The Tradition of Historical Revisionism

Published: 1982-01-01

"Truth is always the first war casualty. The emotional disturbances and distortions in historical writing are greatest in wartime."

These are the words of historian, sociologist and criminologist Prof. Harry Elmer Barnes, who founded a school of historical thought following World War One that became known as Revisionist. 

But why Revisionist? What is Historical Revisionism? And what makes it different from the history we learn in school and see portrayed in the popular media?

For the late Dr. Barnes, Revisionism meant "...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."

The term originated with a group of scholars (French, British, American, German and others) whose researches undermined the presumption of unique German responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Although the term Revisionist originally was used to apply only to the question of guilt for WW I, it has subsequently come to include all historical findings at odds with the Establishment version. Revisionism is freedom of speech in history.

Those early Revisionists and those who followed the tradition recognized a fact of life pertaining to the writing of history: in the case of wars, historians of the victorious nations tend to write historical accounts that ignore relevant facts not favorable to the victor while, at the same time, misrepresenting or inventing other facts in order to cast the loser in an unfavorable light. Most of these historians had played an active role in World War I, many in propaganda and intelligence; after the Second World War, it was not uncommon for them to continue to have links with intelligence agencies.

The efforts of Establishment historians to remain on the good side of the powers-that-be (like the court historians who served kings and emperors of old) created a historical record that oftentimes resembled wartime propaganda more than independent scholarship.

"To the victor go the spoils" is a well-known saying of American president Andrew Jackson. One of the great spoils of winning a war is being able to write the history of it from your own perspective.

When history is written by partisan historians from a victor nation, the winning side emerges simplistically as the "good guys." The losers, of course, are the "bad guys." Questions about the origins of the war (for instance, about the real story behind the sinking of the Lusitania or the attack on Pearl Harbor), about its conduct (did the "Huns" really cut off infants' hands in Belgium? Were we justified in annihilating the populations of whole cities like Dresden and Tokyo from the air?), and about its conclusion (such as the wisdom of the Treaty of Versailles or the secret deals at Teheran and Yalta) are ignored or swept aside.

Following the First World War, Harry Elmer Barnes and other historians, both in the victor nations and the vanquished, "revised" the official version of the winners by gaining access to the secret records of the wartime governments - their ministers, generals and diplomats. The documents demonstrated that there was a very big difference between what the leaders were saying in public and what they were doing in private. The Revisionists demonstrated that millions of men had gone to their deaths for ideals at which those in power secretly scoffed. A great and healthy revulsion against war and warmakers set in and Americans set their faces against further "crusades" across the oceans.

But the upheaval which the First World War had brought about in Europe and Asia and the short-sighted settlements which the victors had imposed on the defeated nations led to another war. This time the ruling Establishments in the victor nations determined that there would be no "revision" of their wartime propaganda, no "bringing history into accord with the facts." The men who wrote the authorized histories of the Second World War were tied to their society's ruling elites-both public and private- just as closely as the court historians of bygone days. They enjoyed privileged access to the records, many of which they had helped create themselves with their wartime roles in propaganda and intelligence. Dissident historians- the "Revisionists" - were excluded.

It is crucial, however, that we gain an understanding of the actual origins, course and consequences of World War II and of all modern wars. "Good guys" vs. "bad guys" history reinforces wartime propaganda. Carried over into peacetime it stands in the way of reconciliation and fosters an atmosphere in which all the world's conflicts are viewed as epochal struggles between Good and Evil.

It is the Revisionists' aim to understand wars, not to continue to fight them in endless polemical battles. Revisionists search for the underlying causes of wars, hold the self-serving claims of all parties to those struggles to critical review, and investigate the role of often shadowy third parties that sought to profit from wars waged ostensibly on behalf of nation-states.

Revisionist scholars are working in many nations. The movement defies political classification on the conventional "left-right" spectrum. Revisionists are dedicated first to discovering the truth that is often hidden away in secret archives that governments and established powers everywhere would seal up in perpetuity. They are further dedicated to the principle that citizens have a right to know what their governments are actually doing behind the scenes.

The Revisionists are deeply concerned with the imposition of a monolithic orthodoxy in any area of historical research. The Revisionists have challenged, in particular, some of the most sacrosanct dogmas of World War II propaganda, from the unmitigated evil and aggressiveness of Germany, Japan, and their allies, to the unquestioning acceptance of the so-called Holocaust in all its improbable details.

Revisionists have learned, and teach, that a misunderstanding of the nature of conflicts between nations allows politicians, often fronting for special interests, to lead us blindly into wars in which the great majority of the citizenry has no real interest. The failure to properly understand our own involvement in the European wars has involved Americans in one crisis after another in the decades following World War II, from Korea to Vietnam to Beirut. Each time the politicians have assured us that we are repelling "aggression," staving off "bloodbaths," "fighting Communism" or "terrorism" or what have you. And each time the interventions have ended not in victory, but in death, frustration, and dishonor.

Still, special interests conjure up new Bad Guys, new devils. The tangle of rivalries and hatreds that outside intervention has created in the Middle East continues to provide our leaders with excuses for new adventures, from the Persian Gulf to Libya. Will the kind of popular hatred manufactured against foreign leaders like Khadafy or Khomeini lure us into a new crusade? Or even into a catastrophic nuclear conflict?

Not if the findings of Revisionists are heeded. Barnes and his colleagues, and their successors, working from a deep conviction that war is unnecessary, have demonstrated how specious were the justifications and how injurious the results have been of the wars America has blundered into over the past century. These wars have diminished our freedoms, undermined our wealth and created a false illusion of national rectitude.

The Revisionists are perhaps the only students of the past who have heeded the warning of George Orwell that: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." By wrestling control of the past from established interests and returning it to those who lived and suffered it, Revisionists may make possible a secure and prosperous future for all of us.

If we can face up to and acknowledge the existence of the underlying causes of war and what our own leaders have done to encourage war, prolong it and make it more destructive than at any other time in history, we may be on our way to achieving the just and lasting peace that every person of good will desires.


Tom Marcellus was formerly the Director of the Institute for Historical Review.

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Author(s): Thomas J. Marcellus
Title: The Tradition of Historical Revisionism
Sources: IHR Leaflet
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Published: 1982-01-01
First posted on CODOH: June 29, 1995, 7 p.m.
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