Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/March 2013/Op-ed
German V-weapons sites and the historian's responsibility
- By Prioryman
Today's Featured Article for 25 March is a little unusual: it's not just one article but three, and is the first time such a "triple-header" has been run in the TFA slot. The articles, Blockhaus d'Éperlecques, La Coupole and Fortress of Mimoyecques, cover the history of three secret German bases in north-eastern France which were intended to house the V-2 rocket (pictured right) and the V-3 cannon. If they had been completed, hundreds of rockets and shells a day would have rained down on London and other targets in south-eastern England. Fortunately, the V-weapons sites were spotted by Allied reconnaissance flights before the Nazis could put them into use. A heavy bombing campaign carried out as part of Operation Crossbow wrecked the sites and Allied forces captured them three months after D-Day. Although the V-2 was subsequently put into operation from mobile launchers, the V-3 was never used in its intended form. Today, all three sites are open to the public as museums and memorials.
The appearance of the articles on 25 March marks the conclusion of a two-year project, timed to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Hitler's authorisation of the sites' construction on 25 March 1943. Writing them was an interesting challenge. I travelled to the sites over Easter 2011 and subsequently used the resources of the British Library and the UK National Archives to research and document all three sites. The National Archives proved especially useful, as they had a huge collection of original files and photographs of the sites. I was also able to get information about the most recent history of the sites from Factiva.
Although the writing process went fairly smoothly, the Featured Article nominations hit a hurdle. One of the most comprehensive and in-depth books about the sites is a 1964 book called The Mare's Nest by an author who was, at the time, highly regarded and had recently written a bestseller on the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden. The Mare's Nest was well-reviewed and had been endorsed by senior figures involved in Operation Crossbow. It is still widely cited by writers on the V-weapons, in works published as recently as 2008 (in fact, I couldn't find a single work about the V-weapons sites that didn't reference the book). It was issued by a very reputable major publisher, Little, Brown and Company. On the face of it, an ideal source, so what was the problem? The author was David Irving, writing some years before he became notorious for Holocaust denial.
This posed a dilemma. Many of Irving's works have been criticised for revisionism, but not this one. While critical of Irving himself, Michael J. Neufeld of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum nonetheless calls The Mare's Nest "the most complete account on both Allied and German sides of the V-weapons campaign in the last two years of the war." Wikipedia:Verifiability requires Wikipedians to draw on "reliable, third-party, published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy." What, then, do you do with a source that appears to have had such a reputation at the time but subsequently lost it?
To resolve the question, after a discussion with WP:MILHIST editors I asked some academic contacts – historians at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge whom I'd known for some years. The replies I got back were mixed. Some thought using Irving would be OK if the work in question was not disputed – "there is no need to damn good research because it was done by a lamentable human being," as one contact put it. Another contact commented that the fundamental problem was not so much Irving's later reputation as the way that he systematically misrepresented his sources throughout his career. Sir Richard J. Evans addresses this issue in his book Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial, in which he argues that Irving's works were initially considered credible because few reviewers and historians followed up on the citations. When they eventually did, much later, they found that Irving's citations often didn't support his claims or were so vague as to be useless. As one of my contacts said, "[Irving] did collect some material nobody else had access to but it's what he did with it that poses the problems."
The Mare's Nest is no longer quoted in any of the three featured articles – yet all three articles include material that comes from Irving's book. How can this be? The answer is simple: the book is so widely referenced that its account of Operation Crossbow is deeply embedded in the literature about the V-weapons sites. One of my contacts suggested that "it would be dishonest to only use him indirectly," but it turns out that this is inescapable, given the extent to which other historians have used his book as a source.
Does this mean that every book covering the V-weapons sites over the last 40 years is compromised? Not necessarily – as far as I know, the research contained in The Mare's Nest has not been challenged – but it does illustrate some of the challenges that historians face. In particular, it shows the fragility of the pyramid of research on which historical books and articles are based. Unless you intend to fact-check every single statement made by your source, which is often not a practical option, you have to trust that the source is telling the truth and is using reliable citations. If they fall short of that standard, it undermines not just the source but also any other authors using that source. That's why it's so important to get it right and to use your own sources ethically. As an author (or a Wikipedian), you're in a position of trust. Other people, maybe decades from now, will be using your work to inform themselves and as a source for their own work. If you mislead them, whether unintentionally or otherwise, you could be undermining not just your work and reputation but that of future researchers as well.
- Neufeld, "Creating a Memory of the German Rocket Program for the Cold War", in Steven J. Dick (ed.), Remembering the Space Age