How To Identify Reputable Historical Sources
How can a curious reader or student determine “good history,” as opposed to questionable or completely unfounded statements and claims? What are the characteristics, methods, and approaches of responsible historical inquiry?
Responsible historical inquiry relies on being able to identify the quality and integrity of a source, whether that source is an article or a book about historical events.
Three important questions to ask when assessing a historical source are:
- Is the source reliable?
- Does the source provide appropriate context?
- Is the text written in hindsight?
Is the Source Reliable?
A reliable source:
- Uses a combination of other confirmed sources, especially primary sources (i.e., materials from the time period).
- Cites references in detail.
- Considers the internal logic and motivation of each source.
- Documents events to confirm eyewitness testimony.
As with any topic, one should make careful distinctions about sources of information. Consider the following questions:
- Why was a particular text written? Who wrote it? Who was the intended audience?
- What are the biases inherent in the information or analysis provided by the author?
- Are there any gaps in the discussion? Why might the author have omitted certain information?
Because scholars often base their research on different combinations of information, varying interpretations of history can emerge. It is always important to investigate carefully the origin and authorship of all historical materials, particularly anything found online.
What Context does the Source Present?
A reputable source:
- Pays close attention to context: surroundings, situation, chronology, and common sense.
- Investigates political circumstances and physical geography.
Historical events should be analyzed in their appropriate historical context. Historical context gives perspective on the precedents and circumstances that may have contributed to an event.
In the case of Holocaust history, events and, particularly, how individuals and organizations behaved at that time, must be studied in the context of European history as a whole. This perspective helps readers to better understand the circumstances that encouraged or discouraged particular actions or behaviors. For example, when thinking about why people did or did not resist the Nazis, one should consider when and where an act took place; the immediate consequences of one's actions to self and family; the degree of control the Nazis had in a country or over the local population; the historical attitudes of native populations toward different groups; and the availability of and risk associated with potential hiding places.
Is a Text Written in Hindsight?
A reputable source:
- Avoids the use of anachronistic explanations or use of wisdom acquired after the fact (“20/20 hindsight”).
- Analyzes deeds and motivations using information, technology, and social mores of that period rather than current standards.
For example: In considering the question, “Why didn’t the Jews just leave Germany?”, it is important to remember that the oppressive measures targeting Jews in the prewar period were passed and enforced gradually. Also, these types of prewar measures and laws had been experienced throughout the history of the Jewish people in earlier periods and in other countries as well. No one in pre-World War II Europe could foresee or predict killing squads and killing centers.
Unreliable Sources and Holocaust Denial
Unfortunately, there is a small number of Holocaust deniers, individuals who state the Holocaust was either imagined or exaggerated. These people write articles and books that masquerade as legitimate scholarship but their historical analysis does not follow the suggestions listed above.
Explore the links below to learn more about Holocaust denial.