Searching for the Dutch-Paris Escape Line
In the last post I talked about the importance of knowing the context of any historical document. You also need to ask three key questions about any documents: who wrote it, when and why.
Who wrote the document? You need to know this to judge whether the author can be expected to (a) know the truth and (b) tell it. Very few people knew the entire story about any resistance action during the war for the obvious reason that it was a dangerous secret. But that does not mean that different individuals did not know different parts of the story.
Obviously, if you are reading the records of a purge trial in which a policeman was likely to be sentenced to death if he was found guilty for turning resisters over to the German police, you would not trust what the man said. What about the testimonies of the witnesses? They are more trustworthy, but they are not necessarily the whole story. Trials have their own format and rules about what can be discussed. They are about the charges that the prosecutor thought he could prove, not about everything that happened.
But what if your grandfather was a gunner on a bomber that was shot down over the Netherlands in 1944? He made it back to his base in England and you have found his escape and evasion report. You can pretty much trust that the information in his debriefing report, in which he told the military authorities what happened to him in occupied territory, is true in its essential points to the extent that he knew the truth. The man had nothing to hide in that context. If he says that the left engine exploded over Aachen, then the left engine exploded. Maybe it wasn’t Aachen, but it was in the vicinity. OK, maybe he forgot to mention his romance with a farmer’s daughter, but the military authorities interviewing him did not ask about such things, and it wasn’t relevant to the story they asked anyway (as much as his family might like to know about it).
You have to keep in mind, though, that most resisters did not tell the airmen they helped all the facts. Indeed, many airmen made a point of not knowing them, in case he was arrested and tortured. Also keep in mind that evading airmen were often injured, disoriented and quite possibly afraid. Many did not speak the languages of the people and places around them. So your grandpa’s report is useful, but it is limited to his perspective and to the questions that he was asked.