The One-Woman Battle Against Pro-Nazi Bias on Wikipedia
For years Ksenia Coffman has been fighting to correct pro-Nazi distortions on Wikipedia.
Ksenia Coffman might be one of the most influential historians you’ve never heard of. If you’ve ever consulted Wikipedia for topics related to World War II, it’s likely that you’ve read some of her work.
The Silicon Valley history buff has spent years correcting thousands of articles on Wikipedia that showed a pro-Nazi bias or soften accounts of Nazi atrocities during World War II. In a recent Aish.com interview, Ksenia explained how she embarked on this monumental task and what still needs to be done.
Ksenia grew up in the Soviet Union where she recalls that her history education “was very fragmentary and there were a lot of omissions.” She studied computational linguistics, then won a scholarship to attend business school in the Bay Area in California, and settled in the US.
One day fifteen years ago, she was visiting relatives and noticed a book about the Battle of Stalingrad, the intensely bloody conflict between German and Soviet forces at the Russian industrial city of Stalingrad during World War II. The battle helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the Allies. Ksenia realized that her knowledge about it was superficial at best. “I wanted to learn more.”
The book was a turning point in her understanding of World War II. “It opened up a whole new world for me.”
In the Soviet Union, the Holocaust was not taught in depth. “It was only as a young adult that I learned about the Holocaust.” Ksenia credits the 2002 movie The Pianist, which portrays a fictionalized account of the real-life Polish Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, with opening her eyes to the intense horror of the Holocaust. Ksenia began reading everything she could about the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews and others. “I took a crash course in Holocaust history (through intense reading) because I realized there was such a gap in my knowledge.”
Whitewashing Nazi History
Like many of us, Ksenia occasionally turned to Wikipedia for information to elucidate some points. Founded in 2001 by bond trader Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia is one of the most visited sites on the internet, functioning as an encyclopedia using an “open-source” team of volunteer contributors and editors whose work is overseen by a not-for-profit group called Wikimedia Foundation. Anyone can become a Wikipedia contributor or editor and help build and shape the site’s information.
Ksenia found statements that seemed to be whitewashing Nazi history.
As she read Wikipedia’s many articles on subjects related to the Holocaust, Ksenia found that some contained strange statements or terms that seemed to be whitewashing Nazi history.
“In a Wiki article about the SS functionary who set up the Riga Ghetto,” Ksenia recalls, referencing the rabid Nazi Otto-Heinrich Drechsler, “I read that he was a ‘prominent dentist’ and that he merely ‘resided in Riga’ during World War II. I was picking up on these Holocaust distortions and obfuscations. I want to be on the side of the victims: they didn’t get to survive and didn’t get to write self-serving memoirs like all these German generals who wrote about how upstanding they were.”
Ksenia was moved to act in 2015 when she read a Wikipedia article about the “20 July Plot,” an unsuccessful 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler that was hatched by a group of senior Nazi officers who were concerned that Germany’s two-front fighting against both the USA and Britain and the Soviet Union was doomed to end in Germany’s military defeat.
She noted the article described the plot as “a grand, if futile gesture” that was meant to save “the honor of themselves, their families, the army and Germany.” The description struck Ksenia as made up and fawning and hardly supported by facts.
Intrigued, Ksenia read more about the plot and the perpetrators – and wound up feeling “totally disoriented.” She turned to a Wikipedia article about one of the plotters, the senior SS official Arthur Nebe, who invented mobile gas chambers. The Wikipedia entry baselessly asserted that Nebe acted to “reduce the atrocities committed”. The entry also said that Nebe, in an attempt to protect the very Jews and others whom his death squad meant to murder, lied about the number of people killed and padded the death totals he passed along to his superiors.
The citation seemed to support the claims, but then it continued with a sentence that was missing from the entry: “This is, of course, nonsense.”
These claims about Nebe seemed highly dubious to Ksenia, so she checked the footnotes to the Wikipedia article and what she found was shocking. The claims that Nebe tried to save Jews was credited to a 1995 book called War of Extermination – a book that Ksenia happened to have on loan from the library. She looked up the citation which seemed to support the claims, but then it continued with a sentence that was missing from the entry: “This is, of course, nonsense.”
“I was extremely disturbed,” Ksenia explains. “It wasn’t an honest mistake: it was a malicious manipulation of sources. I started to wonder where all this was coming from. Before that, I thought, Oh, Wikipedia is a free, valid source of information.” Now she felt disillusioned.
Intolerant of Propaganda
“Growing up in a non-democratic country, I experienced a lot of propaganda, lots of obfuscation,” Ksenia explains. “That's why I’m more sensitive, perhaps, to propaganda. I didn’t grow up trusting my government; I didn’t grow up thinking that what I see in the paper is the truth. That might have helped me start noticing the bias in some Wikipedia articles."
Incensed, Ksenia decided to do something. She registered several calls for action in the entry about Arthur Nebe. Ksenia read up on Nebe to better understand why some accounts of him seemed to minimize his wrong-doing. She found historical accounts can vary widely, with the author’s own prejudices and political goals sometimes coloring their accounts of events.
Ksenia looked at more and more Wikipedia entries, in some cases finding other bizarre pro-Nazi slants to some entries. Wired writer Noam Cohen has provided a detailed account of Ksenia’s editing history:
“...Coffman realizes that she’s supposed to fill out her User page – the Wikipedia equivalent of a profile, where editors broadcast opinions, grudges, achievements, pet peeves. One Saturday night she updates it for the first time. ‘I’m a new editor to Wikipedia,’ she writes. ‘I enjoy contributing and engaging with other editors.’ An hour later, past midnight, she adds: ‘My editing style tends to be bold.’”
Ksenia edited hundreds of articles, cutting away fawning descriptions of Nazi exploits in some entries. A few users directed dismissive or inflammatory comments at her, but she remained undeterred. One Wikipedia editor began harassing her through the site and was eventually banned. Despite the abuse, she plowed on, refusing to back down. Ksenia continued to read through article after article, eventually becoming one of Wikipedia’s top 1,000 most active editors.
Manipulating the Truth
In some cases, entries glorified the German combat forces, especially SS units. Some Wikipedia entries contained bizarre passages, describing “how they were brave lads, that they had great adventures, that they fought valiantly… There was very little information on the crimes they committed, or it was tucked away, almost as just a footnote to a heroic narrative,” Ksenia notes.
In some cases, entries glorified the German combat forces, especially SS units.
Some entries softened their accounts of Nazi atrocities by using a passive voice: “These SS Divisions were involved in massacres, for example.” She noticed that some users had an inexplicable propensity to use euphemisms when discussing Nazis and Nazi atrocities. Some Wikipedia passages seemed incapable of passing judgment on even the most horrible crimes.
“The thing that really made my blood boil was the debasement of victims,” Ksenia noted, when victims of Nazi crimes weren’t described in fully human, sympathetic ways.