An acedemic request for knowledge please.

I have recently returned to full time education (starting Uni in Sept)to implement a career change and am looking for tips on the extraction of information from sources.

E.G. I have been given a list of resources on and including the Reichstag Fire and have been asked to answer the following question,
How useful are these documents in illistrating the differing interpretations of the Reichstag Fire?

What I'm after, from you that are more educated than I are some tips or rules that I can follow to extract the most from these sources i.e. is it a descriptive or emotive account, looking at the time the source was written in comparison to the actual event, does it seem bias in any way etc etc.

Any guidance or advice gratefully recieved.

My thanks in advance

If the account contains rude words, it's fairly safe to assume that it's emotive.

If it's backed up by numbers, then it's probably subjective (but could still be prone to bias).

The above is based on experience, rather than formal education in the subject.
As a starter look at;
The date of the source closer, to the time more emotive
The author or how it came to be, was it national socialist propoganda or innocent bystander
What was the aim of the source? Stir up hatred, anti communist
A good start gentlemen thank you.

All sources seem to be slanting to or coming from a Nazi standpoint which has been noted and the authors from which material is taken ranges from the late 40s to the late 80s.

My continued thanks and the more tips the merrier.

It's not as heavy as it looks:

Bowdoin Writing Guide

Also online in smaller chunks:

Online guide

It's basically classifying when and why a source was written, and who wrote it for whom.

Just seen Rustyn's post - closer to the time is not necessarily more emotive if the source is some sort of official report (think war diary v war poem).

Sometimes wish I had the guts to do what you're doing. Good luck...
If references are used in an article, look at them to see a range of authors (it's easy to find one person who agrees with you), and a good spread of dates and sources.

Also, this probably won't apply to your area of interest, if subjects are tested (eg people) ensure that the sample size is the same in the method and the results. If not, are the subjects that have been "lost" accounted for? Otherwise they may just have discounted data that didn't fit with their null hypothesis.

Oh and learn how to spell ACADEMIC
Thank you Waltonthemildside, i will pass your link on to others, who will no doubt find it an invaluable tool!!!

scunning tunt no stunning post no 5, spelling of acAdemic confirmed, unstitching spelling badge as I type.
Something I learned at GCSE History a few years ago and used in A-level history to great effect:

Nature - what is it, something from Der Angriff, a foreign newspaper article, private letter?
Origin - who wrote it and what were his connections, eg. Nazi, Rotbanner supporter, consulate official?
Purpose - What was its purpose; to inform, educate, just a letter, propaganda by someone, a "neutral" account prepared for a 3rd party?
Limitations - what are its drawbacks? Obviously photos just show that split second, propaganda's biased, newspapers less so but still follow the owner/editor's view, stuff for third parties tends to be the most reliable.

Things written nearer the time period are apparently less reliable than things written well afterwards. Secondary sources are supposedly more reliable but don't forget that the evidence they draw on usually supports the author.
WaltOnTheMildSide said:
...closer to the time is not necessarily more emotive if the source is some sort of official report (think war diary v war poem).
I agree that it is not necessarily more emotive, but heavy bias can nonetheless exist in the most official of reports – think Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, New Labour… ;)

MOB, for the question you’ve been set, it’s obviously less about what the source documents say about the fire itself than what the sources say about the attitudes of the differing groups at that time. Given the period, most published material is strongly biased because of the heavy influence of the Nazi Party within state bureaucracy and the reaction of communist groups to that influence. It’s important to remember, however, that NO source is without use – it will always tell us something.
Gone a bit dry on any extra advice so I take this oppotunity to say thank you to all posters on this subject.

I find that two "aids" are useful in assessing sources/exhibits.

Firstly a "matrix". You can use any criteria you want/that are appropriate and then organise the documents/information sources using these. This allows you to see whethet you have a majority of factual or interpretative sources "at a glance". If you are working internationally, you can put a dimension of German versus non-German. you can band by time.

Secondly the "Venn Diagram". This is quite useful if you get themes or statements developing. The "bubbles" can be tagged by similar criteria and then you can see if a particular point of view is being expressed contemporaneously or with hindsight, by critics/historians of a particular view point (e.g. Nazi, Communist etc.).

Have fun. Be creative. don't come back here asking the same question!!
First off, apply the "4 Ws":

WHO wrote/ produced it?
WHEN was it produced?
WHERE was it produced?
WHY was it produced?

This provides a good basic framework for assessment of provenance, utility & reliability of a source.

If you can't readily answer any of the above, that itself may be significant - eg why might a source be anonymous?

Location of source production may be very telling - eg a Russian writing in W Europe/ N America re 1917: an exile? If so, why? etc etc.

For what audience was the source intended? Private correspondence; official report; electioneering/ political propaganda; intelligence report; published memoir; newspaper article? etc etc. The purpose/ intent of the source, and the relevant conventions of linguistic usage etc, will almost invariably have influenced its linguistic style, symbolism etc., plus - of course - what is/ is not revealed!

One could go on and on - the possible variables are endless...

Remember - always question; always be sceptical; never accept sources at face value, and always seek corroboration of one source by others. Ask yourself how typical/ representative is this source? Don't forget that the exceptional, freakish even, tends to be recorded (esp true of news reports, personal recollections etc) whilst the everyday/ unremarkable/ "normal" stuff gets overlooked - precisely because it's ordinary, "normal", and boring!

Look for IMPLICIT as well as explicit meaning: eg if a propaganda poster has been produced, esp if known to have been widely disseminated, then that points to a significant level of organised activity; access to print technology/ technical support; some level of funding (very probably!); quite sophisticated planning, coordination etc..

Another example of implicit meaning might be what is omitted from a document/ statement/ set of minutes or whatever: the "dog whistle" principle. The minutes of the Wannsee Conference being a good case in point - no explicit mention of mass murder of Jews, but plentiful pointed euphemism - "special action" etc..

Primary sources are not intrinsically more useful or reliable than secondary ones: again, depends on many factors, not least what exactly you want to know about! A good historian who has undertaken a thorough review of all major sources, and read many other historians' opinions/ interpretations, and who is emotionally detached from the events described, may provide a more objective account/ analysis (derived from a far broader perspective) than someone who was actually there, and caught up in events. Personal memories can be less than wholly reliable, and often people tend to remember events in ways which reflect creditably upon themselves! Others - Winston Churchill being a good case in point - will tend to remember things as they feel they ought to have been rather than exactly how they probably were! Also, personal recollections, although often invaluable in many ways, do tend to distort things by the narrowness of their focus. So, Auntie Vi's memoirs of sitting out the Blitz down the local tube station may be invaluable for insights into how housewives/ mothers coped etc, but would be bugger all use for ascertaining anything about how the Battle of Britain was conducted at tactical or strategic levels.

Always remember that the camera can, and frequently does, lie! Who took a photo, & why? Was the photo staged? Has it been "doctored"?

Beware statistics! How were they gathered? Methodology? How representative a sample? etc etc. How is the data presented; what's the base line? etc. Don't ever forget that, statistically, it is not untrue to state that all humans each have one breast & one testicle! In the real world, of course, it's bo**okcs!

Never fall into the trap of assuming that a biased/ unreliable source is not useful. In fact, frequently it's the iffy ones that are most useful - eg "Mein Kampf" is hardly a reliable account of anything, let alone the history of the Jews in Europe, but it's essential reading if you want to understand the mind set of Hitler & the ideology of National Socialism. Similarly, Soviet art of the Stalin era is pure propaganda, but provides fantastic insights into the Stalinist ethos/ world view.

At the end of the day, you just have to keep asking questions, and do not make ready assumptions about anything. Think of a source as a dodgy geezer trying to sell you something - do you buy it?!

Hope this is of some use?

Best wishes,


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