One Woman’s Mission to Rewrite Nazi History on Wikipedia

So Coffman did what she always did: She read. And because she happened to be between jobs, she was free to immerse herself in history for long stretches. She learned about the Civil War, the conflict behind so much of the turmoil in the United States. She read about “lost cause” ideology, which claims the Confederacy actually fought to preserve high-minded Southern ideals, not specifically the institution of slavery. She brushed up on her knowledge of the Second World War, a struggle more familiar to her.

Maybe the lack of a job, of people to collaborate with, is also what made Wikipedia seem like an attractive pastime. That’s what it was supposed to be: another hobby. At first, Coffman stuck to tentative, sporadic suggestions. But then she was making edits nearly every day; there was so much to fix. She liked the site’s intricate bureaucracy—the guidelines on etiquette and reliable sourcing, the policies on dispute resolution and article deletion, the learned essays and discussion pages that editors cite like case law. “Wikipedia is very regimented,” she says. “I am good with instructions.”

“G’day,” Peacemaker67 begins his note for K.e. coffman. It’s late 2015, and he is concerned about recent changes to an article on Wikipedia (“WP” for short) about an SS tank division made up of Nordic Nazi volunteers. “Sorry but there appears to be some sort of misunderstanding about what should be deleted on WP, and I just want to clarify it before this gets too far down the track.”

Coffman recognizes this editor’s handle. He’s Australian, and his User page says he served as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia. He is the same person who invited her to join WikiProject Military History, a group where editors can chat, take classes, win plaudits, and work on articles together.

Not for the first time, Coffman has been removing material from the article about the tank division. She thinks it’s full of unsourced fancruft, the Wikipedia word for fawning, excessively detailed descriptions that appeal to a tiny niche of readers—in this case, those thrilled by accounts of battle. The article tells how “the division acquitted itself well” even against “stiffening resistance,” how it “held the line” and earned the “grudging respect” of skeptical commanders. One contributor has used the eyebrow-raising phrase “baptism of fire.” It’s as if the editors don’t see the part lower down the page where a soldier uses the phrase “and then we cleaned a Jew hole.”

The glorifying language, Coffman thinks, is a clear sign that this is historical fan fiction. It elides the horrors of war. If editors want such details to stay on the page, at a minimum they should use a better source than Axis History, a blog whose motto is “Information not shared is lost.”

The interaction starts out politely enough. “IMHO it is good that you are deleting citations from unreliable bloggy sources,” Peacemaker67 says. “But just because material is sourced to them doesn’t mean it is wrong.”

K.e.coffman replies in less than an hour. “Thank you for your note,” she writes. “Yes, I was surprised about how little I was able to salvage as I was editing the article.” She lists 17 bullet-pointed examples of biased language, Nazi glorification, and unreliable claims. “Would Wikipedia not be better without such content?” she asks.

“Well, people are on WP for different reasons,” Peacemaker67 replies. “I don’t go around deleting stuff because I think it might be dodgy.” He cites a page that counsels gradualism in editing, because Wikipedia is a work in progress. “Articles have long histories, and there is no WP:DEADLINE,” he says.

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