The Challenges of Historical Writing

Ostfront-Bagration-BookDuring the writing of my recent book Why Normandy Was Won:  Operation Bagration and the War In the East 1941 – 1945 (Ostfront Publications, LLC, 458 pp 2010) one of the recurring obstacles I confronted was obtaining accurate data and information as well as getting access to it.

 The source material for all historical writing is either original material (interviews, witnessing, original documents or participating) or secondary sources (books, newspapers, journals or indirect interviews).  Based on what is being written about, the preferred sources will always be original  material as that provides the reader and the historical record with fresh new material to evaluate and examine.  However, frequently an engaging historical work can be written from carefully selected secondary source material, especially if the event has occurred beyond the opportunity to have access to living participants of the event or the event or period being written about is difficult or impossible to visit or no longer exists. Also, an innovative work can be constructed with the use of secondary material, especially if it has been selected and presented in such a way that presents a new view or perspective on the subject. It is this second manner of writing history that is most challenging and difficult for the author/historian.  It puts the researcher and/or author in the position of not only seeking appropriate sources to develop his or her thesis or theme but also to determine if the material being used is available, accurate, timely, pertinent and usable.

This last item, that of the source material being usable, e.g. previously published, is especially important to understand, as almost all published material is automatically copyright protected when created or written.  The author using someone else’s work in a non-academic or review publication (known as the “fair use” doctrine) should seek permission, preferably in writing, when quoting from copyrighted material.  The laws of copyright protection protect the creator of intellectual property until the author’s death plus 70 years.  After that point the work, if the copyright is not extended it then becomes public domain.

Now that we have established the sources and protections of written and other protected forms of creative material, two additional hurdles remain to overcome.  At least one I was confronted with and that is the need for translations of non-English publications, documents and other material under the protection of government security classifications.

Writing about historical subjects or accounts that occurred in countries or nations other than the author’s, presents the potential challenge of not understanding the language the original or secondary source material was created in.  In my case, materials in their original German, Russian, Ukrainian, Rumanian, Polish and Slovakian languages were a major impediment in the preparation of my manuscript.  In the not too recent past this language barrier would have entailed not only seeking translators with a command of the language but a translator who is also familiar with the nuances of the subject matter.  In my case, it was military German, Russian, etc.  Words such as Panzerkamphwagen are not everyday words in English or, for that matter, in domestic German (it translates to ‘armored fighting vehicle’ or, as we would say it, a ‘tank’).


The problem of translating foreign language material into an understandable language for the author/writer has been recently made much easier with the advent of computerization, the creation of the World Wide Web and the global reach of the Internet.  There are a number of Internet sites devoted to nothing else but offering translations of almost every language, dialect, tongue or type of speech on the planet.  Some of these services are free and some of the ones offering more detailed or elaborate services or ones that deal with the more obscure languages usually entail a fee for their services.

The last area to be addressed is the most frustrating and most difficult to overcome for researching and writing history and that is material or people under the strictures of governmental security protections.  In the case of researching the Second World War, every combatant instituted a system of classification of materials they considered too sensitive to be permitted to be available to the public.  The usual levels of security classification has been Confidential for the marginally sensitive material; Secret for the more sensitive material and Top Secret (the British use the term ‘Most Secret’ and in Germany Geheime Reichssache or state secret) for the most secret material.  However, in the post war years additional levels of classification have been added, such as levels indicated by colors (red, blue, orange, black) and code words indicating a level of enhanced security with limited dissemination, control and access (Roundup, Overlord, Muzzle, etc.).

The good news is that this material, at least most, does not remain classified forever.  The passing of time, the deaths of principals mentioned or referred to in the material, the demands of historians and, in certain instances, the need to vacate the space to receive new material all factors which contribute to the decisions made in the release of the material.  In the western world the governments usually instituted a timed schedule of declassification of this material, such as a 25 or 50 year review program.  This phased release of the most interesting and accurate material for historical purposes is one of the chief causes of the most interesting and fact-filled histories being written so long after the event.  Historians simply did not have access to this most pertinent and fact filled material to answer their most pressing questions; questions that linked together what heretofore have been disassociated or disconnected, issues which can now be seen in their original intent and, perhaps, provide answers and links to these and other questions.
One question I have been asked regarding my search for the elusive document or material is “If something is classified at a high level, such as Top Secret or even higher levels of classification, how do you know it even exists?”  The answer to this question is part of the stuff that makes a good historian who has that essential ‘something’ and is developing a good ‘nose’ for sources.

This rarified material is seldom if ever directly named or identified as such, it usually is obliquely or indirectly referred to or suggested.  For example, if in reading a document, report or book you find that someone from ‘The Department of Such and Such’ worked on such and such a task or project, one can surely expect that this department, institute or unit created, maintained and stored its records, somewhere.  Every organization in any capacity generated a ‘paper trail’, some more obvious than others, some more discrete then others, some more detailed than others, but at one time almost certainly existed. With this said, the next question is “Do these records still exist and where do I find these records or documents?”  A good place to begin a search is on the Internet using one of the more popular Internet ‘search engines’ e.g. Google or contacting the national archives of the nation in question or searching out, via state and national libraries for these materials, and most importantly, ask questions, talk, probe, pick at and if necessary wheedle, for information.

One final aspect to consider regarding research of foreign and domestic sources is their survival. The fact that at one time a collection of records and documents existed in no way guarantees their existence in the present. This is especially true with certain documents generated by German Nazi political organizations, especially the Sicherheitshauptamt (the Nazi security service that operated the concentration and extermination camps), the SS, the Waffen-SS and Japanese military documents.  Documents in these categories were frequently destroyed by their owning organizations in an attempt to conceal their crimes and to absolve themselves of guilt in possible post-war criminal investigations.

A more challenging situation is documents and records that have not been released in any systematic way, such as the schedule referred to above, but the owning government either denies their existence or constructs such difficult administrative and procedural barriers to their access that, for all intents and purposes are inaccessible. My research into Soviet wartime records, especially the files of the NKVD (Narodnii Kommissariat Vnutrennykh Del or Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs) now located in the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History in Moscow, formerly known as the Archive of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee, has encountered these barriers.  
A final comment on seeking access to Russian files and documents. An unnamed Russian archivist once replied to a request for information from a foreign researcher who after being shuffled from one office to another and from one building to another, often ending up where he started, wondered why he was being denied access to them.  His reply was, to the effect, that we (the Russian people) created our history and we will write it.

In conclusion, the task of the historian is hardly an easy or simple one, especially for the military or political historian, two areas that are rife with protections, concealments, diversions and subterfuge and all this is before you have them translated!