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Approaches to evaluation

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What's involved in "having a go" at judging the work of a historian? There may be a variety of reasons you can think for criticising or praising a work. You may find for example that the writing style is particularly appealing (or unappealing); or that you are attracted (or repelled) by the political position that is being presented.

The starting point in the assessment of any historical work, however, should be the evidence. Historians will make claims about their subject, e.g. "that the Holocaust was planned well before it was implemented" or "that it was principally the weather that defeated the Germans in Russia". The validity of such claims however, must be assessed principally in terms of the evidence that the historian presents.

Ian: "In making these judgements, you can think of your role being akin to a person acting on a jury in court case. Claims are being made and various forms of evidence are being introduced. A juror needs to weigh this evidence up, and decide on the validity of the case".

Think about:

  • Quantity of the evidence - How much evidence is presented? Does it seem sufficient to justify the claims being made? What additional evidence could reasonably be asked for?
  • Quality of the evidence - Does the evidence seem reliable? Who, where does it come from? Can it be trusted?
  • Interpretation of evidence - Does the writer's interpretation of the evidence seem reasonable? Is there another way it could be interpreted?
  • Counter-evidence - Do you know of any other evidence from your readings at odds with that being presented? What forms of evidence have other historians relied on?

In the following extract from our sample essay, there is further evaluation of Breitman's article.

Essay extract

The other evidence introduced by Breitman is Victor Brack's testimony at the postwar war crime trials. During the war, it seems that Brack an SS official, was a part of a group lobbying for mass deportations and sterilisations as alternatives to mass murder. At Nuremberg, Brack was questioned about how the 'final solution' policy developed. Brack indicated that the alternative suggestions were rejected by Hitler, and that "there was a general program to kill all Jews". When quizzed about when this was, he replied: "It could have been the beginning of 1941". Whilst eye-witness accounts like this would seem to lend support to Breitman's position, there is some doubt about using them as evidence. Breitman admits that Brack was known to have given false testimony at Nuremberg, trying to cast himself in a favourable light. Also, we can see that his statement "it could have been the beginning of 1941" suggests some uncertainty about the date. As Christopher Browning, has pointed out, there are major problems in relying on postwar testimony, and contradictions in these testimonies have created many 'futile debates'.

On what basis is the student framing her evaluation? Select one or more of the following:

Check your answer


Clearly, the student sees there is a problem with the quality of the evidence:

"...there is some doubt about using [postwar testimony] as evidence."

The student also seems to doubt Breitman's interpretation of the evidence. Whereas Breitman has interpreted Brack's statement ("it could have been the beginning of 1941") as supportive of his view, the student points out the uncertainty in Brack's recollection.

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