Revising the Twentieth Century

By Lukacs, John | American Heritage, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Revising the Twentieth Century


Lukacs, John, American Heritage


HISTORY IS REVISIONISM. IT IS THE FREQUENT --nay, the ceaseless--reviewing and revising and rethinking of the past. The notion that the study and the writing of history consist of the filling of gaps or the adding of new small bricks to the building of the cathedral of historical knowledge was a nineteenth-century illusion ("We have now histories of the Federalists in every New England State, except for Connecticut. You must do Connecticut"), allied with the fantasy that once the scientific method has been followed precisely, with all extant documents exhausted, the result will be definite and final ("the definitive account of Waterloo, approved by British as well as by French and German and Dutch historians"). There are important differences between historical and legal evidence, one of them being that the historian deals in multiple jeopardy that the law eschews; the former is retrying and retrying again. There is nothing very profound in this observation, since that is what all thinking is about. Not the future, and not the present, but our past is the only thing we know. All human thinking involves the rethinking of the past.

There may be five hundred biographies of Lincoln, but there is no certainty that the 501st may not furnish our minds with something new and valid--and not necessarily because its author has found a new cache of Lincoln documents. What matters more than the accumulated quantity of the research (note the word: "re-search") is the crystallizing quality of the revision. Waht is its purpose? Is it expose, scandal, sensation, or the more or less honest wish to demolish untruths? Is it the author's desire for academic or financial success, to further his advancement in front of his colleagues or in the greater world of affairs? Or (as is, alas, often the case) is it to further the cause of a political ideology? This is where the subject of this article comes in.

THE term revisionism is of German origin. It was first applied to those German socialists who, around 1875, chose to mitigate the doctrine of the inevitability of the proletarian revolution. This Marxist usage does not concern us. But the other, and still present, use of historical "revisionism" has a German origin too. It arose after 1919, reacting to the punitive and condemnatory treaty imposed on Germany and on its World War I allies. The wish to revise their terms, to change the then drawn frontiers of Europe was a powerful impulse, eventually leading to Hitler and to World War II. However, the aim of this historical revisionism was not directed at injustices of geography; it was directed at injustices of the record--that is, at the unjust condemnation of Germany as responsible for the war, stated in the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans had every reason to combat that. As early as 1919 the new republican and democratic German government began to publish documents to prove that the guilt for the coming of the war in 1914 was not Germany's alone. A much more extensive and scholarly documentation was published in a series of volumes a few years later. The Germans felt so strongly about this that in 1923 a German amateur historian, Alfred von Wegerer, began issuing a scholarly journal, Die Kriegsschuldfrage (The War Guilt Question).

By that time the first wave of revisionism among American historians had begun to form. Of the four waves of revisionism in the twentieth century this was the longest and the strongest one. It began as an intellectual and academic (and sometimes also a political and an ethnic) reaction against the extreme condemnation of Germany in 1917 and 1918 that had been broadcast from many sources, including the Creel Committee, Wilson's own propaganda machine, with many exaggerations and falsehoods. It was a reaction by liberals and radicals against superpatriotism, not very different from (and often allied with) their opposition to American conformism, to the postwar Red Scare, to the Ku Klux Klan, to the American Legion of the twenties. …

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