Documents as historical facts
November 21st, 2022
Peni and I went to the cinema yesterday. We saw She Said by Maria Schrader. The film recounts the investigation Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey achieved into the abusive conduct of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The film is based on the book Chasing the Truth by Kantor and Twohey, adapted by Ruby Shamir, based on the book She Said by the two investigative reporters of The New York Times.
When we planned to see the movie, I hadn't read the book yet, so I did. She Said is well-written, very didactic, which accounts for the difficulties the two journalists faced in carrying out their investigation.
There was one aspect that especially interested me. Weinstein's victims could not reveal their story because they had signed confidentiality agreements; Kantor and Twohey realized that the story they wanted report was not only what had happened but the very existence of those settlements. Documents are not just sources for the story; they are the story.
In my discipline, some authors have realized the relevance of documents not as sources, which supposedly tell us the data, but as historical facts.
Raul Hilberg proved that the destruction of the European Jews in Germany was conducted intentionally by the institutions of the Nazi government because the state bureaucracy recorded everything that had happened.
Camilo Vicente Ovalle did something similar in Mexico. The Dirty War of the 1970s was a State Crime since the official documents showed that the police and military bureaucracy were committing crimes against the population.
As historians, we are never entirely convinced that what we read in the sources is the true, but we are sure of the very existence of the source, the document. It is time to stop believing that documents are just a way to "see" history: documents are history.