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  • Tony Fox

    I am a History and ICT teacher, teaching in Secondary Schools in the North East of England. I am Chairman of the Durham branch of the Historical Association. The idea of this site is to place some of my small ideas 'out there', as I am getting old and forgetful it is good to have them where I can find them. My larger projects can be found in the other Foxburg Sites section.
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How accurate is testimony?

Posted by foxburg on 10/25/2012

A few days ago I saw a story about ‘Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell?’ being made into a film (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/9627322/British-PoW-escaped-200-times-to-meet-German-lover.html) It was the, rather poor quality, image that triggered a memory, an image of a man standing defiantly facing Himmler. When I saw the name Horace Greasley, I was remined of the brief comment Guy Waklters had made about POW making up stories.

I was luck enough to come across the obituary published by the same newspaper some eight months earlier, it used the same image (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/military-obituaries/army-obituaries/7223148/Horace-Greasley.html) claiming it shows “Greasley confronting Heinrich Himmler”, I have seen:

PoW Horace Greasley defiantly confronts Heinrich Himmler during an inspection of the camp he was confined in. Greasley also famously escaped from the camp and snuck back in more than 200 times to meet in secret with a local German girl he had fallen in love with.

But for me this image and the image of Greasley, before capture simply don’t match, and the characters in the background do not appear to be wearing battledress, as POWs held with Greasley would. Thanks once again to Guy Walters, the image of Greasley confronting Himmler is of Himmler visiting a camp near Minsk, we have a rough idea of the date as at the same time he observed a mass execution by shooting, carried out by Einsatzkommando 8 on 15th August 1941. Greasley was held in a camp in August 1941, but he was never sent as far East as Minsk.

This has led many people to question Greasley’s story, or rather the account of his story as presented by Ken Scott. For me the importance of this created myth is the questioning of testimony. Clearly Greasley’s story has been elaborated upon, to the extent that parts of his account has become fiction, so much so that some people now question all aspects of his account. As Historians and educators we rely upon testimony to provide valid accounts, amongst other things.

I have instigated Holocaust survivors presenting their accounts to students, knowing that most of the account can be collaborated, but also that some parts cannot be verified. I am also conscious of the way Holocaust deniers interpret testimony. For me the beauty of testimony is the personal aspect, and we need to understand that this is a personal interpretation of events, people do tend to be selective, and do attempt to clarify information. Most survivors attempt to place their testimony in context when presenting to students, and sometimes they can present misconceptions, thus we, as historians need to be careful how we present testimony. Sadly its misuse by ignorant journalist and writers of poor fiction is all too clear in this case.

In summary I would argue that testimony should be considered in the same way as all other Historical evidence, it should be collaborated, if possible, with additional evidence. I understand that when one is faced by the person relating what has happened to them, it is far too easy to consider this account as the most authentic and therefore the most reliable. I suppose that is why History is sometimes referred to as a discipline.

 

 

One Response to “How accurate is testimony?”

  1.   heatherbochicco Says:

    I think you bring up some excellent points about the accuracy of testimony and the importance of critical literacy. Often, it seems that nonfiction, even personal testimony, is taken at face value, that it is not as critically evaluated; we assume that because it is “nonfiction”, it is true. As a language arts teacher, one who teaches nonfiction, I feel that it is so important to equip my students with critical literacy skills so that they constantly question, even dispute, and attempt to corroborate these seemingly true historical accounts. My students read Night by Elie Wiesel, and one of the things we discuss is how it borders between memoir and fiction as parts of his story are fictionalized and as Elie distances himself from the narrator. Thank you for your post!

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