Barnes, Harry Elmer

Harry Elmer Barnes (1889-1968), historian and sociologist, was one of the most influential American scholars of the twentieth century. He was a major figure in developing the school of history writing known as "revisionism,” that is, the critical, scholarly examination of official or orthodox history, especially of the origins and consequences of the two world wars.

Revisionism, Barnes wrote in a 1958 essay, “implies an honest search for historical truth and the discrediting of misleading myths that are a barrier to peace and goodwill among nations. In the minds of anti-Revisionists, the term savors of malice, vindictiveness, and an unholy desire to smear the saviors of mankind. Actually, Revisionism means nothing more or less than the effort to correct the historical record in the light of a more complete collection of historical facts, a more calm political atmosphere, and a more objective attitude.”

He taught economics, sociology and history at various institutions of higher learning, including the New School for Social Research, Smith College , and Columbia University. His output of books, essays, reviews and lectures was prodigious. His consistently clear, effective and knowledgeable prose earned him the appreciation of the educated public as well as praise from scholars.

Of Barnes The Columbia Encyclopedia notes: “His wide interests generally centered about the main themes of the development of Western thought and culture. His ability to synthesize information from various fields into an intelligible pattern showing human development profoundly affected the teaching of history.”

During the 1920s Barnes played a leading role in debunking the propaganda myth of sole or primary German responsibility for the First World War. He remained true to his principles even after World War II when the American intellectual climate became markedly more restricted and conformist. His skeptical view of the official history of that great conflict, and particularly its origins and the US role in it, along with his outspoken criticism of conformist “court historians,” made him an ever more marginalized figure during his final 20 years.

Throughout his career he did much to encourage other scholars. For example, he helped to produce and publish his detailed revisionist study of the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. (Hoggan’s book, first published in German in 1961, finally appeared in English in 1989 under the title The Forced War.)

Shortly after Barnes’ death on August 25, 1968, historian and economist Murray Rothbard wrote a tribute that appeared in Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought (Vol. IV, 1968):

“…. Harry Elmer Barnes was the last of the truly erudite historians. In a field of accelerating narrowness and specialization where the expert on France in the 1830s is likely to know next to nothing about what happened in France in the 1840s, Harry Barnes ranged over the entire field of historical study and vision. He was the Compleat Historian, and it was the historical approach that informed his work in all the other social science disciplines in which he was so remarkably productive: sociology, criminology, religion, economics, current affairs, and social thought. Surely his scholarly output was and will continue to remain unparalleled, as even a glance at a bibliography of his writings will show.

… He was that rarity among scholars, a passionately committed man. It was not enough for Harry to discover and set forth the truth; he must also work actively and whole-heartedly in the world on behalf of that truth… He believed, properly but increasingly alone, that it was the ultimate function of the vast and growing scholarly apparatus to bring about a better life for mankind…

It was Harry’s passionate commitment to truth that lost for him the applause of scholars and multituee alike and cast him, for the last two decades of his life, in outer darkness. …Other men might grow more conservative and timid and accommodating to the powers-that-be as they grew older and more settled; but never Harry Elmer Barnes. That was to be his great burden during the remaining years of his life; but that as also to be his undying glory.”

Harry Elmer Barnes is a controversial figure whose memory is blurred both by his detractors and his supporters. His long and distinguished career crossing many subjects and interests is often left in the shadows of his historical revisionism. Even much of his revisionist work, which began in the years following …