When Oscar Wilde declared that “the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”, he was probably attempting to provoke — épater les bourgeois, as the French might say. Wilde lived in an age, the latter half of the nineteenth century, of assurance and certitude. Contemporary historians such as the German empiricist Leopold Von Ranke felt that through their work they could show “what had really happened”, while the English Catholic historian, Lord Acton believed that it would one day be possible to produce “ultimate history”.
Historian have now generally come around to the substantially less confident view — expressed by E. H. Carr of Cambridge — that “history is interpretation” necessitating periodic re-interpretation and hence rewriting or revision. Historical revisionism is the attempt to understand the past better through the reexamination of historical facts, with an eye towards updating historical narratives with newly discovered, more accurate, or less biased information. There is also a less respectable, one might even say a perverted, kind of revisionism called “negationism” (from the French le négationnisme) a term first introduced by Henry Rousso, the specialist on WWII France (Le Syndrome De Vichy, etc.) which describes the process of rewriting history by minimizing, denying or simply ignoring essential facts while exaggerating or overstating those supportive of one’s argument.
What made many in the Tibetan world stand up and pay attention to Professor Melvyn Goldstein’s A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, when it appeared in 1989 was the unmistakable impression the book gave — even in the preliminary flip-through-the-pages — that here was a radical reinterpretation of Tibetan history. …
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