Rewriting History

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Today’s post will address the subject of historical revisionism, specifically negationism. Negationism is the practice of changing or deliberately distorting the historical record through dishonesty. Some people wish to further an agenda and for ammunition they will make it seem that history supports their position by manipulating the information. Negationism may also contain elements of another practice called trivialization. This is where historical atrocities are made to look less serious than they truly were. The vast majority of historical revisionisms are for the purpose of deceit or denial, usually to control popular opinion. As Plato said, “Those who tell the stories hold the power.” In this post we will look at three instances of revisionism and/or trivialization.

I am not a smoker. I further recommend that people today become educated about cigarettes and other tobacco products and realize their dangers. However, that does not change the fact that my modern “up-to-date” view on smoking has not always been the norm. During the 1960s and earlier everybody smoked. Celebrities smoked, world leaders smoked, housewives smoked, and teenagers smoked. It was just a fact of life. Consider then how today cigarettes are edited out of celebrities hands in old images. Some famous examples have involved Bette Davis, Paul McCartney, Robert Johnson, and Jackson Pollok. This is an example of revisionism that uses dishonesty or deceit to promote an agenda. It falsely portrays an image of American celebrities as smoke-free in order to modernize them or to present them as having the same “up-to-date” ideals as we do today. Instead of trying to change the past with Photoshop we should accept the fact that although we now know that smoking is harmful many people from all different walks of life once smoked cigarettes.

A far more serious instance of negationism in the form of trivialization is the practice of denying or downplaying the holocaust. In the 1940s, Nazi Germany oversaw the extermination of 10 million Jews and Polish POWs. However there is a persistent group of so-called holocaust naysayers who claim that it either never happened or that it has been exaggerated. Writer David Irving is the most vocal holocaust denier today. His books attempt to reveal a “real” Hitler that was a good guy rather than the Hitler that we know from our history books. In his 1977 book Hitler’s War, Irving exaggerates the importance of the fact that we today lack any written order in Hitler’s handwriting commanding the extermination of the Jews. He therefore maintains that Hitler cannot be held responsible for the actions of the Third Reich in the holocaust. It is typical of revisionist historians to set conditions which cannot be met and to negatively prove their theories. In 1988 he began formally denying the holocaust. Holocaust denial is implicitly illegal in many countries. It is interesting to note that nearly all former Nazis or SS officers do NOT deny the holocaust. In response to revisionists like Irving, many holocaust museums attempt to display the horror and atrocity that occurred so that people might believe and be reminded of the carnage that took place in the concentration camps.

A final example of historical revisionism is the attempt to secularize historical personalities, particularly the founding fathers of the United States. Like the example with the cigarettes, this practice attempts to deceive by portraying people in a way that is disingenuous. We now live in a fairly secularized society where the separation of religion from daily life is well established but things have not always been that way. For most of human history religion played a prominent role in peoples’ lives. This was another fact of life. It is dishonest of scholars when they try to strip historical persons of their religion and portray them as begrudgingly bound to the tyrannical religion of the times but who themselves didn’t really believe any of that mumbo jumbo. Lets face it: there have been a lot of religious people in American history. George Washington mentions Jesus Christ many times in his personal writings. It is however popular to portray Washington as a grim, down-to-earth, stoic, enlightened philosopher. Likewise it has become vogue to portray the passengers of the Mayflower as enlightened souls seeking to escape the unjust religion of the Old World. What is less popular to discuss is their almost immediate establishment of a religious community with regulations and punishments just as strict as the one they fled. This all contributes to the novel notion that America was established as a secular country, but the truth is that although the constitution has a built in separation of church and state the nation was certainly built on a religious foundation, for better or worse.

It is important that we view history as truthfully as we can. Otherwise we will end up like North Korea where the citizens believe that their leader is the latest in a long line of descendants of dragons who are divinely appointed to lead what they believe is the largest most important country in the world. Rewriting history is a dangerous practice indeed. I suggest that we should face the truth bravely even when we do not like what history reveals about our society, our historical figures, or us. It is only by proceeding with honesty and truth that we can begin to grow and make our future better from what we have learned from the past.

 

 

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