Historical Revisionism: Concept and Practice

By FRANCISCO JAYME PAOLO A. GUIANG
Assistant Professor, Department of History
University of the Philippines Diliman

“Every generation writes its own history… we build our conceptions of history partly out of our present needs and purposes…” (1955) writes Carl L. Becker, past president of the American Historical Association. Hence, the historian’s final output – the constructed past – underscores a perspective which resonates a generation’s collective experience with their ideals and biases. Czech historian Aviezer Tucker (2008) posits that “historiographic interpretations are affected by moral and aesthetic values, by the affiliations, political biases and perspectives of the historians who write them. This is the main reason for the differences between historiographic interpretations.” That is why contending narratives are evidence of the dynamic yet complicated nature of history as a discipline. It should be noted, however, that history – though not completely devoid of biases – should not not prescribe a certain viewpoint or lens as a means to read the past. Rather, the discipline strives to convey the truth about the past done through a scientific methodology. Moreover, so much is at stake in the historian’s craft in that posterity relies on their work to gain an ample consciousness of the past. This ultimately cultivates an individual’s notion of national identity and sense of belongingness. Hence, the discipline’s crucial role in shaping the minds of future generations is precisely why the recent issues about historical revisionism should be interrogated.

Positive Historical Revisionism vs. Negative Historical Revisionism

In its most basic definition, historical revisionism involves a reinterpretation of a past event or a presentation of new narratives based on newly discovered facts. Reconstructing the past in order to update it is done by closely following the norms of academic research: ascertaining facts that convey the truth, corroborating contending views, and producing impartial interpretations. American historian James M. McPherson (2003) suggests that “revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past… The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, ‘revisionism’—is what makes history vital and meaningful.” Tucker (2008) agrees with McPherson’s idea of revisionism: “Historiography is a progressive and innovative discipline composed of various dynamic research programs precisely because it is capable of revising itself, constantly improving itself, expanding knowledge and becoming relevant in new historical contexts.” Indeed, history as a discipline would be static without the practice of revisionism. The production of academic materials (specialized books and textbooks) with “revised editions” are a testament to the fact that history is an open-ended book.

Following this logic, any narrative may change its tone depending on the availability of new sources or the use of fresh perspectives in interpretation. Tucker (2008) calls this as evidence-driven revision because it relies on the discovery of new evidence in order to produce new knowledge about the past. Furthermore, he mentions two other types of revisionism – significance-driven revision underscores what historians consider important about the past and has the potential to incite a better understanding of the present while value-driven revision highlights a unique set of values that historians employ in order to evaluate historical events and its many facets. These three constitute what scholars consider as “positive historical revisionism.” Conversely, “negative historical revisionism” is the most heinous form of this practice. Italian historian Giovanni C. Cattini (2011) posits that “in common parlance, the word revisionism takes on a pejorative meaning because it is associated with a vulgar use of certain historical events manipulated for political ends and with a complete lack of scientific foundation.” The keywords here are “manipulation” and “lack of scientific foundation” which are core to negative revisionism. And to use the inevitability of human bias as an excuse to twist facts and spread misinformation is a corruption of the historian’s sacred duty to uphold the truth about the past.

Furthermore, Tucker (2008) explains that the existence of negative revisionism placates certain insecurities among individuals or groups: “Revisionist historiography [negative revisionism] usually relies on therapeutic values instead of the standard consensus-generating cognitive [scientific] values that historians of diverse backgrounds agree on.” These therapeutic values usually compliment political motives because they 1.) deny historical guilt, 2.) promote self-respect (for an individual or group), or 3.) eliminate a sense of alienation and absurdity (through conspiracy theories). A perfect example of negative revisionism that appeases vested political interests was the controversial book of David Irving entitled, Hitler’s War (1977). Here, Irving argues that Adolf Hitler had no knowledge of the Holocaust and that only the likes of Heinrich Himmler were aware of the genocide. Moreover, the author depicted Hitler as an intelligent and strategic leader who wanted prosperity for Europe but was eventually compromised by his incompetent subordinates (see Jackel 1993). Irving’s work blatantly denies Hitler’s guilt of the Holocaust and dismisses his track record as a fascist despite overwhelming evidence. Irving is thus guilty of negative revisionism done through historical negation – the act of disregarding evidence in favor of a certain bias.

In its very essence, negative revisionism is harmful because it misleads people to believe in narratives that are largely based on questionable/contentious/manipulated facts, a product of a false analysis of data, and/or directed towards white-washing and myth-making. Positive revisionism, in this case, should take the paramount role in the practice of rewriting history because it is grounded on scientific methodology.

Negative Historical Revisionism in the Digital Age

The threat of negative revisionism is further amplified in the digital age where Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube dictate the quality of discussion about pressing socio-political issues. The best example to prove this are the recent efforts to exonerate Ferdinand E. Marcos from his crimes through the use of malicious propaganda circulated online. YouTube videos like Mr. Riyoh’s “Real talk about MARCOS” has generated more than 700,000 views to date even though the content is based on questionable/dubious facts and even conspiracy theories (see Bautista 2018). What is noteworthy is that video content like these manage to obtain sympathizers (as seen in comments sections) because their approach is distinctively attuned to the language of the pedestrian. The same can be said with Facebook pages like “BongBong Marcos United” and “MARCOS LOYALIST,” each having amassed more than 10,000 likes. A popular story frequently shared by these pages is the myth of the Tallano gold that was allegedly given to the Marcoses. In attempts to erase their culpability for the commission of massive graft and corruption, supporters and loyalists continue to promote this invented past in order to validate the Marcos narrative. Additionally, the existence of paid trolls worsen the problems of fake news and misinformation in the digital arena. Hence, in retrospect, it is not surprising that these “alternative narratives” aided in the Marcoses’ return to power as evidenced in the 2016 national elections.

Indeed, various online platforms became the primary means for fake news peddlers and negative historical revisionists to spread their propaganda. The only way defeat efforts at dismantling the truth is to tirelessly persuade and reeducate Filipinos using reliable and credible source materials, some of which are accessible online. These include the National Historical Commission of the Philippines’ “Why Ferdinand E. Marcos Should not be Buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani” (2016) or even JC Punongbayan and Kevin Mandrilla’s Rappler article entitled, “Marcos years marked ‘golden age’ of PH economy? Look at the data” (2016) which provide solid argumentation based on primary sources, reliable data, and statistics. Waging a successful war against misinformation and negative historical revisionism begins by being well-informed about the past while being critical about the present-day milieu.

*This short essay was presented during the online conference on historical revisionism dubbed Balik Ka/Saysay/An on 21 September 2020 organized by the Asian Center for Journalism (ACFJ) and Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation in partnership with Tanggol Kasaysayan and Bulatlat.

The author is a member of Tanggol Kasaysayan.

 

References

Bautista, Victor Felipe. 2018. The Pervert’s Guide to Historical Revisionism: Traversing the Marcos Fantasy. Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 66(3): 273-300.

Becker, Carl L. 1955. What Are Historical Facts? Western Political Quarterly 8(3): 327-340.

Cattini, Giovanni C. 2011. Historical Revisionism: The Reinterpretation of History in Contemporary Political Debate. Transfer: Journal of Contemporary Culture 6: 28-38.

Jackel, Eberhard. 1993. David Irving’s Hitler: A Faulty History Dissected, Two Essays. Washington: Ben-Simon Publications.

McPherson, James M. 2003. Revisionist Historians. Perspectives on History 41(6): 5-6.

Tucker, Aviezer. 2008. Historiographic Revision and Revisionism. In Past in the Making: Historical Revisionism in Central Europe after 1989 edited by Michal Kope?ek. Budapest: Central European University Press.

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