Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Memory: just how reliable is it?

I have received a copy of Mass-Observation: Britain in the Second World War, just published by the Folio Society. Phillip Ziegler has written the Preface and some of his remarks are highly relevant, in my view, to all WW2 archives based on memories and recollections. It's rather long so I've popped it in the following Comment.


Blogger Peter G said...

"One of its most important elements was the collection of diaries kept by volunteers which provides the material for this book. As Tom Harrison's publisher, I worked with him on these diaries while he was writing Living Through the Blitz 1976. They gave me a salutary lesson on the frailty of human memory. More from curiosity than because of direct relevance to the book, we wrote to some diarists who had recorded particularly vivid accounts of incidents during the blitz. Would they, we asked, without referring to any records of the period, be kind enough to give their version of what they remembered of that incident today? Some half-dozen responded. Any relationship between the incident they had described in their diary and the story they told in 1975 was almost entirely coincidental. They got everything wrong: dates, places, the sequence of events. In every case they moved themselves closer to the centre of the action: the bomb that had fallen in the next street now fell in their street; the blast that had caused such freakish damage to a nearby house now affected their house. The experiment convinced me that, though oral testimony might be of value in recapturing atmosphere, it was worthless or worse than worthless if hard facts were wanted. At least I think it did ... The papers disappeared after Tom Harrison's death, I read the letters more than thirty years ago, who knows what tricks my memory may not have played?"

From the Foreword by Phillip Ziegler to Mass-Observation: Britain in the Second World War, edited by Sandra Koa Wing (Folio, 2007).

Tuesday, 12 June, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Peter -
haven't seen that one as yet as they are still pushing Churchill's efforts after the war.

Tuesday, 12 June, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

thinking about this memory lapse reminded me of an incident one day in the midst of a battle somewhere, we came upon a group of Axis soldiers of all various nationalities.
They seemed intent on surrendering and as there were no infantry handy - we were "asked" to look after them.
So our commander "suggested" that both the gunner and myself - take care of the situation until we could find some infantrymen.
No problem, so we both jumped down from our Churchill Tank armed with our "Thompson" sub machine guns.
WE then motioned to the 'prisoners' to move along and one chap burst out laughing - he was followed by all of them - I too had to laugh as Harry Grey - the gunner had forgotten to remove his cleaning brush from "up the spout" and to load a magazine - so we all had a good laugh as they were still pleased to surrender.
For the life of me - I can't think where that happened !

Wednesday, 13 June, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

This is now becoming a real mystery - which photo will come up next - if any - right now the profile is showing the "hat" photo - will now try it

Thursday, 14 June, 2007  
Blogger Ron Goldstein said...

I must be getting old !
Every time you start to get nostalgic you quote one of your memories and this sets me off.

This one concerns when we were at Ferndorf in Austria and running our POW camp.
I was on sentry duty down by the river bank that formed one of our perimeters (The other 3 perimeters were barbed wire down two sides of the camp and the railway embankment that ran parallel with the river).
I was armed only with a pistol and this seemed to amuse the Jerries no end.
I got a bit fed up with this and I said "Warum lachen zie?" or what's the joke? to which one of them replied "viel du hast nur eine pistole and vier zint zo fiel menschen" or "You've got just your revolver and we are so many".
I replied and sixty odd years later I can still remember exactly what I said.
"If you, and only you, tried to escape across this river then my pistol is more than enough to stop you. If however you ALL decided to make a break for it then by the time we called up our tanks from the village you would all be gone !

As the war was over and they were figuratively counting the days to when they would be released to go home they must have considered my reasoning to be sound and I don't remember anyone ever attempting to swim the river.

Friday, 15 June, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Ron -
now you have got me going talking about Austrian Rivers - the Drau /Drave in particular. This was very icy in winter and shut down our Electrical supply as the Water wheel would freeze up leaving us in the dark while attempting to listen to the American Forces Network from Garmisch Parten Kirchen with the famous DJ - Moffat-Moffat., with the latest songs.
At that time there wasn't a lot going on as people were leaving for Python - Liap was in it's infancy usually by road through the various camps at Ulm and elsewhere along the route.
Our mess was supplied from the weekly truck to Italy for the refreshmenst - we discovered that our Cook could really cook a great meal and so life was pleasant and most enjoyable.
Our regimental "runner" was a corporal who drove a Daimler Dingo all around the squadrons picking up mail - orders etc - and always managed to have a few drinks before heading off for H.Q. at Althofen.
One very cold night he came in and had at least two more than usual before heading off.
The festivities went on - suddenly the door burst open and he fell in - soaking wet, it took a while to piece the story to-gether but he had skidded off the highway and landed in the Icy Drau, where he had extricated himself and walked the half mile back to the mess.
He recovered quickly and the Bar tender asked him if he would like ice with his brandy !

Saturday, 16 June, 2007  
Blogger Peter G said...

LOL. Tom, that's one of the best stories I've read in a while. Ice Cold in Drau

Saturday, 16 June, 2007  
Blogger Frank mee said...

Makes you think and I have given this posting a lot of thought.
As most soldiers unlike Ron do not keep diaries and the accounts of actions are usually from unit diaries which from experience I know can be flawed, how do we ever get factual history of those events.
One of my memories is of Battle School where the Platoon leaders, I was one, had to Annalise their actions and tell of the events leading up to the action they took. This was about an hour after the action finished. Every one who took part was in there listening.
I gave the direction of advance to contact. my assessment of the contact how I organised the assault, then through the assault to clear the position and on to set up defensive positions for the other Platoons to follow through.
All this happened at a very fast pace.
The independent referee who was with us then stood up and looking at notes started to tear holes in my assessment much to the annoyance of the platoon who argued I was right and he was wrong.
When the assessment was over I was told I had done with a platoon what should have been a Company attack, they count a three to one imbalance with attacking troops to defenders.
Why we won was the speed in which we did it and the aggression with which it was carried out, the enemy platoon ran but on paper we should have lost.
Now if this can happen under training conditions what on earth can happen under real action conditions when you are concentrating on staying alive and you view point is less than 500 yards, you have no idea of what is happening left right or behind and the world is going mad.
So much of history is written well after the event and is based on some facts and some memory from participants. How can we be sure of the veracity of books written long after the war.

Tuesday, 19 June, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

Frank -
Exactly my point about the revisionist history of many historians - particularly the Americans who are influenced by the fact that Hollywood may have " suggested" such stories to make their army appear invincible - the truth is that since ww2 - they have not shown this invincibility of the Hollywood kind and their perfomances in say Korea - Viet Nam - Grenada show a different attitude to war.

Tuesday, 19 June, 2007  
Blogger Peter G said...


Repeating the salient part of my initial post Any relationship between the incident they had described in their diary and the story they told in 1975 was almost entirely coincidental. They got everything wrong: dates, places, the sequence of events.

And these were middle class well-educated people. So what about diaries? These too have to be carefully analysed and can be seldom taken at face value. Diaries usually record whatever caught the diarist's attention and are not necessarily accurate, although they tower as the Himalayas compared to the puny foothills of memory.

If you want proof of that, just go and attend any trial. There you will find witnesses contradicting each other, all convinced that their version is correct.

We can all witness an event but almost at once our impressions are coloured by our beliefs. The great Japanese film director Akira Kurasawa explores this in his classic film  Rashomon.

What fascinates me about the Peloponnesian War is that Thucydides (the first really true historian) who recorded it was aware of how unreliable the human mind is. He wrote it some 2,500 years ago some six centuries before the New Testamant. Right up to Guicciardini in the 16th century and Gibbon in the 18th, none can match his intellectuel curiosity and analytical skill. He is the first truly scientific historian.

You ask about the reliability of History. Here is Thucydides:

As to the speeches of the participants, either when they were about to enter the war or after they were already in it, it has been difficult for me and for those who reported to me to remember exactly what was said. I have, therefore, written what I thought the speakers must have said given the situation they were in, while keeping as close as possible to the gist of what was actually said.

And here is his comment on his attempts to discover what actually happened:

As to the events of the war. I have not written them down as I heard them from just anybody, nor as I thought they must have occurred, but have consistently described what I myself saw or have been able to learn from others after going over each event in as much detail as possible. I have found this task to be extremely arduous, since those who were present at these actions gave varying reports on the same event, depending on their sympathies and their memories.

Thursday, 21 June, 2007  
Blogger Tomcann said...

While not being a student of Thucydides or even Pericles- I would go along with your arguement - nay I shall go further - -- I do for an absolute fact that there was a war between the years 1939 - 1945 - as I took part in it ! - and Ron Goldstein did also as he kept a diary !
So there

Thursday, 21 June, 2007  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Where possible, in writing about WW2 I prefer to have some documentary evidence (written or in another form) to back up what somebody has told me what they remember. Even when writing about events I remember, and I think I have generally a quite good memory, I like to go back and check it is correct if it is possible to do so.

Sometimes I have written that I believe an 'official' written record is incorrect or incomplete. But to do this, I think you have to have good grounds for saying so. Otherwise, I feel you would normally have to accept the statements of an official record, or a written contemporary account.

These things are not always possible to find. If so, you can always put down it is from memory and the written proof or contradiction may come to light later on. Dealing with WW2, I have to perhaps rely more on other people's memories rather than what the rest of you would do.

Wednesday, 25 July, 2007  

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