How to remove a file from Git history

Today I learned how to remove a file from a git repository while also cleaning it from the history. When you delete it with git rm or git rm --cached, tracks remain in the commit history (the reflog). That might not be a big deal, but if the file has sensitive contents that you want to disappear from version control entirely, then you also want it cleaned from the reflog. That’s when git filter-branch comes to the rescue.

To be on the safe side, I first cloned the repository to a test directory:

$ git clone <REPOSITORY> test
$ cd test

Once into the test directory, this is the command that saved the day:

# make sure you insert the whole file path, relative to the repository root
$ git filter-branch --force --index-filter \
  "git rm --cached --ignore-unmatch PATH-TO-THE-FILE" \
  --prune-empty --tag-name-filter cat -- --all

The command above will go through the history, find all commits where the file is involved, and alter them to eliminate the file. Yes, history changes, so a force-push will be required at the end.

To test that the file has indeed been removed, I used git blame:

$ git blame PATH-TO-THE-FILE
fatal: no such path 'PATH-TO-THE-FILE' in HEAD

If the file needs to stay in the local directory, you can add it to .gitignore:

$ echo "PATH-TO-THE-FILE" >> .gitignore
$ git add .gitignore
$ git commit -m "add FILE to .gitignore"

Once everything was ready, I went back to the original clone directory, replayed all the above, then force-pushed back to the remote:

$ git push origin --force --all

If you have remote tags, those need to be force-pushed as well:

$ git push origin --force --tags

In my case, the repository is private with no forks, so the changing history was not a big deal for the few colleagues with access to it. Of course, any other existing clone will need to be updated1.

In so many years with git, this is the very first time I had to do something similar. Typically, you don’t commit sensitive data to version control, but we all make mistakes every once in a while, don’t we?

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  1. Keep in mind, eventual stashed changes will be lost after git filter-branch. Make sure you unstash before issuing the command. [return]