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Interview about German Federal Archives Portal „Weimar: Die erste deutsche Demokratie“ [Weimar: The First German Democracy]


The German Bundesarchiv (Federal Archives of Germany) launched the portal „Weimar: Die erste deutsche Demokratie“ [Weimar: The First German Democracy] in March 2018. The portal offers access to thousands of digitized records, maps, photographs, films, audio recordings, and posters from the Weimar Republic, with new materials being added on an ongoing basis. Href interviewed Vera Zahnhausen* about the portal, which is one of the major recent digital initiatives of the Bundesarchiv. –Editorial note, href.

What sparked the development of „Weimar: die erste deutsche Demokratie”?

We realized that the upcoming centennial of the November Revolution of 1918 and subsequent centennial anniversaries commemorating the Weimar Republic would draw considerable public attention to this period in German history.

The Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives), as “custodian” of significant and unique historical sources documenting that period, wanted to seize this opportunity and direct the attendant public attention toward the “treasures” that are housed in the archives. At the same time, we hope that the project will enhance the overall public perception of the Bundesarchiv as one of the most important institutions for preserving history and cultural memory in the Federal Republic. We also hope that making digitized sources available on the internet will lead to greater collaboration with universities and research projects. We have already started forging stronger ties with other archives and projects, for example with the Verein Weimarer Republik (https://www.weimarer-republik.net/5-0-Verein.html) in the city of Weimar. Finally, and not least, the Bundesarchiv hopes that the new Weimar Republic portal will attract new users, while strengthening the bonds with existing users.

Which criteria influenced the selection of materials that have been digitized and published online since the portal’s launch? Which specific themes, genres, and types of materials did you choose to include in the portal?

Reichskanzlei Akten betreffend Vollzugsrat des Arbeiter- und Soldatenrats, November 1918-December 1919, R 43/2482

We have digitized textual sources as well as audio sources, maps, films, and photographs. When selecting the sources, we initially focused on the period from 1919 to 1924, but we plan to cover the subsequent years of the Weimar Republic as well. We concentrated on four thematic focal points: first, the radical transformation of the political system (the November Revolution, elections, and the Weimar Constitution, but also political violence and radicalization); second, the reorientation of the Reich’s domestic policy (the social and economic situation, demobilization, and coping with the consequences and aftermath of the war); third, the reorientation of foreign policy (the Armistice, the seizure of territories, the Rapallo and Locarno Treaties, as well as war debts and hyperinflation); and fourth, social and economic changes (the role of women, the development of modern mass media, etc.). Given the large volume of textual materials at the Bundesarchiv, it was inevitable that we would focus on the so called Leitbestände, anchor collections, for example the record group “Reichskanzlei,” Reich Chancellery, where information from the Reich’s various administrative departments is mirrored in the documents of a centralized office. For select questions and themes, we also digitized files from subordinate administrative units, and also from personal papers that are part of the Bundesarchiv collections. Only a limited amount of film and audio footage from the Weimar Republic has been preserved. When it came to those materials, we focused on sources that are in the public domain, since they can be digitized and made available online without any legal restrictions. We took a similar approach to photographs: Prior to the project, many of the relevant Weimar-era photographs were already available online through the Bundesarchiv’s image database. We made an effort to complete this collection for the portal. In general, we prioritized digitizing heavily used sources to preserve the originals.

Which user groups are the primary audiences for the portal?

Digital sources have become increasingly interesting for scholarly research. This is particularly the case when a significant volume of digital surrogates are made available online, thereby making a visit to the physical archives, if not unnecessary, then at least shorter and easier. Still with this project, we hope to  reach beyond scholars and journalists, who — as experts in the areas of research and interpretation–frequently find their way into the archives anyway. We also hope to attract new user groups, such as high school, and college and university students, as well as interested members of the public, who haven’t had any previous contact with archival collections.

What has been the public response to the portal so far?

So far, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly the response to the Wahlkompass, the Election Compass 1919.  [The Election Compass 1919 is an interactive game where users can choose between positions of the parties represented in the Weimar National Assembly.] Most of the negative feedback has been directed at the presentation of archival materials through invenio (the Bundesarchiv research and presentation platform) and we certainly realize that there is need for improvement there.

Are there certain sources or collections that are of particularly broad interest?

The feedback about the digitized film materials was especially positive, particularly the film Anna Müller-Lincke kandidiert (Anna Müller-Lincke Runs for Public Office), which can be accessed directly through the portal. The film, which was produced by the Reichszentrale für Heimatdienst (Reich Central Offices for Homeland Services), advocated for the participation in the 1919 elections for the National Assembly. Anna Müller-Lincke, a fairly well-known actress at the time, played the lead role of Amanda Himmelfahrt, a candidate planning to run for a seat in the National Assembly.  

Screenshots from Anna Müller-Lincke kandidiert (1919), BArch, Filmnummer 4514

Does the selection include sources or collections that are available in English translations as well?

The portal does not include any English translations of the sources [with the exception of the film materials, which include English language summaries.] Considering the volume of holdings at the archives, translation would only be possible in a few selected cases. To maintain the authenticity and integrity of the archival materials, the sources have to be presented in their original form. Scholarly interpretation and translation are not part of the responsibility of an archive. 

Did the Bundesarchiv collaborate with high schools and universities to develop the various thematic modules?

An internal project team, which consisted of members of the academic research staff and subject specialists from almost all Bundesarchiv units, developed the thematic modules. While we did not collaborate with schools and universities during that phase, we hope to do so during the further development of the site. We have already established initial contacts. For example, as part of a University of Hamburg seminar that utilized digitized sources from the Bundesarchiv, students performed a source critical analysis of a document and this analysis, in turn, was integrated into the portal’s Quellen Mind-Maps (Source Mind Maps) section of the portal, which offers systematic guidance for the critical analysis of historical sources.

Excerpt from a mind map analyzing the November 9, 1918 Philipp Scheidemann speech proclaiming Germany a republic.

How important are, in general, pedagogical programs for the work of the Bundesarchiv? How have these programs evolved over the past 10 to 15 years?

At the Rastatt and Ludwigsburg locations in particular, the Bundesarchiv has developed a focus on pedagogical programs in museums and archives. At the Rastatt memorial, professional history educators teach groups of teenagers and young adults about “freedom movements in the 19th century” and “freedom movements in the GDR.” At the Ludwigsburg location (where the files of West Germany’s main agency for investigating Nazi war crimes in the postwar period — the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes are made accessible, the Bundesarchiv cooperates with a teacher to educate visitors about National Socialist crimes and the response to those crimes in the Federal Republic. Currently, given the considerable backlog in processing archival materials, other Bundesarchiv locations are unable to focus primarily on educational programming. The Bundesarchiv’s limited holdings of local materials, which often provide a helpful angle for developing educational programs, is another challenge that complicates archival pedagogy at many other locations.

The portal includes two exciting interactive elements (Wahlkompass 1919/Spiel der Lebenswege). What sparked this idea?

In the course of developing the portal, we realized that the Bundesarchiv has to explore new methods of education and outreach if we hope to attract new users. The idea for the Election Compass and for Spiel der Lebenswege (Life Courses: A Game) originated in our cooperation with the Verein Weimarer Republik and with the consultants from the Team Musealis, a firm specializing in developing museum exhibitions. Musealis eventually conceptualized the two interactive components of the portal.  

The president of the Bundesarchiv, Dr. Michael Hollmann, emphasized in an interview that at this point just a small segment of Bundesarchiv collections have been digitized, and published online as digital surrogates beyond the finding aid information. How does the Bundesarchiv represent the relationship between digitized and analog materials? How do you integrate the digital surrogates into their collection contexts?

Currently, slightly more than 1% of the textual materials at the Bundesarchiv have been digitized; the volume of digitized images is only marginally higher. The digitization of moving images in accordance with archival preservation standards results in extremely large volumes of data, with digital storage infrastructures struggling to keep pace. Prioritizing (with respect to digitizing of materials) are therefore inevitable; at the same time, they are also essential given  that the Bundesarchiv collections include a large volumes of materials that have never been used (by researchers). The preservation of collection contexts, especially in the digital world, is of primary importance to the Bundesarchiv, as it facilitates the understanding and analysis of sources.  The digital surrogates are accessible through the Bundesarchiv research system invenio. Invenio includes information on the respective collections, records and files and follows a thematic and chronological structure. Invenio presents the information on the records and files in context, and the digital surrogates are attached to the metadata about the respective records and files.

Are there digitized collections about the Weimar Republic that are not published through the portal?

So far, all of collections that we have digitized for the Weimar portal have been scheduled for online publication as well. In a few exceptional cases, we may decide not to publish a digitized source for privacy or copyright reasons. In such cases, the digital surrogate can only be accessed on site, with permission, in one of the Bundesarchiv reading rooms. In the future, we hope to make such materials accessible online on the basis of an individualized permission system through an eID.

What opportunities does the publication and presentation of the digital collections about the Weimar Republic open up for the Bundesarchiv?

Mainly, we hope that it offers us the chance to disseminate these important historical sources and to increase the awareness about them. The sheer wealth of information available on the internet can undermine the –frequently challenging– engagement with primary sources in research and instruction. By making primary sources available on the internet, we hope to make it easier for as many researchers and users, who will have the opportunity to analyze and evaluate primary sources directly.

What are the challenges of digitizing such a great volume of materials?

The digitization process requires complex logistical planning and preparation, and is based on set parameters, such as technical standards determining file formats and quality. A major project like this requires considerable personnel resources. This is why the Bundesarchiv cooperated with external service providers to digitize the films and textual records. The biggest challenge, however, is managing the gigantic data volume produced by the digitization, preserving this data based on professional standards, and preparing the files for online presentation.

Do smaller initiatives comparable to the Weimar Portal exist at state and local archives as well? If so, does the Bundesarchiv cooperate with these archives to support the publication of digital collections about the Weimar Republic?

The Baden-Württemberg state archives realized the project “Von der Monarchie zur Republik” [”From the Monarchy to the Republic”], which makes digitized sources available through the state portal LEO-BW. The Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, the Bundesarchiv, the German National Library and the FIZ Karlsruhe are cooperating in the development of a thematic access point to the Archivportal D (the national portal for Germany’s archival institutions) highlighting collections about the Weimar Republic. Several exhibition projects on the Weimar Republic have been organized at the communal level. The Verein Weimarer Republik has been particularly active in coordinating a network of initiatives.

Which additional collections can users anticipate in the coming months?

In the next months, we will publish a second set of digitized film materials from the Weimar Republic. It includes approximately fifty documentary films or film fragments particularly from Wochenschauen (weekly newsreels), which will be made available through the Bundesarchiv’s film portal. We will also present additional digitized textual sources, for example records from the Reichsinnenministerium [Reich Interior Ministry], about the strikes and unrest in November 1918. German weekly newsreel Messter Woche number 48, 1918, accessible through the German federal film archives. 

Which aspects of the work on the portal did you particularly enjoy?

For me, it was especially exciting to work with so many different types of sources — textual materials, films, audio, maps and photographs. In an archive as large as the Bundesarchiv, staff members usually work in one department, in a very specialized area. I also enjoyed collaborating with so many colleagues from many different departments to develop new presentation forms, while thinking outside of the box.

Thank you very much for taking the time and effort to do this interview!

* Vera Zahnhausen is a staff member of the “Grundsatzabteilung” (general policies division) of the Bundesarchiv, where she is working in the department responsible for strategic planning and archival policies. Since 2015, she leads the digital initiative “Weimar–die erste deutsche Demokratie.”

Interview by Katharina Hering, edited and translated by the Href editorial team: Kelly McCullough, Atiba Pertilla, Katharina Hering