<p>US Army staffers organizing stacks of German documents collected by war crimes investigators as evidence for the International Military Tribunal.</p>

How To Identify Reputable Historical Sources

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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?

Reliability

A reputable source:

  • Uses multiple, 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 why a particular text was written, who wrote it, who the intended audience was, whether there were any biases inherent in the information, whether any gaps occurred in discussion, whether omissions in certain passages were inadvertent or not. Because scholars often base their research on different bodies of information, varying interpretations of history can emerge. Investigate carefully the origin and authorship of all material, particularly anything found online.

Context

A reputable source:

  • Pays close attention to surroundings, situation, chronology, and common sense.
  • Investigates political circumstances and physical geography.

Events of the Holocaust and, particularly, how individuals and organizations behaved at that time, should be placed in historical context. The Holocaust must be studied in the context of European history as a whole to give perspective on the precedents and circumstances that may have contributed to it. This perspective allows individuals to comprehend the circumstances that encouraged or discouraged particular actions. For example, when thinking about resistance to the Nazis, 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 local population; the historical attitudes of native populations toward different groups; and the availability and risk of potential hiding places.

Perspective

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 contemporary 21st century standards.

For example: In considering the question, “Why didn’t the Jews just leave?” 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 at the time could foresee or predict killing squads and killing centers.

Related Information

Unfortunately, there is a small number of deniers, individuals who state the Holocaust was either imagined or exaggerated. This work masquerades as legitimate scholarship, but it does not follow the suggestions listed here.  

Background information on Holocaust denial: