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Memory in the Digital Age: First World War and Its Representation on the Web

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In preparation for the centenary of 1914, a great deal of new sources and new information are being made available online as part of various projects. The selection of materials reflects the importance of the war for the national or regional remembrance and self-understanding. The materials as such are still fragmented and research through digital methods is possible only to a limited extent. The importance attached to the online availability of sources varies substantially between countries. The idea, on the one hand, that historical knowledge is ubiquitous in the digital era, and the amount of information available on the other hand, distort our perception of the value of the preserved materials, their actual relevance, and their geographical and institutional distribution.

The increasing digitization being carried out in various disciplines by individuals and institutions has contributed to the intensification and visualization of numerous historical discourses in recent years. As the centenary of the outbreak of World War I is about to be celebrated, the focus of research and the public attention has been particularly on this war, which entered the cultural memory of Europe and the world as the “Great War” and the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century (George F. Kennan). Memory of the first great war has changed over the past century. However, War World I has not lost its relevance to the individual and collective sphere of memories, as shown by the ongoing lively discussion on particular aspects and the general phenomenon of the war. This is partly due to media dissemination and availability. It is especially visual content, such as movies and photographs which easily lodges in the cultural memory, because of its direct visual impact. This process is also facilitated by the digital format of the materials available on the Internet, sometimes as materials in the public domain. Other forms of sources which pertain to the important events in the national and international context of 1914–1918 are being increasingly digitized, and the choice of materials and events for remembering indicates the self-images of those who remember.

In preparation for the centenary of 1914, a variety of new (source) information is being made available online as part of various national, European, and global projects, in the form of digitized materials or documents (EFG, EFG1914, 2013–07–15), virtual museum galleries, compilations of historical and socio-historical data, or selections of pre-existing archival material (IWM1914, 2013–05–16). A number of institutions and associations of institutions are mobilizing their workforces to provide researchers and the general public with access to condensed and interconnected information on the state of research and to sources related to World War I, using existing digital methods and practices, all on theme-based sites (CENDARI, FWWS, 2013–05–30). Numerous archives, libraries and museums are digitizing their collections and making them available (KS1914–1918, 2013–07–13). New virtual research communities are being created, becoming very active in publishing online articles, reports, and blogs about individual aspects of First World War research and offering links to other websites (GrandeGuerre; Calenda; WW1Centenary, 2013–07–21).

Information and sources

It is hardly possible to provide an overview of the past, present, and planned activities. Numerous conferences are to be held in the coming years, and there are a great number of publications and new research projects in progress. Hence, the visibility of individual initiatives might decrease. A systematic overview is not conceivable at the moment, though preparations for summer 2014 and the following years are now going full speed. We can, however, reflect on the developments so far, which have enhanced – or even initiated – the increase in online information resources relevant to research, the culture of memory, and remembrance policy. In this context, it is the secondary information on historical sources – and the digitized historical sources themselves – whose online publication is particularly worth analyzing. The online presence and visibility of remembrance might allow the regional cultures of memory to be considered (e.g. the case of Australians and New Zealanders, but also that of British and German officials). On the other hand, online publications might result in a (new) imbalance in the knowledge and understanding of the existing historical sources relating to World War I. This could, as implied by the principle “on the Internet – in the world,” result in determining and limiting research focuses and interests and, consequently, lead to a narrowing of “collective memory” (Moller 2010; Erll 2011, 5f, 41ff.). A one-sided visibility creates an imbalance: aspects and historical sources relevant to the memory of events remain unseen as they find no representation on the Internet. It should be noted here that the presence and the activities of specific “communicators of memory” largely depend on the financial and human resources at their disposal, and more resources might be allocated when the events – or War World I in this case – play a central role in the “collective memory.”

The memory (memories) of World War I

What kind of a war do we remember? This question is directly related to how we remember and document past events and, consequently, it is particularly relevant in the context of the digital sources. The national narratives of the Great War differ, depending on the war experience and its consequences (White 1990, 1ff., 27ff.; Reimann 2004). Therefore it makes sense to have at least a cursory look at the preparations for the 1914 anniversary from a regional, national, and international perspective. This will make it possible to see how current research approaches relate to the range of digitized primary and secondary sources, and to use this knowledge to comment on the preparations.

The duration of World War I differed in various regions, and so did the impact of the war, both in terms of the army and the civilians. The moments and sites of memory which have been created reflect this imbalance. In many national narratives, the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century tends to be perceived as a “seminal event,” an event that triggered developments, or as an identity-building turn in the historical reorientation process. The collective experience did not result in a collective narration: the war experience preserved its specific regional or national character. The battles of attrition in France, the infringement of Belgium’s neutrality, the mobilization of Commonwealth forces from Australia, New Zealand, or Canada for a geographically distant war overseas – all this shaped the general perception of the event and produced the central issues for the public memory in a given country, which often correspond to the private identity. The problem begins with the differences in defining the dates of World War I. The assassination in Sarajevo is, admittedly, generally accepted as the direct cause of the conflict. However, the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 might also be perceived, depending on one’s point of view, as a directly related historical context and the origin of the global conflict (Becker und Kutbay 2013). In some countries, 11 November 1918 is commemorated as the Armistice Day, whereas in the United Kingdom it is celebrated as Remembrance Day. On the other hand, it is ANZAC Day on 25 April that is observed in Australia, New Zealand, and Tonga. This day of remembrance, a national holiday since as early as 1927, commemorates the landing at Gallipoli and the battle of 1915 which inflicted heavy losses. In Poland, on the other hand, since 1937/1989 11 November has been celebrated as National Independence Day, the anniversary of the restoration of the Polish state, even though it was not until 1921, after the end of the Polish-Soviet War, that Poland’s eastern borders were established by the Peace of Riga. For Germany, the armistice of Compiègne was seen as a huge failure – and one which the Germans did not consider to be their fault for many years. However, the memory of Compiègne faded after 1945, supplanted by World War II (Mommsen 2004, 200ff). In the Soviet Union, the end of the war was not commemorated after the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk of 1917. Instead, it was the victorious revolution which was celebrated for many years, though it took some time to deal with the vision of the revolution as a “conspiracy” (RussiaWW1, 2013–07–29). Similarly, it was neither the long years of hardship nor the loss of the status of a major power that became the cornerstone for the Turkish national remembrance policy after the end of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, the remembrance policy would focus on the war of liberation of 1919–1923, also called a revolutionary war, which later developed into “elitist Kemalism,” while still claiming and preserving the power to interpret and construct memory (Plaggenborg 2012, 69ff.; Akin 2013; NAQ 2013). Furthermore, it is well known that the genocide of the Armenians has had a special status in the official narrative (Akçam 2012, 227ff. 373ff.). This list of historical narratives could be extended to describe the specific situations of the Baltic States, Ukraine, Greece, Belgium, Sweden, and the United States. The multiplicity of narratives concerning the significance of World War I finds its reflection in historiography, and new moments of memory may be created in the process of historical research. The general perception of the war and, consequently, its public image and interpretation, have undergone fundamental changes. This is even more true now, when eyewitnesses are no longer among us, and World War I is gradually becoming a thing of the past, a closed series of events. The narratives are fairly constant, yet not inflexible. The “war enthusiasm,” the Augusterlebnis (“August experience”), and the “Spirit of 1914” have already been deconstructed in many countries (Becker 1977; Kruse 1991, 73f.; Verhey 2000; Pennell 2012). In Germany in particular, dealing with “the question of responsibility for the war” resulted in a heated debate and the famous “Fischer controversy” of the 1960s (Fischer 2000 [1961]; Große Kracht 2005, 47ff.; Große Kracht 2004). New research questions emerged that refuted the image of Germany as an innocent participant in the war, which had previously been generally accepted among the Germans.

National and European remembrance

Though some researchers adapt comparative approaches and focus on world relations and interdependences in experiencing and coming to terms with phenomena, the hermeneutic approach to the culture of memory of World War I continues to exist (Krammeritsch 2009, 1f, 6f.). The narratives can be most easily contextualized if they are presented in the traditional way, which by no means meets the demands of “transnationality” or “globality.” Memory of World War I is still fragmented, mostly at the national level, but also in regional terms, and the provision of information is, in most cases, limited to nations, and to institutions as well, as the fragmentation results not only from the multiplicity of national narratives, but also from administrative responsibilities. Nevertheless, such institutional, political, or conceptual limitations can be overcome through virtual links, which allow them to complement, extend, and transnationalize information. The question therefore arises as to whether the new “digital history” will create the necessary preconditions for national memory to acquire a European, or even a global dimension. Will it allow or facilitate access to other lines of research and, most importantly, to other historical sources?

There is no shortage of initiatives created to pursue this approach. Besides the above-mentioned scientific, private, and public sites, making it possible for the community of professional or amateur historians to exchange information, there are projects that seek to create platforms for working together to make primary information available beyond state and institutional borders. Even though World War I is not always in the focus, all the projects still contribute to the digitization and the on-line publication process of sources relevant to this topic. The projects are of limited duration and their future is often unclear. A lasting solution to the problem of the long-term preservation of digital information is yet to be found, but every project gives us hope that we are getting closer. At the European level, three main aggregator projects of great public impact can be identified, all three of which seek to contribute to transnationality and to the public or open access to archival data: Europeana Collections, European Film Gateway EFG1914, and Archives Portal Europe (APEx).

The Europeana Collections 1914–18 project (as opposed to Europeana 1914– 1918, focusing on family memorabilia from World War I) aims to present digital war collections from ten European libraries in 2014. This means making around 400,000 “sources” available to the public, including books and diaries, newspapers, maps, children’s literature, photographs, posters, pamphlets, and leaflets (EC1914–1918, 2013–07–26). These are partly archival materials, even though archival institutions as such do not participate in this subproject. The whole process is voluntary and it is the libraries which decide on the choice of materials for digitization. The collections of the National Library of Serbia, presented in the form of a virtual exhibition, with a great variety of visual materials and fewer texts, are a good example here (SNB, 2013–07–18).

EFG1914, on the other hand, presently includes as many as around 780 documents available on-line: newsreels, documentaries, and feature films relating to World War I, as well as film-related written materials, hailing from twenty-one European (film) archives in fifteen European countries, including Denmark, Belgium, Austria, Germany, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Estonia (EFG1914, 2013–07–15). The list of the movies available on-line can be found on the website of the project (EFG1914-Titles, 2013–07–26). All in all, it is a great repository, a veritable treasure trove which opens up the very much neglected medium of film for researchers and for all those interested, and also provides the users with contextual metadata. Still, EFG1914 is far from presenting all the relevant materials and important historical information. Once again, it is the institutions themselves which decide on participation in the project and the choice of materials to be made available.

The goal of APEx is quite different: first of all, the project is not devoted to World War I. Secondly, it defines itself as a “single access point” for European archival research. In the light of cooperation with national archives from twenty-eight European states, this appears justifiable (APEx, APEnet, 2013–07–18; Jeller 2013, 96f). Like other initiatives, the project strives to extend its cooperation, both in the geographical and the institutional sense, which should lead to an increase in the amount of information available. In compliance with the archival standards for cataloguing and accessibility, the portal offers access to source guides and finding aids, along with both simple and hierarchical search functions with respect to individual countries, institutions, as well as specific funds and collections. Those users who are familiar with how the archive materials are structured will be able to find materials relating to World War I in the categories. If need be, one can also consult the dates of files; at the moment, the Archives Portal Europe includes no audio-visual materials.

These are only a few projects out of many. Numerous institutions – archives, libraries, and museums – have already put information about their collections online, either individually or in cooperation with other institutions (from the same country or region), or they are working on the presentation of war-related archival materials at the moment. Here we might mention only a few projects of this kind. The US National Archives and Records Administration, for instance, works in cooperation with regional archives and other institutions from the Washington D. C. area (ARC, 2013–07–18). Several years ago, Belgian archivists created a comprehensive inventory of relevant funds and collections of nearly all the Belgian institutions and published it as a PDF file (Vanden Bosch et. al., 2010). The Imperial War Museum from the UK set up online galleries which include not only descriptions of the items (documents, movies, photographs), but also excerpts from audio-visual materials. Moreover, in cooperation with JISC and the Wellcome Trust the museum published a list of war-related collections in British institutions (JISC-WW1, 2013–07–25). The Austrian National Library, on the other hand, works on digitizing numerous newspapers and magazines, including those published in 1914–18. Digital copies of many issues are now fully available on-line (ANNO, 2013–07–17). A similar project has been initiated by the National Library of Poland in cooperation with the Warsaw University Library. The number of digitized Polish magazines is not large yet, but it is on the rise (E-KCP, 2013–07–17). The Arbeitsgemeinschaft deutscher Regionalbibliotheken (a working group in the German Library Association dbv, concerned specifically with regional libraries) aims to publish their “war collections” by 2014. These include not only war literature, but also “field and trench newspapers from the front area, prints from military hospitals and prison camps, newspapers from occupied areas and the “homeland press” published by communities, associations, schools, companies or congregations for front-line soldiers,” as well as “war maps, posters and leaflets, photographs, letters and diaries from the front, remains of the war economy such as emergency money and food ration cards,” along with “vivat ribbons, postcards, commemorative coins, postmarks and porcelain pieces with war motifs” (BLB, 2013–07–18). Archives are compiling lists of their war-related sources in the form of thematic guides and inventories (LA-NRW, 2013–07–29; Menzel 2013). General information on World War I has also been published in Germany as part of a special scientific web site (Clio, 2013–07–16).

Once again we find a great deal of digital information in various forms and implementations, a fragmented, regionally-oriented mass of data in which no transnational systematization can be identified whatsoever: isolated, manageable collections, visually attractive materials, along with archival systems and inventories. All of this information offers numerous possibilities for linking and complementing at the regional, national, and international level, at the public or official level, or for private use and processing. How to introduce links and cross-references, and whether they will be introduced at all – this is yet to be decided.

Private and the public remembrance

The topic of online sources relating to World War I is still far from being exhausted. On the one hand, some archival sources are made available for private purposes, such as genealogy and family history, but also the history of everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte). Lists of the fallen, soldiers, and war prisoners can be found, for instance, on the websites of British, Australian, and New Zealand national institutions (IWMLives; NA-OC; NA-YA; NAA; ANZ; CWGC, 2013–07–17), or the website of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium (IFF, 2013–07–17). Furthermore, private documents are published on rather well-ordered, institutionally run sites or, at least, on public domain websites, which are reasonably clear and verifiable, and offer critical analyses of sources. Once again, we have to make a clear distinction. On the one hand, there are initiatives run by archives such as the US National Archives, which provide clear information on the origin and license of the ‘crowdsourced’ materials (NARA, 2013–07–18). On the other hand, we can find sites which apply the same methodology to the publication of highly diverse and fragmented materials in the public domain, as exemplified by the above-mentioned Europeana 1914–1918 project (World War I in everyday documents; Europeana 1914–1918, 2013–07–18) and the Great War Archive, where anyone interested can share their family stories, along with documents which illustrate them (GWA, 2013–07–19). Here we should also mention the considerable (audio)visual resources of Wikimedia Commons, which, according to their own information, consist of over 17 million data files, including thematic collections on topics such as “World War I” or “Russian Revolution,” published either in the public domain with no copyright restrictions, or under various free licenses (WikiMedia, 2013–07–19). Nevertheless, the use of these online collections can be extremely problematic, as the conflict with the German Federal Archives in Koblenz has shown. In 2010, after numerous cases of copyright violation of photographs from their collections, the Federal Archives parted ways with the site (Kilb 2011).

The discussion about this kind of public history, which “considers the public as a reference to its practice” and tries to function as “a bridge between the process of dealing with the past in the society, the academic way of producing historical knowledge, and the politically motivated reinforcement of collective stories” (Tomann et. al. 2011, 11f.), has already started among experts who, however, have not placed particular emphasis on the digital aggravation of the problem. In the context of World War I, the attempt to engage the general public in the historical work, to preserve the authoritative power of interpretation belonging to memory institutions and to provide an academically sound methodological and theoretical basis for the general participation in cultural remembrance activities take on a particular importance. The temporal distance paired with the lasting public impact of World War I make it a remarkable case for applied history and for questions related to the way private and public memories are handled and produced. The protection periods of the archived materials have mostly expired, especially in terms of personal data protection. The issues of copyrights and rights of exploitation can also be usually solved beyond any doubt. Private genealogical research is booming and bringing new needs into play. The undying interest in the history of everyday life, “the history of ordinary people,” that of veterans and invalids, of the home front in general or the role of women in particular, contributes to the process of reselecting and reevaluating available sources. Therefore, the documents presented often take into account the current popularity and development of specialist and amateur history. The recorded memory acts as a link between what was experienced, what was handed down, and what was constructed. It prescinds from national or even global perspectives and breaks down major events to private memories and sources.

Rudimentary metadata on the provenance and the item at least to some extent provides a methodological approach. However, more and more databanks and fora are being created as a result of private initiatives. These include, most importantly, genealogical source collections, but family stories are also made public by means of private documents (e.g. ICEM; Fourteeneighteen; LLT; Iten; Ancestry, 2013–07–21). Private materials often create vivid impressions of “the war behind the great war” and offer sources that cannot be found in any archives, as they are stored in private cases and photo albums. The critical evaluation of these sources seems, however, to pose a problem, not least because of their eclectic randomness, which is difficult to grasp with scientific methods: it is by no means a representative selection, and its usability for research purposes remains questionable (Stahlgewitter, 2013–07–19).

The reliability of this kind of sources, regardless of whether they belong to institutional or private collections, is limited also in another respect. Although digital files do not replace the original documents or movies, and the material sources stored in archival institutions can compensate for the unverifiability of digital sources, the constant data migration, which often results in a loss of information, makes it more difficult to provide references to specific sources. Links function only for a limited period of time, references to sources used become obsolete after several years. Digital technology is in a constant state of development, and proprietary formats with no built- in solutions for sustainability are used. Their usability depends on the will and existence of the companies that control and maintain them. This adds to the instability of available information and reduces its reference value.

However, the popularity of digital information is relevant, especially now, when the celebration of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I begins. The existence and diversity of digital information indicates the interdependency between the use of historical material on the one hand, and its availability or dissemination on the other. The increasing demand for specific types of sources correlates with their priority in various digitization projects; at the same time, however, the digital availability of these types of sources may result in their increased visibility (Hettling and Echterkamp 2013, 11ff; Terzieva 2013).

Availability vs. unavailability, or mass vs. quality

In this digital dialectic, narratives of memory meet sources of memory. It would be an oversimplification to interpret official digital information resources on the Internet as just a service for the interested public. On the other hand, digital resources are often in compliance with some of the official precepts of remembrance policy, which in turn are shaped by public opinion, research, and politics, with all the upswings and downturns, and the whole restructuring process that has taken place in recent decades. Creating a comprehensive system is desirable, yet not viable for the time being, neither at the national nor the transnational level. Identifying priorities by means of more or less transparent selection criteria is therefore a must if we want to have at least a basic overview of existing materials. Despite the fragmentation, such an overview would reflect the range and diversity of the historical material relevant to World War I. The context of the available fragments of memories is, however, not always evident. It is not rare for projects and institutions to publish information about the share of digitized collection items in the entire archive contents. The National Archives in the UK have digitized about 5% of its contents so far (NA-OR, 2013–07–14), the German Federal Archives claim to have a “representative selection of over 200,000 pictures” out of the total number of eleven million (BA-DB, 2013–07–29). Details of the written materials are not provided. In Poland, seven million scans of documents from all the Polish archives have been recently put into one central state archive, the National Digital Archives, and another set of two million scans is scheduled for 2013 (NAC; Szukaj, 2013–07–24). The website of the initiative features a sample of around 200,000 documents, mostly photographs, which, at the moment, translates into a bit more than 1% of the entire archive contents, with a tendency toward growth (NAC-online, 2013–07–24). Nevertheless, the data usually lack topic-related specifications, and users cannot determine how much material relating to World War I is actually available. Moreover, the material included in the digital collections varies considerably, and includes not only the actual digitized items, such as documents or photographs, but also digitized finding aids and inventories, i.e. lists with titles of files or photographs, without the respective content in a digital form.

The information that seventeen million data files can be found on Wiki- Commons is also very confusing and deprived of any context, as it does not allow us to draw any conclusions as to how many millions of items have yet to be digitized. Analogously, the participation of ten national libraries in the Europeana Collections project allows us only to determine and narrow down the integrated information, but it does not give any overview on those collections which have not been included in the project.

It not infrequently happens that large amounts of information conceal the fact that all the relevant data cannot be found online. There is so much material available (despite its fragmentation) that it has already become unmanageable, and because of the numerous parallel research possibilities we already have, it is easy to overlook what has yet to be published. In other words, you see such a massive amount of data that you no longer notice what you cannot see.

The unavailability of information on relevant materials means that we face the danger of considering whatever is available in digital form as conclusive. The selection of relevant information may reflect certain valid political or scientific criteria, which thus reproduce themselves and reduce room for innovation, new questions, and research. National images are perpetuated, valid theories and methods are applied and reinforced. The selection and structure of available materials depend on the relevance of the World War for the regional and national historiography.

Therefore, the question must be asked which criteria we adopt, and what significance we attach to respective archival sources when deciding on the digitization and publication of materials. It is also important to discuss the gaps and to indicate clearly the context of online collections, not only in the historical and critical sense, but also simply by means of numbers and statistics. Digital information does not replace the war-related physical material which is stored on the shelves of archives, waiting for someone to discover, interpret, digitize, and publish it – material existing in such quantities that achieving full digital availability in the national and international context might be impossible.

It should be mentioned that these gaps of unavailability are of a diverse nature. On the one hand, there are “perfectly normal” gaps caused by war, destruction, theft, and other disasters. Historical research must be able to come to terms with the gaps of this kind, and has indeed learned how to do this; they are part of the discipline. On the other hand, we have gaps in the presentation of digital information. It is true that archives and other institutions are not allowed to put online materials which generally cannot be published – partially or in full – due to their legal status, i.e. because they contain personal or copyright-protected data. However, as various portals offer the chance to see how various items relate to each other, it seems highly relevant to include the information about the items which are part of a given collection or a set of data but have not been made available.

In terms of the materials relating to World War I, the legal restrictions, at least concerning archival protection periods, are limited. Due to the time that has elapsed since their creation, written records related to individuals have become freely accessible. Questions of copyrights, rights of exploitation and use, which apply especially to audio and visual materials, are more difficult to examine.1

Finally, there is yet another kind of gap: digitization gaps, which may be the easiest ones to fill by means of technology, but at the same time they require the greatest amount of time, and human and financial resources. For legal reasons institutions are allowed to digitize only on their own, as outsourcing could, depending on the contract with a proprietary company, result in the loss of rights to the digital version, or even to the material as such. Archives and libraries are not authorized to make such decisions, and it cannot be in their interest to lose control over archival information as a result.

In view of the large amounts of stored materials, the comprehensive and systematic digitization and publication of all archival sources, with or without thematic profiles, at the institutional or at the national level, can hardly be seen as a goal. It is necessary to make a selection. Anniversaries offer at least a starting point for the selection. Still, the digitization of archival materials involves the digitization of context materials, i.e. metadata. It is mostly about presenting classifications, special hierarchical lists (Tektonikbäume), and finding aids for respective collections, which include the information about the origin, creators (creating institutions), content, and titles of items (e.g. files). Thematic guides and inventories which show whether the existing collections are relevant to World War I – like the above-mentioned Belgian project or the inventory of the Westphalia branch in the archives in North Rhine-Westphalia – already reveal how extensive each of the thematic compilations is supposed to be. In nearly all collections which include items dating back to 1914–1918 (or 1912–1913/1919–1921), we can find historical materials relating to World War I, its causes and consequences. These might be useful depending on our research interests and questions, as well as trends in historiography, which we can hardly anticipate. If we know where we can find the material we need, it obviously adds to its visibility and usability. However, behind each and every title in all the finding guides and inventories of all institutions there is a document or, often enough, a set of documents, a specific administrative file which describes a specific administrative process. The file may comprise several hundred pages – and every page would be an object of digitization. This simple calculation makes it clear that most documents, files, reports, letters, and orders will still be available for examination and intellectual work exclusively on-site, and not on the ubiquitous Internet. The availability of isolated digital versions of representative written materials, declarations of war and peace treaties, only proves this rule, and the digitization process of this material is not free of redundancies, not least because it is multilingual.

Therefore, in the digitization process of single archival items the preference has been given so far to visual media (Europeana 1914–1918; LOC-WW1; NLS; BfZ, BA-PD, 2013–07–25). No matter how high its resolution is, a three-hundred-page file, which makes you click over and over again to open one digitized page after another, is no competition for the kind of direct visual availability that posters, photographs, maps, plans, or movies offer. Besides their quantitative manageability, these historical items bring yet another advantage: they appear to be immediately accessible, even though they cannot, by definition, be treated as information separate from the context description: the time or place of creation, other details of origin, and the content. The authentication of these items, a task carried out traditionally by archives, has been made even more difficult due to digital processing. There is no need to discuss the possibility of manipulating digital images here. At any rate, visual materials rely much less on textuality, whereas the multilingual nature of written sources determines – and will always determine – their usability.

Searching and finding on the Internet

It is clear that all fora, portals and digital collections offer only what is already available as digital information. Some countries take active part in the digitization and publication process, whereas others have, at least so far, been somewhat reluctant. The costs are huge, and the financial participation of different institutions and countries varies tremendously, depending both on economic considerations and the general cultural or political status of the event known as “World War I” and the related archive material in the public eye.

Therefore, (at least) two questions must be posed. The first one is: What do we actually find online, and how much of all the data is available? Or, in other words, what can we do in order to remember all the material that is not available online, but can be accessed otherwise? And the second question is: What searching possibilities can we introduce to the existing material so that, in the mass of information, we can find what we are looking for – and maybe also what we are not looking for? This is also, implicitly, a question of old and new orders of knowledge, as different domains of knowledge meet in digital space, representing different “logics” of cataloguing and browsing: archive and library, historians and humanities scholars, technicians or computer scientists, laymen and experts.

As in the case of the analogue organization of information, digital information services can only be as good as the recorded and searchable information, as good as material indexing and the range and granularity of the metadata produced. Information linking, connecting published data to authority files, with controlled vocabularies and existing thematic ontologies, obviously make the data more visible at the transinstitutional and transnational levels, and consequently, raise their value – and we can indeed observe such a tendency. At least, we are exploring the possibilities of how “allied material,” stored in other places and in other countries, may be indexed, and how we can bring digital technologies to archives’ daily work (ICARUS; EnArC, 2013–05–12). Nevertheless, the processes of making digital information available usually still run parallel and in isolation. The creation of associations and common catalogues of associated institutions, practiced by libraries for decades, once played a different role for archives. Due to the singularity of collected archival holdings, no synergy of cooperative search catalogues was to be expected (SEZAM, 2013–07–12; Archivschule, 2013–07–30). However, global linking not only increases the visibility of the archive’s own material, it also improves the chances of integrating and contextualizing the unique historical material, and, consequently, the chances of its reproduction and linking, as well as, to a certain extent, the chances of achieving “transcendence” of the knowledge contained in documents.

For the time being, digital archive information is ordered in the same way as its analogue equivalent. The hierarchical structure of the general classification (described as Beständetektonik by German archivists) preserves the context in which the material was created and, consequently, its historical authenticity and contextuality. For those scientists who are familiar with how archives are organized, this kind of structure saves a lot of work. Other users need to learn the archival methods in order to use available digital aids.

The traditional ways of ordering and searching correspond to the logic of archives, but not to the logic of the World Wide Web, through which the information is supposed to be accessible. The nearly endless mass of unorganized information online has led to the use of computer-generated full-text databases and search engines for browsing. The full-text search has become the customary way of acquiring information on the Internet. We are affected by the “Google syndrome.” Search engines are able to deliver results for almost all queries. Nevertheless, the completeness of results, and the results as such, cannot be verified (Haber 2011, 73ff.).

At this point we should discuss an aspect which is particularly important to the full-text search. The available digital information on historical materials, as well as the digitized materials themselves, are machine-readable only to a limited extent. Therefore, they are mostly invisible to search engines. The information does not use of the constitutive elements of the World Wide Web, such as hyperlinks or hypertextualization. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is not used for most documents, so the textual data on the Internet are not processed. The information is static and to a certain extent analogue, despite its apparent digital format.

This means that if you want to find a specific piece of information, you have to know where to look for it, i.e. on which pages. This is a severe restriction, which does not make it any easier to browse through documents. You are provided only with the search results whose existence you have at least presupposed. Moreover, the information, particularly in the form of a text, often cannot be found, which is due to the large differences in access options, i.e. the diverse keyword indexing, which is sometimes less than systematic and does not comply with authority files. The indices used by institutions are usually based on original expressions from the document: If we search for “World War I” in archive data banks (regardless of the language we use) we find hardly any World War I documents in the results. This hardly comes as a surprise, for when the war started, it was not yet referred to as “World War I.” In archival practice it is the original titles of documents that are used for reference. Furthermore, the additional title information in institutional databanks can only be searched by keywords, which are, as we have mentioned above, still very much unorganized (LOCSH, 2013–07–29).

Of course, the Google principle also brings unexpected, lucky finds – but search engine research is only as good as keyword indexing and information linking, quite apart from the (in)completeness discussed above. Hence, we have two scenarios, which seem contradictory. On the one hand, we have the targeted search for clearly defined information on websites that can be considered to be informative and authoritative. On the other hand, there is randomness, which may – or may not – lead to unexpected discoveries. In both the cases of the eclecticism and the “white noise” of lucky finds, further investigation aiming at a lasting scientific approach and authenticity is needed.

Advantages and disadvantages of digital source research

It is a pipe dream to imagine that it will ever be possible to create a system that would comprise all the available online materials and show every piece of the existing information in the context of related data. It is probably just as naïve to believe that we could ever achieve a completeness of information, so that all the global knowledge would find equal and full digital representation. Similarly, we will never make the information available and verifiable in its entirety (Haber 2011, 75ff.).

In the end, the historian is left to deal with the problem by himself. He has to rely on the scientific methods at his disposal, including the source-critical method. The scientific eclecticism that may and does emerge from the ample supply of war-related sources and secondary information available online, from the information compiled with the help of algorithmic randomized calculations, is prone to reinforce the existing lines of research and, sometimes, to serve the opaque interests of information providers. A critical approach is therefore necessary, so that the Google principle does not undermine the established scientific instruments used in historical sciences, and so that we can benefit – using such instruments – from the massive amount of available information, which is able to and indeed does create new digital structures of knowledge. Traditional methods of scientific verification are more in demand than ever. The fragmentation, or even atomization of knowledge about World War I suggests the need to relearn online search methods, and to ensure, once again, their validity, in order to filter out the scientifically relevant information from the unsystematic and unorganized masses of data. The more difficult it becomes for the user – the historian – to synthesize data, the more important this need is. “Hybrid information research,” which draws equally upon analogue and digital sources, is a viable path for the moment (Haber 2011, 91ff).

Searching historical online resources is still time-consuming if we do not want to use the Google principle. The extensive range of fragmented information leaves us with an impression of information overload, which makes it extremely difficult to integrate and evaluate individual fragments. Nevertheless, information is not tantamount to knowledge when presented and processed outside of any context. The context is mostly still stored in analogue form, and due to the diversity and the amount of archival sources relating to World War I, this will not change in the foreseeable future. Paleographic or linguistic knowledge remains crucial to source work, whereas problems of authentication and data integrity require methodological development.

Despite all these concerns, the immense research activity relating to World War I is an enormous advantage for the international community of historians. On the one hand, it allows them to reflect on their own working methods in the digital era, which in turn leads to increased exchange between the specialist and the public domain. On the other hand, the open access projects, portals, and other initiatives on the World Wide Web described above allow for stronger networking and participation, getting involved in discussion fora, conferences, lines of research, new research questions and perspectives. We have achieved unprecedented transparency of globally active communities and individual researchers. The utopia of free knowledge and free access to historical resources emerges here, for the ongoing process must be seen as a process, as a way toward an as-yet-unknown goal. In theory, everyone can take part in charting the course. In this way, a public space, an “endless archive,” the ultimate site of memory in historical remembrance would be created in a utopian absoluteness of (re)presented knowledge, providing a basis for nearly all research paths and interests. As it stands, everyone can serve as a source or produce new sources.

Nevertheless, the digitization of information brings also other, more pragmatic advantages. Materials can be accessed from anywhere, which also means saving time. The knowledge of what you can find and what you cannot find somewhere makes it easier to decide whether you want to embark on a journey to see other materials stored in the archives. Furthermore, the randomness, which results from the lack of systematic structure, may, from time to time, render precisely the “right” results and provide us with a completely new research perspective. Within the incompleteness, a lot of historical work is possible and conceivable.

Digital archives and the memory of World War I

This concludes our brief overview of the digital activities just before the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. The structure of the paper reflects the attempt to analyze various digital resources with respect to certain problems of particular relevance to historiography. A more comprehensive approach, involving individual verification of national sources, but also of the commercial and password-protected sources, has yet to be slated (as of 2013). This kind of presentation would suffer from the problems that are the focus of this article: gaps and discrepancies in the visibility of existing, but not always digitized information.

The selection of material, based on its relevance to the research or to the public, primarily reflects the selection criteria, and not the existing material as such. On the one hand, the digitization boom increases the importance of archival material types often neglected in historical research: elusive audio files are being rescued from oblivion, the visual media of film and photography are becoming increasingly important. This increases the imbalance between the visual and audio material on the one hand, and the textual material on the other. Text is less attractive, as text sources and their contextualization may require more work.

The more important the Internet is for the world and communities of experts, the more non-digitized materials – and also those materials that have been made available in digital format – become invisible or impossible to find, and the greater the risk of interpreting existing materials as conclusive. In this context, the question of material and financial resources only increases.

On the other hand, we have also observed a regional and national imbalance. Whereas in some countries we have observed a real digital “frenzy” in relation to World War I, large parts of Europe and the world have (so far) remained indifferent. The reasons for this situation vary: of course, finances play a fundamental role. But is it possible to look at the situation from the reverse point of view, and to draw – from the lack of financial resources – conclusions about the importance of World War I in the political and public awareness?

Certainly, we can observe an accumulation of project and archive work in English-speaking countries, with the British at the forefront, followed by New Zealanders, Canadians, and Australians. At the moment, it is still unclear whether (and to what extent) some activities are intended mostly for the “Decade of Commemoration,” and will not be continued afterwards (e.g. IrelandWW1, 2013–07–29). In the case of British historiography, Stephen Heathorn even speaks of a “mnemonic turn,” which consists in the historicization of World War I in the changing memory and, consequently, the confirmation of the great impact that the war has had on public perception (Heathorn 2005; Todman 2012). The centenary of World War I is also being given striking prominence in the German-speaking countries, manifesting itself in information-aggregating platforms and numerous conferences, but also in the private domain. We find no similar number of projects in Eastern and Southern European countries, nor in the territories of the former Ottoman and Russian empires. In World War I research these countries, as well as those in the Middle East or Africa, are seen from the point of view of international narratives, influenced by the West-European or Anglo-Saxon perceptions. Will the histories of these countries, along with its national interpretation, lose their visibility? Will their cultural memory be reduced to a research subject? Or perhaps, intensive activities, possibly non-institutional ones, will soon be initiated in these countries to complement and influence the national and international remembrance discourse on World War I? This remains to be seen.


Aleksandra Pawliczek. She studied modern and recent history, political science, as well as journalism and communication studies in Göttingen, Bristol and Berlin, followed by a doctorate from Humboldt University of Berlin on Jewish scientists in the German Empire and the Weimar Republic. During her doctoral studies, she also completed an archival training at the Prussian Secret State Archives in Berlin (Ausbildung für den höheren Archivdienst am Geheimen Staatsarchiv PK). She is a qualified scientific archivist for the Secret State Archives and the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives. Since 2012 she has worked as a coordinator of the EUfunded CENDARI (Collaborative European Digital Archival Infrastructure) project at the Free University of Berlin.


1 Different archive laws in Germany, Europe and all over the world provide different protection periods for personal archive data. These end ca. 100 years after the birth or ca. 10 years after the death of the persons in question. Similarly, there are differences in the protection periods related to the copyrights and rights of exploitation and use.

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