All posts by allisonruman

A Strong Connection: How Digital History Makes the Past More Accessible

By Allison Ruman

Editorial note: Allison Ruman received her Bachelor of Arts in German, Political Science, and Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies from Penn State University in 2020 and will be studying European History, Politics, and Society (Master of Arts) at Columbia University this fall. Her primary focus is on interwar Germany, and she is especially interested in studying religious divisions and their role in the rise of far-right extremism. She is currently completing her remote internship at the GHI.

The biggest project of my undergraduate career was, without a doubt, my honors thesis, “Temperate Brutality”: The AfD and Right-Wing Extremism in Postwar Germany, a subject that fundamentally requires knowledge of the Nazi regime and the conditions leading to it.  One crucial element of my research was the use of primary sources, the invaluable “raw data” that remain from ages past and provide a firsthand account, which form the basis of our entire understanding of history.  This was especially important for my first chapter, in which I compared language and rhetoric patterns between the National Socialists and the Alternative for Germany (AfD going forward), a nationalist and far-right populist party established in 2013.  It is one thing to claim that a right-wing populist party resembles the National Socialists, it is quite another to prove it.  Since it is not 1928 and the AfD is not concerned with the Treaty of Versailles or communists in the Soviet Union, any similarities would be on a much broader, more nuanced level rather than glaringly obvious.

In order to show their resemblance, I wanted to highlight party representatives’ opinions about international organizations, non-Christians, non-Germans, and far-right violence, a task that required transcripts of parliamentary sessions from both eras.  Without digitization, this would have been an incredibly difficult task under normal circumstances, considering I live in the United States and the documents would be in Germany, those concerning the National Socialists in a much more fragile condition than those from only a few years ago.  However, the COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of complexity to this task.  National and international lockdowns cut off most of the access to these primary sources.

As my second chapter included all kinds of events of the twentieth century, I worked with less formal primary sources, including newspaper articles, such as Schüsse auf Rudi Dutschke, a 1968 article from the German news magazine Der Spiegel that reported on the assassination of sociology student Rudi Dutschke, and a private letter that Adolf Hitler wrote to Adolf Gemlich, a German army soldier.  This more casual material (for public figures in particular) is vital because it presents that person behind closed doors.  With the exponential evolution of technology, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate public and private life, but it used to be common practice to curate an entirely distinct persona for the limelight.  These informal sources reveal what their genuine character was when they didn’t feel the need to perform as a public figure.

The first page of the Hitler letter to Adolf Gemlich, dated September 16, 1919, describing his hatred for Jews and detailing plans for their annihilation. Source: The Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, USA. https://www.museumoftolerance.com/assets/documents/hitler-letter-handout-1.pdf

Working with newspaper articles was especially enlightening when it came to what it means to be a primary source.  At the time of its publication, an article may not have been a primary source, particularly if it referenced another speech or publication.  However, its dog whistles and undertones offer a glimpse into the implicit biases and societal norms of the time decades later.  Understanding that particular society on a day-to-day level makes it easier to understand how concurrent historical events transpired.  This was particularly helpful for me in grasping the extent of anti-Soviet sentiments and the role they played in the disillusionment of former East Germans after reunification.

The manner in which sources were digitized really shocked me.  For example, some historical newspaper articles were exactly the same format as a digital article published today, i.e., a typed article on the newspaper’s website.  Other databases simply provided scans of the original hard copies, which was much less convenient, as the quality of the scan was not always the best.  Some of the newspapers were not analyzed by OCR (optical character recognition), which converts images of words into machine-detectable text and allows us to do things like highlight and copy words, so the process to get the information I needed was much longer.  I also ran into this problem with the parliamentary session transcripts; the 1928 transcripts were scans, and while the Bayerische Staats Bibliothek did apply OCR, the transcripts were recorded using the Fraktur script, which is incredibly challenging to read without years of experience.  I would not have spent nearly as much time working with the 1928 transcripts if they would have been transcribed to a document using a sans serif font.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stenographic report of negotiations of the Reichstag from the fourth legislative period of 1928, from the first meeting on June 13, 1928, through the 40th meeting on February 4, 1929. Originally printed and published in Berlin in 1929 by the Reich Printing Group.  Source: Bavarian State Library (Bayerische Staats Bibliothek). https://www.reichstagsprotokolle.de/index.html

Another problem I had with using digital sources was a lack of access to them due to paywalls.  This was an issue I experienced with databases for all mediums, including books, journals, interviews, and more, such as JSTOR and ProQuest, but especially because many newspapers provide databases themselves, reading a historical newspaper article counted toward the number of free articles per month, a problem I frequently encountered with sites like The New York Times.  Luckily, my university had subscriptions to most of the databases I used, but if I would not have had the privilege of attending a university, I would not have been able to acquire most of my material.  When people have no access to credible historical and news sources, their only option is turning to free misinformation and biased reporting.  The truth should not be a luxury reserved for a certain group of people.

Since the AfD is relatively new, finding any data on them was much more difficult than established groups.  I had trouble finding statistics on AfD representation at state levels, as each Landtag website was organized differently; some had a parliamentary breakdown by percentage, some listed each MP and their party, and some had no information on party representation whatsoever.  The general AfD website offered no help, so I sometimes had to calculate state-level representation myself, and other times I had to find statistics elsewhere.  In hindsight, the non-systematic organization of Landtag websites is not all that odd, considering each state Landtag is in charge of its own website, but it was not something I had taken into account; having grown up in a two-party system, there was no real opportunity for such a dilemma.  Finding election results was also a challenge.  My home state of Pennsylvania has a website with election results from the last twenty years, so I was surprised that there was not a similar archive for German states.  I managed to find the results, but they were not in a centralized location.  As with the 1928 transcripts, it would have been much more efficient if there would have been one place dedicated to keeping these records.

Landtag website for the state of Baden-Württemberg. The only statistics this website provided about the composition of its parliament were links to individual party websites. Source: https://www.landtag-bw.de/home/der-landtag/fraktionen.html
Landtag website for the state of Saxony-Anhalt. This website included a section for each party represented in the Landtag with statistics, including the number of members, Party Chair and Deputy Party Chair, and administrative information. Source: https://www.landtag.sachsen-anhalt.de/landtag/fraktionen/afd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Landtag website for the state of Schleswig-Holstein. This website included a breakdown of the most recent election results (and the date of that election), including the number of seats each party occupies and the percentage of the Landtag that constitutes. The website also includes a disclaimer about the overhang mandate, in which the CDU lost one seat because of Germany’s mixed-member-proportional representation system. The CDU’s primary vote was higher than the secondary vote, so the SPD, AfD, and SSW all received a “compensatory mandate,” which makes the party representation more closely match election results. Source: https://www.landtag.ltsh.de/parlament/der-19-lt/

Digitization removes traditional barriers that come with studying history, including cost, distance, and accessibility, which is especially exclusionary for people with disabilities.  However, as I was researching for my undergraduate thesis, I discovered that the availability of digital sources removes some, but not all, barriers.  Certain obstacles, like cost, still exist in digital form but take on a new appearance, no longer manifesting as the cost of travel and lodging to see the physical documents or monuments, but now as paywalls that prevent access to books, journals, newspapers, and databases.  The same is true with inaccessibility, no longer old cities and historical sites that are difficult for people with physical disabilities to comfortably navigate, now as inadequate digitization, whether that’s poor scan quality with no legible supplement or simply a failure to provide a source that is understandable without specialization and training in that field.  This includes, of course, sans serif fonts in lieu of Fraktur script, but one thing I was very grateful for during thesis research was the author and translator notes about particular words, actions, or attitudes during a specific time period that explained the relevant contextual background, something the staff at German History in Documents and Images does an excellent job of including in their documents.  The changes we make to our digital sources don’t have to be monumental in order to break down these barriers, and they may seem inconsequential to us, but they make a world of difference to many.  Digitization has already done so much to broaden the confines of historical study, but it is imperative to keep diversifying the voices in the digital scholar community so that we do not continue to ostracize the most marginalized among us from the discipline.  Increasing access to digital tools will help to improve traditional methods of historical research, which will allow the field to grow and diversify and enhance both teaching and research.