., and while he was indisputably a great man who achieved a lot, children hardly learned of Robert F. Kennedy, who did a great deal towards racial equality as well. Both were assassinated for their views, but Martin Luther King Jr. is mentioned more in the class room, while Robert F. Kennedy only gets a few sentences. It can be argued that the achievements of MLK are much greater than those of RFK, so more attention is justly deserved. But for a counter argument, Garrett Morgan, an African American, is commonly credited with creating the first traffic light in 1923. The first traffic light was actually installed in London in 1868; Morgan only created the automated traffic light. Despite this, Morgan’s achievements typically over shadow those of Thomas Edison, whose achievements are too numerous to begin to list, within a typical classroom.

Once the most respected research institutes in the United States, the Smithsonian Institute’s numerous museums are supposed to showcase the stunning and ground breaking achievements of mankind. Instead, the curators of the museums are only interested in presenting historical information that appears to be politically correct. In one case the possessions of former Presidents are near-hidden, where an entire museum is dedicated to promoting the anti-U.S. government agenda of some Native American tribes. It is one thing to display artifacts of a culture in a non-bias atmosphere; it is an entirely different matter to hold a bias against the Euro-American culture within a U.S. funded National Museum (Mac Donald). Or any bias, for that matter. This is not the only case in which minority political interests have held greater sway than a truthful, unbiased account of History within the Smithsonian’s walls, but it is true that at one point in time, museums and ‘scientific’ exhibitions were largely composed of the minority’s cultures’ oddities and stereotypes. Some even went as far as to treat people as animals. It resembled more of a circus than it did an intellectual exhibit. Past events that happened to people who happen to be of the same ethnic origins are not sufficient reasons to provide repercussions to current members of that race of peoples.

It may be said that Revisionist History is nothing but a non-racist point of view of historical events. This is not so. Revisionist History is any history with a bias. “The study of History is a vital tool for the development of any society. Progress is possible only when a society can identify its mistakes and move beyond them. For this to happen, however, the stories of the past must be told truthfully and in an unbiased manner. Revisionist History defeats this goal” (Blute).




Sources:

Blute, Peter. “Revisionist History Has Few Defenders.” Technology Review. August / September 1995. Vol. 98 Issue 6, pg. 51, 2p.

Mac Donald, Heather. “Revisionist Lust: The Smithsonian Today.” New Criterion. May 1997. Vol. 15 Issue 9, pg. 17, 15p.

Macleod, Anne Scott. “Rewriting History.” Teacher Magazine. April 1998. Vol. 9, Issue 7, pg 34, 4p.

See also: Myth of objectivity, historiography, spin (SharQ's writeup), spin doctor.

 

Short form: Revision — reinterpretation — of existing historical evidence is not limited to Holocaust deniers and minority-oppressors; it is a common method of historical criticism with a long and honorable pedigree. Historians have been reinterpreting history ever since they started writing it.

Long form: Some historians choose to take the large-scale view of human history: they might analyze the relations between the Roman, Persian, and Chinese states, watching how the flow of capital and material goods affected the economic status of each, observing the power struggles between empires, noting how periodic incursions from the steppes of Central Asia affected each nation in turn, recording the spread of religions — Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Christianity, Islam — to the east and west. Some scholars take a specific approach: they might examine Japanese feudal structures, European monasteries and their bookmaking, or the role of women in the Ottoman imperial court.

However, few can do both, and focus on any one aspect of history tends to force others into what is at best a subsidiary, background role: Scholars of European history and culture will ignore Chinese history except insofar as it affects their chosen study; a student of Chinese history will ignore European historical narratives until they begin to impinge on his region of study. The very act of focusing on one set of details precludes a broader examination of other historical narratives. Depth of study must yield to breadth, and vice versa: a general world history which examined every region and culture in deep focus would sink a library under its weight, and a deep study must block out other narratives in order to remain focused and coherent.

So the very act of deep study precludes absolute objectivity: one set of details must yield to another to retain logical structure and narrative coherence. But this is not to say that such study is necessarily objective: two historians can, starting from the same basic set of facts, making no claims which do not fit those facts, produce entirely different narratives concerning the same people, places, and events. Those who record the action firsthand cannot place the events into their larger context, while those who collect and analyze the source material are constrained by both the biases of their original sources and their own limited vision: every historian promotes a thesis, and necessarily emphasizes those facts which fit his ideas while minimizing or ignoring those which do not. For example:

Augustus

Consider two main narratives of this man's life: the Res Gestae, written down by the Emperor himself, and The Annals of Imperial Rome, recorded by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus a century after the Emperor's death. Both deal with the same events: Augustus' rise to the status of princeps, his consolidation of power, and the achievements of his reign. Both have specific agendas: Augustus wrote a story of himself as a great and effective ruler, while Tacitus, who grieved for the death of the Republic, was much less flattering. Observe Augustus:

"1. In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction. For that reason, the Senate enrolled me in its order by laudatory resolutions, when Gaius Pansa and Aulus Hirtius were consuls (43 B.C.E.), assigning me the place of a consul in the giving of opinions, and gave me the imperium."
"3. [. . .] About five hundred thousand Roman citizens were sworn to me. I led something more than three hundred thousand of them into colonies and I returned them to their cities, after their stipend had been earned, and I assigned all of them fields or gave them money for their military service."
"18. [. . .] I gave out contributions of grain and money from my granary and patrimony, sometimes to 100,000 men, sometimes to many more."
"34. In my sixth and seventh consulates (28-27 B.C.E.), after putting out the civil war, having obtained all things by universal consent, I handed over the state from my power to the dominion of the senate and Roman people. And for this merit of mine, by a senate decree, I was called Augustus and the doors of my temple were publicly clothed with laurel and a civic crown was fixed over my door and a gold shield placed in the Julian senate-house, and the inscription of that shield testified to the virtue, mercy, justice, and piety, for which the senate and Roman people gave it to me. After that time, I exceeded all in influence, but I had no greater power than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy."

Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, extracted from http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html

Compare Tacitus:

"When after the destruction of Brutus and Cassius there was no longer any army of the Commonwealth, when Pompeius was crushed in Sicily, and when, with Lepidus pushed aside and Antonius slain, even the Julian faction had only Caesar left to lead it, then, dropping the title of triumvir, and giving out that he was a Consul, and was satisfied with a tribune's authority for the protection of the people, Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. [. . .] He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past. [. . .] Thus the State had been revolutionised, and there was not a vestige left of the old sound morality. Stript of equality, all looked up to the commands of a sovereign without the least apprehension for the present. [. . .]"

Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, extracted from http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.1.i.html

Consider that Augustus and Tacitus were describing the same events, and see how much a historian's preconceived point of view shapes his record of history; this is just one example of how two historians can take the same set of facts and come up with entirely different interpretations. (I could produce any number of examples, but these two will suffice.) Now, the passage of two millenia affords us a certain detachment from the events surrounding the rise of the Roman Empire; more recent narratives still inflame passions on both sides of the debate, as the conflicting opinions of the early Roman writers must have done in their own era. So how about more modern cases of revisionism, especially those which move the heated debates from the ivory tower into the public eye?

The histories of certain minorities have been given short weight in the narratives constructed by the white European culture which, until recently, held sway over American intellectual life. Contributions by minorities to American history have certainly been downplayed in the past; are they now overplayed, as 'compensation' for generations of neglect, or have they merely received their rightful place as part of the overall narrative? The histories which will decide this question are still being thrashed out. Is any emphasis placed on one set of phenomena over another necessarily an act of bias? Yes, but remember that every historian is biased. Has political correctness gone too far? That's not so easy.

Naturally, someone accustomed to one idea of history is going to perceive an interpretation that goes against his preconceptions as biased — which it is, but who has the right bias? Whose ideas get precedence? Which narrative of history is 'correct'? That is the crux of the issue, nearly impossible to resolve because of its intense subjectivity: every history writer, thinking his ideas right, will fight tooth and nail to defend them. What's to be done, then?

In an ideal world, we wouldn't have balance sheets totting up the textbook pages and museum floor space allotted to the Plain- and Star-Bellied Sneetches, nor would we cry foul whenever either group got more than its proper amount of paper or floorboard. Rather, the star, or lack thereof, on the belly of a historical Sneetch would be ignored in favor of his or her real importance to the historical narrative. We would also remember — and challenge — our own biases whenever we set out to write history, since only then could we approach — but not reach — an impartial perspective.

 

Another related, though separate, issue is that of historians who invent facts to prove their theses — but that's a different subject. There are also some historians who deliberately deny inconvenient facts which blow their theories to pieces; they are, if not outright liars, at least intellectually dishonest. Remember, though, that these cases are extreme, and extremists are poor representatives of the group as a whole. For a good example of how the same unchanged evidence can be revised and reinterpreted by successive historians, go read note 3 over here. That is revisionism at its best.

The conclusion:

All history is revisionist; all history advances one viewpoint over another; all historians would do well to remember this.

Commentary and criticism is welcome.


Sources:

  • The two works quoted. (The Internet Classics Archive has granted blanket permission to copy and redistribute these works for non-commercial and educational use, and I think this writeup qualifies. If copyright issues arise, contact me and I'll either find a public-domain translation or translate the quoted sections myself.)
  • Several undergrad history classes at McGill University.
  • The nodes linked above, especially myth of objectivity, helped develop my ideas.
  • Also worth reading as an example of well-done revision: A People's History of the United States.

Thanks go to izubachi, gwenllian, Gorgonzola, legbagede, mauler, and StrawberryFrog.

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