Editing History

Kaiser_Wilhelm_Ii_and_Germany_1890_-_1914_HU68367We are all familiar with historical novels or historical films tending to be very loosely based on fact and rather more rooted in fiction. It is hardly surprising, though. Often it is because sources are scarce, or research has been inadequate. Seldom, however, is there a need to omit real history and quotes, once they have been found.

Mark Hayhurst, the writer of a major new fact-based First World War drama to be broadcast by the BBC, admits he had to edit the language of the then German leader because of its racist content to comply with the Race Relations Act.

A number of observations and questions follow from this: the Education Secretary Michael Gove recently criticised Historians of ‘whitewashing Germany’ – so how does this fit with  the latest editing of History, showing the German leader in a more positive light? Can more guilt be attributed to the Germans for starting the war than previously acknowledged? Moreover, can we really apply modern concepts of Race Relations to real events in the past?

Trawling through the internet, you find other examples of countries editing their history to suit their specific needs. In US schools the Vietnam war and the Korean War are rarely taught, perhaps because it is too upsetting, with its heavy losses and guerrilla tactics, or perhaps simply because the US did not succeed and ended up being shown, arguably, in an unfavourable light. In the former Eastern Germany, Western programmes and publications were banned. We often associate the omitting of certain aspects of History with totalitarian Regimes, such as the Nazis simply blaming the Jews for the loss of WW1.

So the question that raises itself is whether it is or is  not the duty of Historians to simply present the facts as they are to avoid any alterations and misrepresentations? Altering it to be more palatable and compliant with our current political thinking surely just confirms Gove’s criticism of Historians teaching in accordance with a current political perspective – which is clearly what he tried to accuse us of in the first place.


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