Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/May 2011/Op-ed

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Albert Kesselring: Observations on the article writing process, by Hawkeye7

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The subject of Hawkeye's featured article, Albert Kesselring, seen in 1940

One of the fun things about writing for Wikipedia is that you are free to pick a topic, any topic, and run with it. My involvement with the article on Albert Kesselring began, if I recall correctly, with me complaining about how woeful it was. I used to do this a lot; nowadays I'm much more accepting of the fact that most articles suck. I would like to fix everything but I cannot. The reaction from other editors you can probably guess: Yes, it's awful, why don't you fix it? I took it on, not withstanding the fact that it is very inefficient for an Australian military historian to write a European history article. However on the Wikipedia there is no one to tell you that you are wasting your time; you can go offline for that.

I started by assembling the material for the article. As usual with a military biography, the military campaigns themselves are well researched, but the personal material is often scarcer. Kesselring wrote up his memoirs, entitled Soldat bis zum letzten Tag (A Soldier to the Last Day), while imprisoned after the Second World War. These are a very valuable historical resource, but were written while he was in prison without access to his papers, and, like all memoirs, his own word can hardly be regarded as a neutral source. Historians are used to weighing the veracity of various sources. This book was on my shelf, having been read two decades ago. I started by re-reading it.

Fortunately, there was a new book about Kesselring, Kesselrings letzte Schlacht (Kesselring's Last Battle). This was available only in German, but the author, Kerstin von Lingen, turned out to be friendly and approachable. She informed me in an exchange of emails (in German, although she speaks English fluently) that an English translation was in progress. I proceeded with the German version, with the intent of retrofitting the citations when the English one became available, which, in due course, it did.

The first hurdle turned out to be in the first sentence of the lead, which had two dates for his birth, both cited from reliable sources. This was unacceptable for a historian. In history we have facts and they have to be right. This seemed to me to be a complete perversion of WP:Verify: The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth. Of what use is an incorrect birth date to a reader? How would this help someone seeking information?

There is an essay, WP:FALSE, which puts forward a contrary, historian's perspective. It rejects WP:Verify and urges that an article instead be true to the facts and true to common sense. Unfortunately, WP:FALSE is not policy like WP:Verify. If we reject the possibility that Kesselring was born twice as contrary to common sense, then we can be confident that at least one date was incorrect. The problem with these sort of errors is that they get picked up by popular authors who do not check their facts and then get spread around; but if five reliable sources repeat an incorrect fact, then that does not justify repeating a known falsehood.

Historians have a simple rule when this happens: go back to the primary sources. Kerstin von Lingen had obtained his birth certificate and Army record and had checked his age against that. I dug into Kesselring's Nuremberg transcript and verified the date that he gave, which was the same. This can now be seen in the article, which features an image of his detention report. Armed with this I corrected the date, confident that a simple typographical error had been made. This resulted in protracted conflict with some other editors, and in the end I moved the incorrect date to a footnote as a compromise.

Another example of this was Kesselring's given name. A well-known British historian who shall remain nameless (but he has an article on Wikipedia, and, appropriately enough, it is a stub) incorrectly give Kesselring's name as Albrecht in the belief that it was the German form of Albert. Von Lingen called this "plain wrong". She also added that some authors had taken to adding a "von" to his name, apparently in the belief that all German generals were "von something or other". One author published a whole article with his subject's first name wrong, including in the article title. (I did discover that Kesselring occasionally spelt his name with an eszett.) In the end, I had to correct not just the main article, but several other articles which contained the wrong name.

The article then proceeded smoothly for some time, as I expanded it, before running into a serious, major problem, one about WP:NPOV. In particular, one of Anglophone cultural bias. In a nutshell, the English speaking people come from a warlike culture that values military prowess. Successful generals tend to be admired. This can be troubling in the case of generals from Nazi Germany, but just as the literature people can admire Ezra Pound and the musicians can appreciate Richard Wagner, so Anglophone military historians laud Kesselring without reference to the cause he served.

It goes deeper than that though. This attitude has its roots in English speaking culture. To the average English speaking soldier, the war against Germany seemed to be an exercise in social evolution. They first encountered the Arabs, who were vile and unspeakable; then the Italians, who were dirty and despicable; then the French, who were annoying and treacherous. Finally, they came upon the Germans, whom they found to be most like themselves, and by far the best of the lot. That they had been fighting them only lifted them up further in the eyes of Allied soldiers, who felt that they had fought honourably and well. This is something that pervaded all levels of the Allied command, not just professional soldiers.

Whereas the Italians were judged not to have fought well, and were despised for it by Allied and German soldiers alike. Surveys of Allied soldiers taken immediately after the war told the tale: many of them blamed the French and Italians for the war, rather than the Germans. Accounts by Allied generals, especially those who fought Kesselring, tend to praise their German opponents, fighting being regarded as honourable and skilful generalship as praiseworthy in its own right. Of course, defeating a good general implicitly makes you a good general too. This tends to be the form of Anglophone accounts, and the historian has to take note of this cultural background. In the article, I took pains to describe why Kesselring is regarded as a great general, and allow the reader to draw conclusions, rather than merely cite references to that effect. Indeed, I prefer this style of writing, although other editors dislike it because they would prefer the articles to state the consensus of historical opinion explicitly.

Although the German narrative of the war has changed over the years, it has been accessible to English readers. Immediately after the war, the Allies put imprisoned German generals, including Kesselring, to work writing up their experiences. The generals defended their record, and rejected the premise put forward by Hitler and others, that if they had been better generals, then they might have won the war instead of losing it. This German narrative informed English language accounts.

For a generation, the war was not a subject of close examination in Germany. Certain myths grew up, including the Good War myth (that the atrocities were all on the Eastern front, somehow making it all the Russians' fault) and the Clean Hands myth (that atrocities were committed by the SS and not the Wehrmacht). In more recent times, a new generation of German military historians has come of age. They attacked the two myths with a gusto. They were only made of straw anyway, so this was easily done. In tackling the former, the war in Italy came in for re-examination as a counter example. While I had no wish to catalogue atrocities, I did carefully select a sample so that all four of the armed services were covered.

A more intractable point of view problem is common to all biographical articles. The articles tell you about a particular person. It describes their background and how they arrived at certain points. This inevitably leads the reader to approaching issues from the subject's perspective. It is a common cause of accusations of non-neutrality. Issues can be presented factually and impartially but in the end the article contains more information about one side than the other. There is no way around an accusation that the whole article is about the subject, because it is. (Moreover, Kesselring now has a better quality article than his rivals and opponents.)

These traps were avoided, or at least minimised, because I was aware of them. The problem arose when an Italian editor showed up with a POV I had never encountered before, accusing me of being a Nazi apologist. Not what I had intended to do. There are a number of ways that you can handle POV problems. The most common is to simply ignore them. This works well if the article is obscure. Chances are that nobody will ever notice, especially if it is never put up for review. Once it moves through the review process this becomes more difficult, which of course is the idea. However, the peer reviews and A-class reviews are conducted by the task force, and this can mean that certain kinds can slip through the net, if the matter pertains to something other than military history matters. FAC is a whole other story.

The alternative is to work it out. There are a number of approaches, all valid but each with its own limitations. You can simply remove contentious material, which often leaves the article with a sort of whitewashed narrative. This is the mandated approach with WP:BLP issues. However, the reader may be left unaware that there is an issue. Or you can try to incorporate multiple points of view, which gives the article a more argumentative tone. The problem with this is that, like providing two birth dates, the reader may well be left none the wiser. Alternately, you can try to find a wording which simultaneously satisfies more than one point of view. I like this approach, and have used it a few times. It works well with minor quibbles, but is of little use over a narrative.

What made criticism difficult to deal with was my own lack of knowledge about the Italian perspective, almost none of which has made it into print in English. This was something that I gradually learned while working through the issues with my new-found Italian co-editor. As the Allied armies moved north through Italy, the country sank into a state of civil war. One myth that developed in Italy after the war is that partisans somehow played an important role in expelling the Germans from the country. Another is that they had broad support among the population. What is no myth is that the Germans employed harsh measures against the partisans and the civilian population. The myths remain current, because the kind of critical examination of the war that occurred in Germany remains absent in Italy. Partly for this reason, the wounds remain unhealed.

Fortunately for both of us, he was neither unreasonable, nor unwilling to consider compromise. A long series of exchanges began. There was a wide-ranging discussion of the various issues. A helpful practice was that we did not revert each other's work, but took our disagreements to the talk page. Other English speaking editors dropped in from time to time, but usually failed to realise that their own POV merely reflected their cultural values, and could not follow the process that was going on. To me, they were not saying anything I did not already know. On the other hand, I knew how a English speaking reader would interpret certain statements, which might not be the way that the Italian editor intended. The result of this time consuming process was a synthesis of German, Italian and English-speaking perspectives.

At this point though, the article looked like falling in a heap. All my pictures were being deleted! Including the one of the subject! Changes in copyright law meant that photographs that had been in the public domain suddenly fell under copyright again, and the copyright editors deleted all the photographs. Fortunately, in 2008 the Bundesarchiv made a gift of photographs under a CC-BY-SA. These photographs were used to replace the ones lost. (ed. note: see Commons:Bundesarchiv for more information on this topic.)

The article is one of only two featured articles on a Second World War Generalfeldmarschall, the other being Walter Model. I await another editor tackling one of the others. Its writing was a learning experience. I was made painfully aware of my own limitations when it came to foreign-language sources. For that reason I probably will not attempt another like it. However I hope that it will stand as a model for other editors, and perhaps as a cautionary tale. Neutrality is an ideal. One that in practice is nigh impossible to achieve, and frequently subject to challenge.

Hawkeye7 obtained a PhD in military history and continues in that field today as a 20th-century military historian. On Wikipedia, he has written twelve featured articles along with 49 A-class and good articles.