The ability to evaluate contradictory data and claims is one of the historian's greatest and most necessary skills. "Great," because it displays the ability to synthesize apparently mutually exclusive perspectives; "necessary," because, as a student of history, you will inevitably encounter such contradictory claims, and will need to engage them productively.
Please note that your task is not necessarily to resolve an issue that arises from contradictory claims. If you encounter a situation in which historian A says one thing, and historian B says quite another, it is not your job to say that "A [or B] is right." You must, however, acknowledge the two perspectives, and try to explain how they may have come about. (See Historiography on this, and Historiographic Essays).
Should you encounter two opposing views in your research, do not simply go for the one that is more supportive of your own argument. Rather, acknowledge them both and explain whether, and why you find one view more persuasive than the other. Far from invalidating your perspective, the opposing view will in fact force you to make a stronger case for your argument. (Of course an opposing view may - and this is equally valuable - persuade you that your original perspective was flawed). Sometimes, it may be necessary to consult additional sources in order to help clarify things.
Below, you will find examples of (i) contradictory data, and (ii) contradictory claims. Rather than trying to resolve the contradictions, we follow our own advice and merely acknowledge them, try to explain how they may have come about, and why we find one view more persuasive than the other.
Issue: the number of rapes committed by Japanese soldiers in Nanking, China, in 1937.
Given the extreme discrepancy between the two figures (20,000-80,000 vs. 361). We consulted an additional source on the issue. Here is what we found:
Rape did occur in Nanking, that much even the Japanese scholars acknowledge. The actually number, however, is clearly in dispute. To shed more light on the matter, we have availed ourselves of additional data we found in an anthology of essays by both Chinese and Japanese historians, edited by Joshua Fogel, The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography. This book provides the following information: At the war crimes tribunals that resulted in the execution of eight senior Japanese officers for their role in the Nanking massacres, Miner Searle Bates, an American missionary and a history professor at Nanking University at the time, testified that "8,000 cases of rape" took place during the first month of the six-week Japanese occupation (73). This number far exceeds the 361 cases acknowledged by Japanese scholars, yet falls far short of the 20,000- 80,000 cases claimed by Chang. This suggests that the numbers may have been inflated over time.
Further complicating matters, two citywide surveys conducted in Nanking in 1984 and 1990 located a total of approximately 1,700 survivors of the massacre, among whom forty-four women (approximately 2.5%) were raped (140). As Nanking was a city of approximately 500,000 in 1937, it is plausible, following the figures yielded by the later surveys, that 12,500 women (2.5% of the total) might have been raped - a figure that is higher than that offered by Bates' testimony, but that still falls short of Chang's claim.
Now consider this: almost all accounts of rape in Nanking speak of multiple rapes of individual women ("gang rapes"), and most witnesses and survivors further testified that a woman, once singled out as a target of rape, would be violated not only successively, by multiple men, but also repeatedly, on separate occasions, multiplying the possible number of individual cases of rape by a factor of at least three, thus bringing us to a number - 37,500 - well within the realm of the 20,000-80,000 claimed by Chang.
But all this is parsing hypothetical numbers: rather than pursuing this any further, we end by quoting Fogel, who urges readers to "refrain...from engaging in what [he] call[s] the 'numbers game' - the practice of estimating and seriously debating the numbers of those killed and raped in the Nanjing massacre, in which certain Chinese push the figures higher and higher while certain Japanese do everything in their power to push the figures lower and lower. ... The contributors to this volume are all of a mind that a great massacre occurred, and whether 200,000 people were killed or 240,000 [or 20,000 were raped, or 80,000, or 361] does not alter the dimensions of the horror" (6). That, we agree, is the larger, more important point.
Issue: Were Nazi-era Germans uniquely predisposed towards killing Jews because of the long history of anti-Semitism in German history, dating back hundreds of years, or were they simply following orders (albeit orders they should, on moral grounds, have refused) in order to "belong" to, and "fit in" with their units, and because refusing orders in Nazi Germany was not an option?
This controversy was sparked when, in a review published by the New Republic, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen attacked a 1992 book by a respected World War II historian, Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men. In his book, Browning proposed that a special Nazi police battalion deployed in Poland in 1942, although guilty of killing hundreds of Jewish civilians, did so not because of any inherent German anti-Semitism, but because they were ordered to. Given the extreme circumstances of war under which these killings occurred, Browning argues, any other group of men, anywhere, from any country, might have done the same.
Goldhagen strongly disputed this claim in his scathing review of Browning's book, and instead posited that the men, indoctrinated by generations' worth of a German-specific "eliminationist anti-Semitism," thought of killing Jews as a perfectly acceptable, indeed, a natural act. In fact, according to Goldhagen, virtually all Germans of the Nazi era, not only the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, were conditioned in this manner, making them all "Hitler's willing executioners," which became the title of his book-length rebuttal of Browning's claims in 1997.
Note that this case differs from the "contradictory data" case offered above, regarding Nanking. At stake here is less the issue of data (both historians agree that the battalion killed large numbers of Jewish civilians: no dispute there) than a larger question of national character vs. universal human behavior. Goldhagen effectively claims that all Germans were potential Jew killers, and that this was not a function of Nazi indoctrination but, rather, the result of a history of anti-Semitism specific to Germany that not only pre-dated the rise of Nazism, but also enabled it. Browning, on the other hand, suggests that such behavior could be expected of any group of "ordinary men" under the extreme circumstances of war and authoritarian rule; that the men of Batallion 101 acted as a result of peer pressure as well as pressure from their superiors, and that there was nothing inherently "German" about their deeds. The underlying implication of Browning's argument is that even we - reasonable twenty-first-century college-goers - could act in this way under certain circumstances.
We cannot resolve these contradictory claims, but we can perhaps explain them. Browning, who graduated with a B.A. from Oberlin College in 1966, matured amidst the controversies surrounding the Vietnam War, at a time when American atrocities in Vietnam were gradually coming to light. In 1969, by which time Browning was working towards his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the American media revealed to the public the events of the previous year's My Lai massacre, in which a United States infantry unit killed approximately 500 unarmed inhabitants of a Vietnamese village populated by elderly men, women and children. Following My Lai, the late period of the Vietnam War as well as the early post-war years - years during which Browning was completing his Ph.D. - were marked by an outpouring of confessions of atrocities from returning U.S. military personnel testifying before Senate and House hearings. Surely these events influenced Browning in his belief that all men are capable of committing atrocities under extraordinary circumstances.
Another known influence on Browning was the so-called Milgram experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram during the early 1960s. In this experiment, volunteers were instructed to conduct a word-matching test with a person seated behind a wall. Whenever the unseen person behind the wall (actually, an actor) failed to match the words correctly, participants were told to shock him electrically by remote control, in increments of 45 volts, culminating with a potentially deadly shock of 450 volts (in fact there were no shocks at all). To add to the experiment, the actor, who was able to communicate with the participants through the wall, told them that he suffered from a heart condition; at around 135 volts, he would begin screaming in pain. A lab-coat clad experimenter, seated in the same room as the volunteers, would urge them to continue, regardless of any misgivings they voiced as the experiment proceeded. In one cycle of the experiment, thirty-seven of forty volunteers administered the full 450-volt charge three times before the experimenter broke off the session.
In a 1973 Harper's magazine article, Milgram summed up his findings as follows: "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority" (Milgram 75). The influence of Milgram on Browning's work (down to the phrase "ordinary people") is self-evident.
Goldhagen, in contrast to Browning, is of a far younger generation (born 1959). Coming of age in a more conservative, strongly patriotic era (the Reagan-Bush years), during which wars were short and seemed relatively bloodless, he was perhaps less inclined to question or critique authority and more predisposed to ideas of national character. This is of course speculation. Clearly, however, Goldhagen's youth played a role in the dispute, which was - scholarly differences aside - a fabricated case of professional and generational rivalry. By attacking the work of an esteemed historian, the unknown Goldhagen made a name for himself as a junior scholar, soon to be hired by Harvard University on the strength of the controversy generated by the debate, as well as his later book Hitler's Willing Executioners.
We will never know with any certainty whether human beings are prone to universal models of behavior - including obedience to authoritarian rule - or whether some peoples are more predisposed towards genocidal behavior than others because of long-term indoctrination. The findings of the Milgram experiments are compelling, however, and history does seem to indicate that all peoples (including Americans) are capable of atrocities (consider America's treatment of Native Americans and African Americans; or that of the French of Algerians; or the British, of Indians; or the Hutu of the Tutsi in Rwanda, and so on). For that reason, we are inclined to consider Browning's argument the more compelling of the two. However, we add that the controversy generated by Goldhagen's critique of Browning was a productive one, as it highlighted the historian's task to not only explain what happened, but also why. In the case of Reserve Police Battalion 101, both Browning and Goldhagen suggest meticulously researched, if contradictory answers to this question, and thus both have contributed significantly to the historiography of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.