How Revisionist History Works

 by Cristen Conger, How Stuff Works, History.com

https://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/revisionist-history1.htm 

German students protest against the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1932. Reaction to the treaty after World War I marked the beginning of modern historical revisionism.

When you hear the word “square,” you need context to know whether it refers to the shape, the mathematical operation or a slang insult for a conventional person. The term “revisionist history” can be similarly vague when standing alone since it usually connotes one of the three perspectives discussed on the previous page.

Let’s consider the legacy of Thomas Jefferson to understand how you can apply these different perspectives. People accept that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as the third president of the United States. But another biographical fact is that Jefferson had a slave mistress named Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered children. Despite people’s discomfort with that nugget of information, DNA evidence in the late 1990s confirmed it was true. So what did that discovery mean for revisionist historians?

Revisionism Through Social and Theoretical Lenses

Historians refer to the years immediately following World War II as the age of historical consensus [source: Foner and Garraty]. A strong sense of patriotism and unity dominated the historical framework during that time. Then, that stability began to crack apart with the turmoil and uncertainty of the 1960s. No longer was the country sitting victorious after succeeding in World War II. The combination of the protracted war in Vietnam and the struggle for equality throughout the Civil Rights movement changed the tone across the United States radically. Technicolor Uncle Sam and victory gardens were replaced by race riots and student protests. Revisionist historians understood that these events affected groups in different ways, which reshaped the overall narrative of U.S. history.

Revisionism as a Means of Correcting the Facts 

Recounting­ historical events through the centuries can be similar to playing a game of telephone. Th­e first person starts with something simple, like the meeting of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas in Jamestown. By the time the message reaches the last person in the circle, it’s become primped and polished into a colonial love story. Revising history can untangle that string of miscommunication.

Recounting­ historical events through the centuries can be similar to playing a game of telephone. Th­e first person starts with something simple, like the meeting of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas in Jamestown. By the time the message reaches the last person in the circle, it’s become primped and polished into a colonial love story. Revising history can untangle that string of miscommunication. 

In the Disney version of the Pocahontas story, the Native American is a leggy, attractive woman who falls madly in love with Smith. Aside from the musical numbers, the plotline from the animated film isn’t too far from the history lesson that was taught in schools. But like the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree, that of Pocahontas and John Smith has been revised. Thanks to Smith’s journals and other written sources, we know now that the famous Native American was probably 11 years old when they met — there was no steamy romance or marriage between the couple. Instead, Pocahontas married a widower named John Rolfe and died around the age of 21 [source: LaRoe].

Revisionism as a Negative Term           

The inconsistent quality of revisionist theories, including those surrounding JFK’s assassination, contributes to the low credibility of historical revisionism.

In popular culture, revisionist history has become synonymous with telling lies or embellishing the truth. For instance, in 2003, President Bush used the term “revisionist historians” in reference to the media covering the war in Iraq. He claimed that certain reporters had wrongfully questioned the reasons for invading the Middle Eastern country and muddied the public’s opinion of the conflict. Some professional historians didn’t take kindly to Bush’s comment because it cast an unflattering light on the academic study of history. After all, they reasoned, all histories are revisionist at some point. A few years later, in 2006, Florida passed a law banning “revisionist and postmodernist history” from being taught in the state’s public schools [source: History News Network]. The language of Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill stated that students should learn facts, not “constructed” elements of American history — essentially equating revisionism with lies.

Why does revisionist history have a bad reputation? First, it’s associated sometimes with highly contentious theories, such as Holocaust denial. Recall the public furor in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 speech at Columbia University, when he stated that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Historians emphasize that people who deny the events of the Holocaust during World War II aren’t practicing revisionist history but rather negationism. Another revisionism-related scandal occurred recently in Japan, also concerning World War II. The general of the Japanese air force authored an essay asserting that Japan was bullied into Pearl Harbor by the United States and only engaged in combat as a defensive measure [source: Economist].

 

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