“I generally give no guarantee of the truth of what I say, preferring to leave that responsibility with the authors whom I quote”
– Pliny the Elder
I hesitate to smite wise Pliny – but his assertion is irresponsible for a historian. A historian is entirely responsible for the quality of his sources, in that if they appear dubious in any regard they should not be used. This speaks to the importance of the historian’s rigorous method, analtyical reasoning skills and integrity as a scholar. Sources should be evaluated for authenticity, historical context, provenance, bias of the author, linguistic context and logical coherence within a chain of reasoning. To not consider these factors is to create a groundless history, based merely on accidents of knowledge.
What comes to mind are the great deal of World War II histories. Many German generals, writing in their memoirs, would have us believe that Hitler was solely responsible for the downfall of their empire, and that *only* the generals had been to left to their own devices, the Third Reich would have endured. This is a fallacy which is perpetuated by the layman and by many naiive historians alike. This mistaken judgment was soundly debunked by Geoffrey P. Megargee in Inside Hitler’s High Command. The author compared records and mutually corroborating independent sources to demonstrate that the popular history we have come to mistakenly take for granted is based on the deceptions of the memoir writing survivors. Almost to a man, these generals lied about their involvement in the war, attempting to distance themselves from their National Socialist sympathies, personal loyalties to Hitler and ardent belief in the operational soundness of such blunders as Operation Barbassoa. It was the General Staff who urged Hitler to declare war on the Russians and without notable resistance drew up unrealistic operational and maneuver plans, and the Kriegsmarine who urged for an extension of hostilities to the United States. The General Staff, while a powerful operational tool, had little strategic skill and generally believed that strategic threats (such as Russia) could be defeated with a daring operational plan. Ultimately the high command in Germany had just as much to do with the country’s downfall as did Hitler. This is an altogether different portrait of events than have come to be popularly known, and that have been portrayed by many histories until recently. Historians seemed eager to accept memoirs without considering the integrity of their sources.