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Sources In Historical Discussions/writing A discussion on sources

#1 User is offline   Jeff Leser 

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Posted 16 September 2015 - 01:14 PM

The use of wartime sources recently became a central issue in a discussion of an article poster here on Comando Supremo (CS). I have opened this thread to discuss the use of sources in historical articles/posts as part of CS discussions.

Note that my discussion mainly focuses on Italian wartime sources. While my comments can be applied to other nations, the degree to which the use of those sources are valid can/do vary. Other nations’ wartime sources can be discussed here as well.

Main point: wartime communiqués, wartime newspaper articles, and personal diaries and memoirs are part of the historical record. The question is not whether they should be used but more a question of when and how they are used. They can be of great value to the historian or they can lead the historian down the wrong path.

The writing and discussion of an historical event requires the individual to shift through the historical record to discover those sources that are both germane and accurate to the event being examined. One must establish the what, when, where, and who. The why is usually examined after these first four factors are fully known.

Establishing the first four Ws normally requires the historian to compare numerous bits of the historical record. How often in our discussions and research have we found seemly contradictory but apparently valid information about an event? Here is where the historian considers the sources themselves. Are the records uncovered by the historian valid/accurate?

Official records tend to offer the most accurate accounts of the four Ws. Any organization, regardless whether the military, banks, private businesses, etc., must create and maintain accurate accounts and records. Accurate records are a must for organizations to efficiently operate. Without accurate records, these organizations will fail. Decisions made and transmitted, funding received and spent, individuals hired and fired and their job assignments are critical data that is created, stored, and distributed.

This is not to say that all official records are accurate, just that, on the whole, they tend to be quite accurate. Usually the problem is gaps rather than incorrect information. Records lost/destroyed in combat, intentionally destroyed as part of a cover-up, etc. Reporting systems can generate inaccurate information, but over time the systems self-corrects itself. Again accuracy is a prime requirement for the organization to function and identifying/correcting the records is usually built into the systems.

I won’t go through all the other types of historical records. The point is all sources must be verified, but that there are records that always tend to be the bedrock for any exploration of an event. The official record usually is that bedrock.

Wartime records, in this case official communiqués, newspaper articles, personal diaries and journals.

I would state that in most cases these records are used to understand the why of the five Ws. These types of records are normally vetted against other sources (such as the official records) to determine their degree of validly (truthiness). On occasion such records illuminate a new line research when they bring to light a fact not seen before, but then one must research other sources to determine whether this line of inquiry is valid.

Official communiqués serve a purpose other than historical accuracy. They are used to mobilize and sustain public support for a nation’s effort towards a set goal. In war, they are a propaganda tool that can be reasonably accurate when one’s side is successful, but can be grossly inaccurate when events are not positive. I shouldn’t need to mention examples of such false claims of sinking ships (the HMS Ark Royal was famous for being sunk multiple times in official communiqués), the exaggeration of success or minimizing of a defeat that appear regularly in the official communiqués of the nations involved in WW2. Medals have been awarded for feats that never happened because wartime reporting lacks the ability to verify (the Colin Kelly award is one such example). Another example is the ongoing verification of wartime aircraft losses due to aerial combat. The point is that such communiqués must be treated as suspect and rigorously checked against other verified sources.

The limitations of wartime newspaper reporting fall into two main areas: 1) Access to information only through military sources (i.e. communiqués, see above); 2) if reporters are present, the problem of being allowed to the front and censorship. Again a valuable source when rigorously checked against other sources but lack reliability when used alone.

Personal writings again have strengths and weaknesses. In the case of information about Greek Campaign, Cavallero wasn’t present on the front lines and relied on reports from subordinates. So while what he wrote is likely what he truly knew at the time, it doesn’t mean the information was accurate. The issue of faulty reporting has been documented in all armies, and it can be stated that the Italian military in WW2 had a significant issue in this area. Then there is the issue of postwar revision. Too often personal diaries are ‘corrected’ by the author prior to publication. Wartime diaries that are demonstratively unaltered are of great value and fairly rare. Memoirs tend to be ‘self-serving’ more than adding/correcting the record.

My main point on these types of historical records is that they rarely establish the what, when, where, and how, but focus mainly on the why. Why did the German people follow Hitler? His speeches, communiques, and newspaper articles all greatly assist the historian in answering this type of question. The truthiness of these sources isn’t at issue, in fact the level of false information contained within these sources helps to answer the question.

This is just a brief discussion of sources. All sources are good, just that some and significantly ‘gooder’ than others. The question being answered plays a significant part in which sources are used and how they are used. Writing an account of a historical event with only wartime communiqués and newspaper articles as the main sources likely create a false picture of that event.

Pista! Jeff
btg. sciatori Alpini « Monte Cervino » (reenacted)
19° reggimento fanteria « Brescia » (reenacted)

#2 User is offline   Annales2 

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Posted 16 September 2015 - 10:06 PM

Hi Jeff,

You have made many good points about sources and historical artifacts. It is of paramount importance that the historian continually ask: is the source reliable, accurate? Has it been written on the spot or days or even years after the event. Who created it and why? What was its purpose? What sources should I include and what, exclude or ignore? Can a source be verified and supported by another? As in Pompei, graffiti can tell a lot more about what the Romans actually thought than all the writings of Livy put together. History is like a huge jig-saw puzzle: lots of little pieces, but many more actually lost so that one ends up often with an incomplete picture, perhaps as little as 10% of the total. The rest, that missing 90%, is often made up of conjecture and extrapolations, in essence, educated guesses by historians on what they think the completed picture should look like. And the further back in time one goes, the less real evidence and sources there are, so that often historians have to deal with fragments, bits and pieces of parchments and papyrus and other scant records that don't even add up to 1% of the total picture. Out of a hundred pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, they may have just one piece of the puzzle and from that one piece, work out the missing 99 pieces.

To be an historian is one of the most demanding professions around. It's so easy to write "bad history" (just a glance at the many Wikipedia articles around will convince you of that), but to write "good history" is very hard indeed.




View PostJeff Leser, on 16 September 2015 - 01:14 PM, said:

The use of wartime sources recently became a central issue in a discussion of an article poster here on Comando Supremo (CS). I have opened this thread to discuss the use of sources in historical articles/posts as part of CS discussions.

Note that my discussion mainly focuses on Italian wartime sources. While my comments can be applied to other nations, the degree to which the use of those sources are valid can/do vary. Other nations' wartime sources can be discussed here as well.

Main point: wartime communiqués, wartime newspaper articles, and personal diaries and memoirs are part of the historical record. The question is not whether they should be used but more a question of when and how they are used. They can be of great value to the historian or they can lead the historian down the wrong path.

The writing and discussion of an historical event requires the individual to shift through the historical record to discover those sources that are both germane and accurate to the event being examined. One must establish the what, when, where, and who. The why is usually examined after these first four factors are fully known.

Establishing the first four Ws normally requires the historian to compare numerous bits of the historical record. How often in our discussions and research have we found seemly contradictory but apparently valid information about an event? Here is where the historian considers the sources themselves. Are the records uncovered by the historian valid/accurate?

Official records tend to offer the most accurate accounts of the four Ws. Any organization, regardless whether the military, banks, private businesses, etc., must create and maintain accurate accounts and records. Accurate records are a must for organizations to efficiently operate. Without accurate records, these organizations will fail. Decisions made and transmitted, funding received and spent, individuals hired and fired and their job assignments are critical data that is created, stored, and distributed.

This is not to say that all official records are accurate, just that, on the whole, they tend to be quite accurate. Usually the problem is gaps rather than incorrect information. Records lost/destroyed in combat, intentionally destroyed as part of a cover-up, etc. Reporting systems can generate inaccurate information, but over time the systems self-corrects itself. Again accuracy is a prime requirement for the organization to function and identifying/correcting the records is usually built into the systems.

I won't go through all the other types of historical records. The point is all sources must be verified, but that there are records that always tend to be the bedrock for any exploration of an event. The official record usually is that bedrock.

Wartime records, in this case official communiqués, newspaper articles, personal diaries and journals.

I would state that in most cases these records are used to understand the why of the five Ws. These types of records are normally vetted against other sources (such as the official records) to determine their degree of validly (truthiness). On occasion such records illuminate a new line research when they bring to light a fact not seen before, but then one must research other sources to determine whether this line of inquiry is valid.

Official communiqués serve a purpose other than historical accuracy. They are used to mobilize and sustain public support for a nation's effort towards a set goal. In war, they are a propaganda tool that can be reasonably accurate when one's side is successful, but can be grossly inaccurate when events are not positive. I shouldn't need to mention examples of such false claims of sinking ships (the HMS Ark Royal was famous for being sunk multiple times in official communiqués), the exaggeration of success or minimizing of a defeat that appear regularly in the official communiqués of the nations involved in WW2. Medals have been awarded for feats that never happened because wartime reporting lacks the ability to verify (the Colin Kelly award is one such example). Another example is the ongoing verification of wartime aircraft losses due to aerial combat. The point is that such communiqués must be treated as suspect and rigorously checked against other verified sources.

The limitations of wartime newspaper reporting fall into two main areas: 1) Access to information only through military sources (i.e. communiqués, see above); 2) if reporters are present, the problem of being allowed to the front and censorship. Again a valuable source when rigorously checked against other sources but lack reliability when used alone.

Personal writings again have strengths and weaknesses. In the case of information about Greek Campaign, Cavallero wasn't present on the front lines and relied on reports from subordinates. So while what he wrote is likely what he truly knew at the time, it doesn't mean the information was accurate. The issue of faulty reporting has been documented in all armies, and it can be stated that the Italian military in WW2 had a significant issue in this area. Then there is the issue of postwar revision. Too often personal diaries are 'corrected' by the author prior to publication. Wartime diaries that are demonstratively unaltered are of great value and fairly rare. Memoirs tend to be 'self-serving' more than adding/correcting the record.

My main point on these types of historical records is that they rarely establish the what, when, where, and how, but focus mainly on the why. Why did the German people follow Hitler? His speeches, communiques, and newspaper articles all greatly assist the historian in answering this type of question. The truthiness of these sources isn't at issue, in fact the level of false information contained within these sources helps to answer the question.

This is just a brief discussion of sources. All sources are good, just that some and significantly 'gooder' than others. The question being answered plays a significant part in which sources are used and how they are used. Writing an account of a historical event with only wartime communiqués and newspaper articles as the main sources likely create a false picture of that event.

Pista! Jeff

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#3 User is offline   Jeff Leser 

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Posted 18 September 2015 - 04:12 PM

Dueling authorities

Often discussions can devolve into 'my authority is better than your authority'. If both cited historians specializing in the field under discussion, you will never resolve the issue. You must look at their use of sources and the soundness of their arguments.

Too often writers that wish to revise history tend to drift to less qualified historians to bolster their argument. That is the case here.

During our discussion of the Greek campaign, I cited Dr. James Sadkoivch and the cite I used was specific to the point under discussion (events at the Perati bridge). The other individual replied that

Quote

Patrick Coultier, most definitely a notch above James J. Sadkovich when it comes to the Italian Army in WW2,…


James J. Sadkovich has his PhD in history and is a fluent Italian reader. He is internationally known in his field of Italian diplomatic and military history, specializing in fascist Italy. He is a publish author in his field in peer-reviewed publishers and professional journals. IBWs, his books and articles had to be reviewed and accepted by a panel of experts for them to be published.

Patrick Cloutier is a former military officer that is a Russian linguist. At the time he wrote Regio Esercito, he didn’t read Italian. He does not specialize in the Italian military and currently focuses on current eastern European affairs. His two books are self-published (vanity press). Self-publishing doesn’t mean the books are poor, but most self-published books are poor and none of his works have been peer reviewed.

And then:

Quote

And Owen Pearson, undoubtedly an expert when it comes to the history of Albania in WW2, has written that the Italian spearheads were successfully engaging the retreating Greek divisions before the Greek commanders threw in the towel:


Owen Pearson is certainly qualified to write about Albanian history. This doesn’t mean he is an expert on Greek or Italian military history. Why the Greeks retreated from Albania is something he doesn’t need to know, only how the retreat affected Albania. In his book, he focuses on the higher level interactions between the generals and diplomats and only addresses the reality of the war in general terms to set the context of his exploration of Albanian history. In fact, his account of the events in April are mainly based on the same sources David is using; official communiqués and statements from Italian senior leaders. Nowhere is he basing his comment on original documents/archive than might have e the details that address the question.

To state that Pearson has a better understanding of Italian military operations than Sadkovich is simply not supportable.

Pista! Jeff
btg. sciatori Alpini « Monte Cervino » (reenacted)
19° reggimento fanteria « Brescia » (reenacted)

#4 User is offline   Jeff Leser 

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Posted 22 September 2015 - 04:32 PM

The discussion of sources continues. Let’s look at the context of this specific issue in the discussion.

1. I quoted Sadkovich and commented “Noted Italian military scholar James Sadkovich states…” No mention of Cloutier and I was offering a different look at the event.

2. David responded “Patrick Coultier, most definitely a notch above James J. Sadkovich when it comes to the Italian Army in WW2,…” Okay, now making exchange a case of dueling sources… My initial reply to this is earlier in this thread.

David’s response (comment September 20, 2015 at 6:07 AM in toto):

Quote

Jeff, in the thread ‘Sources In Historical Discussions/writing’ (http://www.comandosu...ussionswriting/) in your criticism of Patrick Coultier, you write that “James J. Sadkovich has his PhD in history and is a fluent Italian reader … books and articles had to be reviewed and accepted by a panel of experts for them to be published”, but little do you know that Martin Middlebrook who wrote the top-seller ‘Operation Corporate: the Falklands War, 1982′ (Viking, 1985) that covered the role of the British forces in the Falklands, had little or no formal schooling for he was just a farmer! Yet three decades his book is still in print and available in paperback as ‘The Falklands War’, and consulted by all military experts for it is”still is an authoritative and thoroughly readable account of this historic enterprise” (The Falklands War by Martin Middlebrook. SYNOPSIS. https://www.watersto...k/9781848846364) (“Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.” https://dalyhistory....in-middlebrook/) Middlebrook also wrote ‘ The Fight for the “Malvinas”: The Argentine Forces in the Falklands War’ (Penguin, 1990), another top seller still in print and available as ‘Argentine Fight For The Falklands’. Middlebrook can’t speak, read or write in Spanish but that didn’t stop him from covering the Argentine role in the conflict. Jeff, if everyone took your traditionalist approach to history, Martin Middlebrook would still be a chicken farmer.

Also Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ring Starr had virtually no formal music training, and yet The Beatles went on to become the most popular band ever.

Thanks again for your observations.


I will start by paraphrasing Anton Ego when talking about Gusteau: "Anyone can write history. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great historian; but a great historian *can* come from *anywhere*..."

Cloutier is no Middlebrook at this point in time. See Middlebrook Letter for an idea of the effort Middlebrook put forth when writing The First Day on the Somme.

Cloutier has written one general history of the Regio Esercito that didn’t come anywhere close to the level of research that Middlebrook (or Sadkovich for that matter) offer the reader. For example, Cloutier in his R.E. offers one reason why Graziani’s performance was poor. “Is it possible that Graziani also had conflicting allegiances? If so, to whom else could he have sworn allegiance, and why would he have stayed on with Mussolini in the Italian Social Republic? According to James Burgwyn, many officers of the Italian Royal Army were involved in Freemasonry” (Regio Esercito page 45). No footnote on where Burgwyn made this statement or what he actually said, but Cloutier draws a pretty sweeping conclusion from what, air? And he never ties Freemasonry back to how/why it would have affected Graziani’s performance.

Then there is the rather pointless discussion of the furthest Greek advance into Albania (“Case Study on Differing situation maps for the Italo-Greek War”) on pages 64-65. No use of the Greek or Italian officials, but encyclopedias, atlases of the war, works that cover the entire world war, etc. I have studied the Italo-Greek war for over 20 years and the extent of the Greek advance is not an issue. All the scholarly works focused on this campaign are in agreement on the points the Greeks captured. So out of a mere 14 pages provided by Cloutier on the Greek Campaign (pages 60-74), 1 ½ pages are wasted on a non-issue.

One more example: In his discussion of Crete, the causality figures he provides at the end (page 72 and fn 71) are from a Russian work. Why use this second hand source? You have the officials that are based on official documents and other definitive works in English on the battle. Cloutier’s numbers pretty much agree with those sources, so why use a source that the English reader can’t access? Why was the Russian book a better source for this information? I will remind the reader that Cloutier is a Russian linguist. If Russian sources offer something new or challenging, then by all means bring it on with a full discussion. Here it does nothing of the sort and doesn’t allow the reader to further explore the campaign.

These are but a few examples (there are far too many more examples in his book) of why Cloutier is not at the level of Middlebrook or Sadkovich. His book is poor scholarship.

Cloutier’s second book reused the same R.E. data (the Romanian and Hungarian material is new). No new Italian material so it is disingenuous to say ‘Cloutier has written two books on the R.E’.

Please note that there is a place for history that is less than masterful or doesn’t offer something new. The Italian military during the 2GM lacks decent coverage in English and is a good candidate for bringing a level of awareness to English readers. However such books must be based on solid research and should avoid revising history without serious archival work and in-depth research. Implying that Graziani’s failure might be due to Freemasonry without a strong discussion that includes primary sources is merely opinion and sloppy research.

Okay enough for now. Pista! Jeff
btg. sciatori Alpini « Monte Cervino » (reenacted)
19° reggimento fanteria « Brescia » (reenacted)

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