Updated: Dec 14, 2020
While history is often portrayed as being concrete and objective, this often isn’t the case.
The discovery of new evidence or a reinterpretation of motives and decisions carried out may require the re-writing of the history books.
This guide will explain what revisionism is, why it is needed, and how it can be misused.
"Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States… there is simply no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition, full stop."
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, 2005
What is revisionism?
Historical revisionism is often a fairly uncontroversial process of re-writing history books as new information comes to light about the event.
The ‘led by donkeys’ theory is an example of revisionism in the UK, whereby once-held views about the British Army’s leadership during World War One were reconsidered. It was first held that the leadership of the British Army during WW1 were incompetent, as officers situated miles away from the front lines were blind to the realities of trench warfare.
This notion was challenged in the 1960s however, when new research came out to suggest that officers were in fact not ineffective ‘donkeys’ resulting in mass avoidable casualties, but instead were often faced with problems out of their control such as a lack of adequate communications.
The changing of academic opinion on matters such as these have relatively little political consequences, and so most acts of revision often falls under the radar of the public. So why can revisionism be so controversial?
To understand this, we must look at instances where there can be much more at stake than just the reputation of (mostly dead) British Army officers.
The UK Government and Torture
The role of the British government in carrying out torture on suspected terrorists is a highly contested one. While the Blair government’s Jack Straw adamantly claims there is ‘no truth’ that the UK was involved in the CIA’s rendition programme - where suspected terrorists were detained and taken abroad to be interrogated - there is a growing wealth of evidence suggesting the opposite.
Declassified documents have emerged which seem to show that the UK government were complicit in the CIA’s use of torture, or in some circumstances even carried it out themselves. Immediately following 9/11, the head of the MI6 Mark Allen was briefed by the USA on the rendition programme and what it entails, though it is important to note that Mark Allen claims that the MI6 didn’t believe that the CIA’s plans were real, but instead just ‘tough talk’. Furthermore, evidence that the CIA’s rendition aircraft stopped in British airports on numerous occasions adds further doubt to the claims of those in government.
The debate surrounding Tony Blair’s government and its role in torture has very serious consequences for those involved. If it is the case that the UK took part in torture, this would amount to MPs, secretaries and civil servants lying to the public and breaching international law. As such, changing history in this instance is heavily controversial.
Attempts at revisionism should not be taken without an air of scepticism, however, as there have been many attempts to mislead by manipulating sources and data to give a false impression of historical events, often to serve a political agenda.
Revisionism or Negationism?
Negationism is a term used to describe an illegitimate form of historical revisionism. For example: using false sources, mistranslating texts, manipulating data, and attributing false conclusions to books and sources.
Perhaps the most well-known form of negationism is that of Holocaust denial, by using misleading data or faking documents. Holocaust deniers claim that the death toll at the Nazi concentration camps was significantly lower than reported, or that nobody died at the concentration camps at all. White supremacists often push this narrative in order to defend the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, or to accuse the Jews of faking the Holocaust as justification to establish Israel.
While this is a particularly horrific form of negationism, more subtle and more popular instances exist within British society today.
Britain didn't play a significant role in the slave trade: or at least that's what many on the UK's far-right would have you believe. Common soundbites to justify this include the UK's prohibition of slavery in 1807, the idea that slavery is simply an American affair, and the caveat that Africans and Arabs took part in the slave trade too. These stories among others paint a misleading picture that the UK either had a minor role in slavery or actively fought against it.
Historical revisionism surrounding the British slave trade serves to place the UK on the ‘right’ side of history, or more nefariously to deny people of colour resources to alleviate the consequences of historical slavery.
Aside from fabricating information and manipulating sources, a problem with revisionism is that it is impossible to claim to know objectively the motivations of historical figures which resulted in their decisions. When talking about intentions and beliefs, it is important to see revisionism as a way to introduce new perspectives as opposed to seeking objective truth.
This extends into the educational system. Take a look at our article on Historical Revisionism and the School Curriculum.
Overall, historical revisionism can be a useful tool for academics to reassess the orthodoxy surrounding an event and introduce new evidence and perspectives towards history.
We should be careful not to take the word of any individual as objective truth, as biases and agendas can result in the presenting of misleading narratives for political goals.