Let’s continue our discussion of how to evaluate historical documents. In order to answer the question of who wrote the document and what his or her agenda may have been, you also need to know when the document was written.

In the case of the Second World War, the closer to the event a document was written, the more reliable it is. You might think that documents would get more reliable with time because more information would have been available, but they are not.

In 1944 and 1945, when the war was still happening, people reported what they themselves knew to be true. They may have been mistaken and emotions ran high, but they reported the truth as they saw it. Everything had happened recently enough that the community of witnesses kept each other honest. Plus the police and other authorities were checking people’s facts.

But things got swept under the rug in one way or another pretty quickly after the war. Every government in Europe promoted a particular myth about what had happened. Books were published that established the official history of events. Cultures developed that, for instance, defined resistance as informal military opposition to the enemy. That pretty much cut out every woman who opened her home to refugees or guided them across borders without carrying a weapon. Ordinary people internalized these public pronouncements and shaped their own memories and stories according to what the “experts” said. Furthermore, some people made a career out of having been in “the Resistance” and shaped their stories accordingly.

In addition to all the rhetoric shaping people’s ideas of what counted as “interesting” or “relevant”, people’s memories fade with time. Interestingly, the hold of the “official histories” started breaking up in the 1990s. The people involved were getting older and no longer as interested in their careers. So you begin to see more people who did not make a career out of having been in the Resistance come forward with their own stories, relatively free of agendas. After all, every author has to make choices about what to write and what not to write.

And every researcher needs to make choices about how reliable every document is by first understanding the document’s context.