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Revising The Twentieth Century
THE GREAT STRUGGLES of our century have all been followed by tides of revulsion: Americans decided we were mad to have entered World War I; Russia should have been our enemy in World War II; the United States started the Cold War. Now another such tide has risen in Europe, and it may be on its way here.
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
BY THE TIME HITLER was rising in power, 70 percent of Americans thought us wrong to have entered World War I.
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. What is its purpose? Is it exposé, 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.
T HE 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).