Travel through time with Git

Change the Past


Of all the things git can do, perhaps one of the most feared is the ability to rewrite history – Ben Straub explains how.

What sets Git apart from
other version control systems is the amount of control it provides
to its users. If you’re used to Subversion or Mercurial, where
history is permanent and immutable, you’ll probably have two
reactions upon discovering the rebase command: horror that such a
thing even exists, and confusion as to why anyone would want it in
the first place.

If you’ve
spent much time working on software, you’ve probably been in at
least one of these situations:

While working on a feature, you
find that you’ve written a utility that’s useful in other parts of
the system, but it’s tangled up with your feature.

You forgot to delete a file, and a
two-line bug fix got spread across 3 commits.

You had to make a commit that
only undoes some changes introduced in an older

You started working on a bugfix,
which later turned into a deploy-it-yesterday hotfix.

Rebase can help you solve these
problems, or avoid them entirely. It’s easiest to think about this
by seeing it in action. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

[ Diagram key: Green blocks
are commits, and their arrows indicate “parenthood”, so they point
backward in time. The gray blocks are branch refs, and their arrows
indicate the commit they refer to. Blue blocks are remote refs.

A trivial

Here’s a situation where the
master branch
(which is shared with the whole team) and your own personal
branch (which only exists on your machine) have diverged somewhat
(figure 1).

Let’s suppose that, for whatever
reason, you don’t want a merge commit. Rebase allows you to bring
in the changes from the experiment
branch while keeping the history linear. Here’s how to make that

$ git checkout experiment

$ git rebase master

Figure 2 shows what the history
looks like afterwards:

It helps to think of commits
a collection of changes rather
than a series of fixed versions. The
c and
d commits
have been re-made as
c’ and
d’, such
that their
changes are applied on top

A slightly less
trivial example

Let’s say you were working on a
bug fix, but it turns out to be more urgent than you first thought.
Figure 3 shows what your history looks like right now.

You started your fix on
development branch,
where all new features work goes. Meanwhile, the

branch has had a couple of small fixes applied to it. Now you
discover that your fix corrects a critical issue, and you want to
deploy it to production, but without all the half-finished features
and c. Rebase to the

$ git rebase –onto deployed development fix

The syntax is “–onto <new-base>
<old-base> <end>
”. In this case, we want
a set of changes (starting after development and
ending with fix) to be
replayed on top of deployed. Figure
4 shows what it looks like afterward.


At its heart, rebase is a merge
operation, which inevitably means merge conflicts. The good news is
that rebase actually makes it easier to deal with them!

When you do a standard
, all of the conflicts are thrown at you at
once. If your branches have been separated for a while, this can be
a daunting task; dozens of conflicts, scattered through your
codebase; only some of which are related to each other. It’s the
kind of situation that makes developers run screaming from their

Rebase, on the other hand, applies
commits one at a time. If any of them conflict, you get to review
them as they’re applied, and correct the problems. If it gets to be
too much, you can always change your mind: git rebase
resets your repository back to how it was
before it started.


You could also think of rebase as
a series of git
operations, like running a script. In
fact, there’s even a way to edit this script before it runs. Typing
git rebase
(or the shorter -i) drops the
rebase script into your text editor (see Listing 1 for an

Listing 1

pick 6ad9071 Work on feature ABC

pick 5742a11 Fix bug #24

pick fd68d8d Work on feature DEF

pick a4806b0 Fix makefile

# Rebase 83b50a7..a4806b0 onto 83b50a7


# Commands:

# p, pick = use commit

# r, reword = use commit, but edit the commit message

# e, edit = use commit, but stop for amending

# s, squash = use commit, but meld into previous commit

# f, fixup = like "squash", but discard this commit's log message

# x, exec = run command (the rest of the line) using shell


# These lines can be re-ordered; they are executed from top to bottom.


# If you remove a line here THAT COMMIT WILL BE LOST.


# However, if you remove everything, the rebase will be aborted.


# Note that empty commits are commented out


The top few lines are the rebase
script, which you have complete control over. If you decide you
don’t want to rebase after all, just delete all the content. The
script runs as soon as you close your editor.

This is where rebase’s power
really shines through. You can remove commits that you don’t want,
introduce new ones, or squash commits together where it makes more
sense to have just one. You can change commit messages, or even the
contents of the files committed.

This is more than just aesthetics;
it becomes even more useful when combined with other git features.
Many projects have the policy that all commits should pass the unit
tests, which allows git bisect to be
very useful for finding when problems were introduced. It also
combines well with cherry-pick
extracting a feature into just one commit allows it to be portable
to another branch.

A non-trivial

Suppose you’re working on a
feature using a branch, and it’s a ways from being finished. But
you notice that part of what you’ve done is actually a completely
separate fix, that the rest of the team needs right now (figure

You can use rebase to merge
the “accidental” fix into
master, while keeping
the in-progress feature separate. Let’s suppose that commits

and f contain this fix.
First, we create a new branch to hold the fix:

$ git checkout -b fix

Next, we use an interactive rebase
to keep only the commits related to the fix, and change it so they
apply on top of master:

$ git rebase -i master

# the rebase script:

pick 7a8b9c0 Commit D

pick 1f2e3d4 Commit E

Figure 6 shows what we have so

Now we can merge the fix back into
master, and
rebase our feature on top of it:

$ git checkout master

$ git merge fix

$ git checkout feature

$ git rebase -i master

# the rebase script:

pick abcd123 Commit F

pick 7890def Commit G

We use an interactive rebase to
remove the old e and
commits. Figure 7 shows the end result.

It’s really not that

The biggest worry people have when
they learn about this feature is that they’ll screw up. Relax. It’s
going to be okay.

Looking at the diagrams above, you
may notice that the original commits aren’t gone; they’re just
harder to see. Nothing is ever truly lost in a Git repository.
History is built out of commit objects (which are immutable because
of SHA–1 hashing) and refs or branches (which change all the time).
Almost every invocation of rebase will move a branch around, but
the underlying commits are still in the repository.

Try this in any repository you’ve
been working in:

$ git reflog my_feature

You’ll see a listing of every
commit that branch has pointed to. There’s an entry in the log for
every commit you’ve ever made on your machine. It’ll look something
like this:

8672898 my_feature@{0}: rebase finished: refs/heads/my_feature onto 72637a5

7b47989 my_feature@{1}: commit: Fixed #7294

c6cb71b my_feature@{2}: clone: from

The lines are in reverse date
order; the newest entry is at the top. The first line shows the
most recent change: A rebase. Undoing a rebase is usually as simple
as this:

$ git reset --hard my_feature@{1}

Also keep in mind that all of
these operations only affect the repository on your
None of the changes rebase is making are shared
with anybody else until you decide to share them.


When it comes time to put your
work out there for other people to see, one simple guideline will
save you from worlds of pain: Don’t change history that has left
your machine. If you’ve added 10 commits since you pushed, keep
your rebasing to only those 10 commits. Git helps you with this; if
your push would overwrite history on the origin, it warns you:

$ git push


! [rejected] master -> master (non-fast-forward)

error: failed to push some refs to ''

A simple git push -f will get
around this, but the warning should be enough to keep people from
making mistakes. This is emblematic of git’s approach to most
sensitive subjects: Recommend against something risky, but allow
it, because it might come in handy someday. Git never says

Still, there are some situations
where you do want to change history that exists elsewhere. One
example is the removal of sensitive information from a repository.
Let’s walk through an example – start with figure 8.

Let’s say that the c commit
contains a server password, and simply adding a new commit that
deletes that line won’t do, you want it to have never existed in
the repository. So you do an interactive rebase, and remove the
offending commit (figure 9).

You make sure the new history is
pushed to origin:

$ git push -f origin master

And you send an email to your
team, explaining what happened, and what they should do to

The short
Tell everyone to do a git pull
. But keep reading to find out what its

The long version:
Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes to make that happen.

Your teammate Jill has some work
that was based off of the old master (figure

Figure 11 shows what it looks like
after a git

So she has to rebase her work onto
the new head of the history:

$ git rebase --onto origin/master master~ master

Figure 12 shows what it looks like

Now she’s ready to keep working,
or push her work to the origin.

Your teammate Bill has it easier;
his master doesn’t
have any extra commits on it. Figure 13 shows what his repository
looks like after the fetch.

So all he has to do is
change his master branch to point to origin/master, and he’ll get
the result shows in figure 14.

$ git rebase origin/master


By now it should be clear that
this isn’t just another feature. It changes the way you relate to
version control.

VCS tools used to be write-only,
like a typewriter – once the ink hit the paper, the only options
you had were to keep typing or start over. The ability to rebase is
like getting a text editor. Now you can fix typos, check your
spelling, and even restructure your entire document before it
becomes permanent. Now your history is editable, and you have the
power to make it better.

Rebase isn’t without its
downsides, though. It can help make the log graph more linear and
understandable, but it also erases the messiness, the record of
what actually happened while the software was being
developed. History, as they say, is written by the victors.

No matter which side of this
debate you come down on, the good news here is that
you are the one in charge of your history. Do you
want periodic merges in your log, or do you prefer it to be linear?
Do you want an accurate history of what happened, or an idealized
legend of correct actions? It’s entirely up to you.

What do I do

Make yourself a cup of tea. Oh,
you mean with rebase? Here are some places to start:

The Git documentation is

The Git Book has a great section
on rebasing as well:

Ben Straub has always been a
programmer, and loves making things work. He hacks on things at

Image by Bob Owen

comments powered by Disqus