Git - rebasing a tree

In Git, rebasing can be used instead of merging to integrate changes from another branch.

Simple example of merge and rebase

Here, we integrated branch other to main by merging it:

Simple merge

And here by rebasing it:

Simple rebase

Rebasing a tree?

But, what if the branch other was something more complicated? Let’s observe this:

Tree rebase

Here, branch other is a tree of branches which have been branched off and later merged. As you can see, the rebasing happened and applied every single commit from that complicated tree, effectively flattening all the history to main.

Notice the order of the new (rebased) commits (7’ to 10’). They do not follow the order in time of the previous commits (the previous commits are ordered in time sequantially from 5 to 10). Instead, they follow some breadth-first search ordering.

Assume there were some conflicts when we merged a to other and b to other. The conflicts needed to be resolved manually - so the merge commits Ma and Mb include some manually made changes. Note that while rebasing, some conflicts occur again, so we need to manually resolve them again. Since the commits are applied (rebased) one by one, these conflicts do not look the same as the conflicts we had to resolve in Ma and Mb - in fact, more conflicts can happen here and they can be harder to resolve. So, be cautious about such rebase. In addition, all changes we made in Ma and Mb disappeared. This is another reason why we should do only conflict resolving changes (not arbitrary changes) in the merge commits.

You can try it yourself using this script.

More complicated tree

What if the branch other was branched off from main later, thus main having some of the commits already included? Here, commit 3 is already included in main, but when we follow the path back through e.g. a (commits 8 and 7), it’s not so obvious. The next graph differs from the previous only in the marked arrow.

Other tree rebase

Yes, Git knows about it and does not include these commits again.

You can try it yourself using this script.

In fact, this situation can happen if:

  • you pull using rebase (by calling pull --rebase or setting pull.rebase to true in config)
  • and you decided to use local branches when doing your changes

Imagine that:

  • main is origin/master
  • other is master
  • a and b are your arbitrary branches

And so it happened (follow the last picture, but with these new branch names):

  • origin/master and master were synchronized at the beginning, at commit 2
  • we decided to branch off our work, creating branches a and b
  • we worked on these branches, doing commits 7, 8, 9, 10
  • optionally, we pulled master, thus moving both origin/master and master to commit 3
  • optionally, we did some commits to the master branch - 5, 6
  • we merged a and b to master, creating Ma and Mb
  • we pulled origin/master, which: (1) fetches it, so it is now at commit 4 (2) rebases master to origin/master, so commits 7’ to 10’ are created
  • only for completeness: next push will move origin/master to master - commit 10’

Maybe this happened (will happen) to you by accident and you will wonder how it’s possible that it worked and you ended up with a correct state. I think it’s because the rebase action can handle such trees correctly.


I was fascinated how powerful the rebasing actually is. However, I do not state that the resulting flat history (you get by using rebasing instead of merging) is always an advantage.

Moreover, such combining of rebasing and merging as described here can be quite dangerous, because you have to do some merges again (while the rebasing happens) which increases the risk of doing them wrong and getting wrong resulting state.

Written on July 19, 2015