by William H. Benson
October 19, 2017
There are those who would deny that Neil Armstrong, and eleven other astronauts, ever walked on the surface of the moon, and that the whole mission to the moon was a hoax filmed on a stage in New Mexico. For evidence they point to a picture of the American flag rippling in the wind, caused, they say, by a stage fan. They even claim they see on film a pop bottle roll in front of Neil’s feet.
There are those who would deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Instead of six million men, women, boys, and girls murdered, there was less than a tenth of that. These so-called “historical revisionists” claim that it was the Nazi’s enemies who later fabricated the extreme stories of Nazi brutality and mass murder.
There are those who would deny that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Instead, they believe that a conspiracy—composed of either the CIA, the Mafia, or the Russians—shot the President twice.
In the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, on October 1, 2017, misinformation proliferated on social media. The killer, according to fake news sources, was a part of a conspiracy, that he was “an anti-Trump liberal,” or that he was “linked to ISIS.” Officials have since proved these claims false.
How do we believe what we see or hear? What sources do we trust, and which do we not trust? Historians grapple with these questions. They think in terms of evidence that stems from hard documents that are contemporary to the events they are examining.
For example, the American history textbooks state that on October 19, 1781, 236 years ago, the British Major General Cornwallis surrendered to American General George Washington and French naval forces at Yorktown, Virginia. Now, how can a historian prove that statement true?
She reads the eyewitness accounts as recorded in British, American, and French military reports. She reads of the battle in Yorktown’s newspapers. She reads the diaries and journals of soldiers who participated in the battle and witnessed the surrender. The sum of her reading leads to certain conclusions. A picture emerges. A visual or a scene unfolds in her mind. She sees the battle.
Robin Winks, a twentieth century American historian, calls this “a legitimate inference.” He says, “This process involves a ‘leap of faith’ between the evidence (the data) and the conclusion (the generalization.) We all make inferences. We collect, sift, evaluate, and then act upon the evidence.”
It is the historian’s job to test and determine a document’s authenticity, because not all documents are legitimate. Winks say, “Historians have developed certain common-sense rules for evaluating evidence in terms of its reliability, its relevance, its significance, and its singularity.” If the document breaks too many “common-sense rules,” then she cannot pass it on as credible evidence.
How does she do that? First, she looks at the document itself and determines its approximate age, and whether it fits into the appropriate time frame under consideration. Next, she examines the text and determines if it is suitable for the author’s age, intelligence, and social class. She looks at the handwriting, and compares its to proven examples. The slightest discrepancy raises questions.
For example, in 1983, the West German news magazine Stern paid $3.7 million to Konrad Kujau for Adolf Hitler’s series of sixty journals that Kujau said he had discovered. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper examined them and pronounced them legitimate, but then others subjected them to a more extensive forensic analysis and called them fakes.
Indeed, Kujau had forged them. The analysts determined that the ink was new, even though Kujau had mixed water with the blue and black inks to give it a watery old look. Analysts further determined that he had sprinkled tea on the pages. The effect was pages that appeared aged, thirty or forty years old by then. Then, the handwriting analysts called Kujau’s imitated signature “a poor rendition.”
This example demonstrates the fact that not all documents are true. Voltaire said, “history is a pack of tricks we play upon the dead.” In this case, the living played a trick on the living, using the dead.