Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park
History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.
The History of our Revolution will be one continued Lye [lie] from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklins electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.
Letter, John Adams to Benjamin Rush, April 4, 1790
The past is the past. History is what someone says about what happened in the past. Historians, and others, consult textual records, oral histories, non-textual records, and artifacts to find evidence of the past. Needless to say, persons writing about people, places, and things observe and/or record those things from their own perception and sources at hand, which might be their own eyes and ears. Thus, it is understandable that two people witnessing the same thing might have a different view of what they saw or heard. To some degree, this should be just common sense to everybody, but it is useful to be periodically reminded of this.
Just look at the stories regarding Judas Iscariot in the New Testament. Almost no two accounts agree on his motivations, his actions, the circumstances of him receiving thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus, and the circumstances of his death. Of course, the authors of the Gospels were writing many decades after the events they recorded, and we do not know what their written and oral sources were. I found in doing research on the death of Adolf Hitler that rarely do those in the Berlin bunker with Hitler during his last days, consistently record or relate what happened. And what they related was often weeks after the events. As a result, I wrote what I thought most likely happened and when it happened. I did so keeping in mind what was written almost sixty years ago: “The historian can rest satisfied even when his explanation is not absolutely probable, provided he has shown that it is significantly more likely than any of the comparable alternatives.”
When faced with conflicting accounts regarding the discovery of Nazi gold reserves in the Merkers Mine in Germany in April 1945, I ended up writing in my article about the subject:
Early the next morning [April 6], two military policemen guarding the road entering Keiselbach from Merkers saw two women approaching and promptly challenged and stopped them. Upon questioning, the women stated that they were French displaced persons. One of the women was pregnant and said she was being accompanied by the other to see a midwife in Keiselbach.
These women related information about a mine in Merkers holding treasures. In researching for the Merkers Mine article, I found three reports about the above incident, all written within 48 hours of the events they recorded. There were inconsistencies regarding the nationalities of the women, which direction they were headed, and whether one of them was a midwife. I selected to use the one that seemed the most likely.
Again, in writing about the capture of one of Hitler’s couriers who was able to escape Berlin with copies of Hitler’s personal will, political testament, and his marriage license, I ran into vague and conflicting information about how the individual, SS Col. Wilhelm Zander, was captured. In my Prologue article I gave a barebones account:
The Americans captured Zander and his documents (including the original marriage license of Hitler and Braun, and the handwritten transmittal letter from Bormann to Doenitz) with the assistance of British intelligence officer Maj. Hugh Trevor Roper, in Bavaria on December 28. 
In a blog, dealing with the Hitler documents and the capture of Zander, I was more detailed. I wrote:
With the lead to Aidenbach, Trevor-Roper, accompanied by Weiss, and apparently a CIC officer named Rosener, in a jeep set out from Munich on the night of December 27 for the 90-minute drive to Aidenbach. Clearing through the Regional CIC office and the Degendorf Sub-Regional Office, where an agent named Brickmann joined them, sometime between 3am and 4am on December 28 they found the farmhouse where Zander was supposedly staying. Trevor-Roper posted an American soldier with a revolver at each corner, and knocked on the door. There was no answer. Trevor-Roper ordered a German policeman to climb through the window and open the door. Inside, they found a man in bed who claimed to be a merchant named Wilhelm Paustin. With him was Ilsa Unterholzner. Both were arrested. Trevor-Roper made them dress, and then, with Weiss, drove them back to Munich for interrogation.
If one looks at my footnote citation to the above information it will be seen that I relied on some dozen sources to tell the story. Each source provided somewhat different versions of events. For example, CIC agent Arnold H. Weiss, who was with Trevor-Roper later recalled that as the Military Police broke down the door, a shot rang out from the house. The Military Police found the startled Zander naked in bed with a woman and quickly overpowered him. Weiss grabbed Zander’s Italian Beretta-a memento he kept. Weiss told Zander they had come to arrest him and asked him his name. He said Paustin produced an identity card. Weiss said it was a fake and he was taken into custody and taken to Munich.  This account, recalled sixty years after the event, is more dramatic than the other accounts, which were written shortly after the events occurred. Some or all of Weiss’ account may be true, but I decided to tell the story based on a blending of other evidence, which was less dramatic. Continue reading