Interview with Sebastian Bondzio

By Alexa Lässig

Recently we sat down with Sebastian Bondzio, the 2021 Gerda Henkel Stiftung Digital History Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Dr. Bondzio is a historian affiliated with the Chair for Modern History and Historical Migration Research at Osnabrück University. His research fields include digital history with a focus on “historical big data” and digital methodologies; he also has interests in the genealogy of cultures, migration history, and the history of knowledge.

Dr. Bondzio began his academic career in 2006 in Osnabrück where he studied philosophy and history. In his master’s thesis and then his Ph.D. dissertation he developed a database of German soldiers killed during the First World War. His 2018 Ph.D. thesis, published in 2020 as Soldatentod und Durchhaltebereitschaft. Eine Stadtgesellschaft im Ersten Weltkrieg, used methodologies drawn from digital history and the history of emotions to examine how societies were able to wage war despite their devastating impact on their citizens. He is currently a senior researcher of the Data Driven History working group at Osnabrück University, where he has worked on using digital methods to analyze Gestapo records and to use migrant registration cards (Ausländermeldekartei) to study the spatial distribution of migrants and questions about the administrative production of knowledge relating to so-called “Ausländer.”

At the GHI and the RRCHNM, he will be working on a project to model and research the process of German migration to the United States during the 19th century using the Castle Garden Immigration Center database, which encompasses more than 4.2 million records. His goals include examining both the development of the record-gathering process and how immigration authorities acquired knowledge about migrants through the production of such records.

What motivated you to specialize in digital history?

Being a digital native, working with computers was part of my life for as long as I can think. I can still remember my first programming course in 1995 on QBasic and trying to convince my father to give me more time on his PC. For most of the time, this was just a hobby. It was only when I met Christoph Rass in Osnabrück that I got the feeling that now is the right time and place to combine my interests for historical research, critical analysis and digital workflows.

Between 2013 and 2017, together we developed a lot of small- and medium-sized digital projects and worked on refining our methodology. Being invited to cooperate with a whole range of different partners and seeing the historiographical potential digital approaches can have in many different contexts, I soon started to concentrate more on working with and analyzing large sets of structured historical data. As my experience has grown, I’ve become more and more convinced that as historians we must be able to create and analyze our own datasets according to the standards of our discipline to conduct proper research. This, among other things, requires developing a digital literacy and updated forms of source criticism.

Visualization of a space-time cube representing the Osnabrück Gestapo card index.

What opportunities does digital history offer to the larger discipline?

Going digital can change how we conduct historical research on a lot of different levels. First and foremost, access to historical sources can be improved and the more prominent documents have become more accessible. Little by little, we also see niches being filled. The current pandemic underlines the importance of this undertaking. But we would be missing out on a lot of opportunities if we don’t also apply digital tools for analysis of collections of digitized sources. Only this approach will open up new perspective for research and give us more comprehensive findings. Large stocks of sources can now be evaluated as a whole and provide new insights into important historical processes.

On the other hand, the traditional core of historical research will remain mainly unchanged by digital history. Simply generating findings from historical big data is not enough. We still have to interpret our findings in meaningful ways. Trying to explain the findings from Digital History often sparks new, non-digital research. In the past, this has proved to be a starting point for a productive conversation which can help bridge the divide between ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ approaches and paves the road towards integrated research.

In 2018 you co-founded the research group Data Driven History and became its Senior Researcher. Can you give us some information about its approach?

One of my dear colleagues in Osnabrück once pointed out that all historical research is data-driven. He is totally right. Every piece of a source we use can be considered data. The unique characteristic of data driven history in my working group is that we produce and analyze large sets of digital historical data that cannot be analyzed manually. In 2013, I started small by visiting archives to collect data on about 7,500 soldiers who died in the Great War. But soon we were handed a dataset on about 11,000 victims of the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp, which we analyzed using GIS and other digital tools to research the structure and the impact of the Nazis’ mass murder.

These results motivated other institutions and memorial sites to approach us, including the Arolsen Archives and the NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) in Amsterdam. In 2018 we received a DFG project grant to study one of the few remaining Gestapo card files. In collaboration with the state archives of Lower Saxony, we digitized approximately 50,000 index cards and developed a workflow for automatic data extraction and its digital analysis. This enabled us to study both the inner mechanisms of the Gestapo and the role of knowledge production in the implementation and stabilization of the Nazi regime.

How can digital history change our understanding of how we approach migration history and the history of knowledge?

Sets of historical big data allow us to model processes of past migration with a high level of detail and differentiation. Identifying and analyzing processes of migration over decades or even centuries becomes possible. In this longue-durée perspective we can not only see the migration phenomena which contemporaries were aware of and wrote about, but also those groups, spaces, and periods which were marginalized by the dominant narratives.

But we need to be careful not to become too captivated by the historical data we use: One branch of migration history currently focuses on how individual and institutional actors interact in so-called migration regimes to negotiate the various conditions and structures of migration. The large datasets I analyze were mostly created within such a migration regime, and to the present day powerful administrations and other institutional actors produce “knowledge” about migration (most often about migrants) under a modernistic episteme, in which attributes are ascribed to individuals. The “knowledge” created by this “datafication” of migration is then used by institutional actors in various ways. If we remain aware of the contingent emergence of our datasets, we can use digital history methods to also identify components of the migration regime’s mechanisms and workings and the usage of different types of knowledge in it.

Screenshot of the German immigration database based on Castlegarden.org

What do you hope to achieve at the GHI Washington?

Being granted the Gerda Henkel Fellowship for Digital History and coming to DC feels amazing. In the past, working with several hundreds of thousands of pieces of data has proved challenging, but was manageable in the end. Here I hope to be able to take the next step: preparing about 4.2 million records on German immigrants for research. This presents some new hurdles. On the one hand, performance of the database needs to be enhanced. On the other hand, the emergence of this body of knowledge needs to be researched to be able to analyze it according to our discipline’s standards. By cooperating with colleagues at the GHI and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, I hope to succeed in preparing the dataset, identifying relevant sources in the archives, and developing a research proposal for third-party funding.

What do you like about Washington DC?

After being in mid-size Osnabrück for a long time, arriving in a metropolis like Washington DC is quite a thrill. There are historical monuments everywhere, to which time has attributed complex layers of meanings. Going there and sorting them out is something I really enjoy.

But, more importantly, coming to DC means becoming part of a network of highly skilled and motivated researchers. Digital history is a central part of historical research here. Both institutes I am affiliated with, GHI as well as RRCHNM, are organized in a way that things get done. Here are specialists I can talk to, resources that can be mobilized, and most of all there is a lot of personal dedication from everybody, which makes doing historical research even more rewarding. I feel privileged and grateful to be a part of this.

Thanks to Atiba Pertilla for edits and suggestions on improving the English language version of this interview.


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