Archive documents: provenance and evaluation

Archive documents: provenance and evaluation

One of the major academic scandals of our times occurred in the mid-1980s, when the so-called ‘Hitler diaries’ were announced as about to be published by Stern, a respected German publication, in association with a number of other European and American publishing outlets, but were then quickly shown to be forgeries. A number of different trajectories of people and behaviours had come together: a commonplace forger, the market for Hitler memorabilia, the mass media and its urge to do things as quickly as possible, clandestine networks of old Nazis drawing in newcomers, academic luminaries rushed into quick decisions which turned out to be wrong because basic checks had not been made.

Interestingly, what dominated the enquiries made at the time of these documents and whether they were genuine cohered around questions of provenance. They include:

  • Hitler is recorded in verified contemporary documents as having at the time expressed his feelings about the loss of important documents in a plane crash
  • The plane referred to did indeed crash and the site of this was discovered and the graves of some of the people on it found
  • A collector of Nazi memorabilia was offered items held by a seemingly plausible figure who had held them over a long period, without realising their possible import
  • A ‘middle man’ (in fact, the forger) in turn offered them to another collector
  • This was a gullible and ‘believer’ journalist who operated on the fringes of old Nazi networks
  • Small snippets of documents were considered in a way which led to other forged documents being used as the exemplar of what was genuine, with these other forgeries being evaluated in connection with their (forged) handwriting

What wasn’t included in the enquiries but should have been:

  • Whole documents
  • Their manner or style of writing
  • Specific content
  • Comparisons with other (properly verified) sources
  • Location in the local context

 A book by Robert Harris provides a detailed and readable account. The points raised clearly apply to the evaluation and use of all documentary sources. Provenance is important – but so are these other factors.






Last updated: 11 November 2022