Historical revisionism occurs constantly in academic circles, as historians constantly update or amend recognized views of events that happened in the past based on new or more detailed research. The continued issue of new or amended textbooks is known as historiography, or the history of history. Accepted revisions to history become part of the recognized historiography of the topic; for example modern social historians offer different conclusions on previously recognized "top down" histories that focus on leaders in society and major events.
Historical Revisionism and Denial?
Where revisionism becomes a questionable practice is when politicians, events and historians make deliberate attempts to rewrite or distort history, such as in the case of the "stabbed in the back" legend that permeated Germany after World War I. This myth was perpetrated by Marshal Hindenberg's order of the day, on the day following the armistice agreement. Part of Hindenberg's statement was that German heads should be held high after four years facing a world full of enemies. This was the official German stance, exacerbated by fears of rising communism. The "stabbed in the back" myth was a factor in the rise to prominence of Hitler's National Socialist Party and it can be seen that political regimes do make revisionist attempts to distort history to fit their beliefs.
The Nazi Holocaust is one of the most well-known examples of historical revision or denial. The deniers' argument was that the Nazi regime's murder of some six million Jews during World War II did not occur. Many reputable sources and a massive amount of evidence and documentation confirm the Holocaust did occur, yet some historians persist in denial to suit their own beliefs. An important landmark trial in Vienna against British historian David Irving in 2006 challenged Irving's Holocaust denial. Irving was found guilty and jailed for three years.
Simple Communist Revisions to History
Some simple methods the Soviets used to revise history were changing the name of Russia's former Imperial capital St. Petersburg to Petrograd, Leningrad and Stalingrad, in an attempt to eradicate memories of Tsarist rule. Historical revisions carried out by Stalin included changing photographs and history books, thereby distorting children's learning within educational establishments.
1984, a Fictional Example of Historical Revisionism
A fictional example of a regime making constant historical revision is "1984" by George Orwell. George Orwell was a social historian who fought in the Spanish Civil War for the republicans but developed long-term anti-Communist views. His novel, "1984," which was published in 1949, is based on a futuristic character, Winston Smith, employed to rewrite historical events. The novel is an excellent example of how regimes distort history to suit political purpose and is based on Communist policies in Russia.
History in Practice
History is a fascinating subject to study. As historians focus on narrow areas of topics and study newspapers, journals or diaries, they can add more resourced detail into the historical debate. Once amendments and added details on specific histories have been accepted by recognized historians, they become a part of accepted historiography and are not considered revisionist. The historiographical referencing is shown as footnotes and bibliographies in textbooks. For example, since some of the Soviet archives were opened to the public, historians at major U.S. universities, such as Stanford, Yale and George Washington, have been reevaluating their views on Cold War history.
- Queens College Library, The City University of New York: Historiography
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Holocaust Denial and Distortion
- Electronic Text Center Journals: Controversy/Polemique
- The Literature Network: 1984
- History: Making History, the Changing Face of the Profession in Britain
- BBC History: George Orwell, 1903 - 1950
- The New York Times: Leningrad, Petersburg and the Great Name Debate
- BBC GCSE Bitesize: History, Stalin Purges and Praises
- Princeton University: Stab-in-the-Back Legend
- BBC History: Denying the Holocaust
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