Today was my first foray into researching in German archives. So far I have only conducted extensive work in numerous Russian archives as well as a small amount of research in the USA at the Hoover Institution in California and the National Archives (NARA) in College Park, Maryland. Before I even came to Germany, I figured that the trip here would be far less painful than working in Russia. Each archive had an up to date website and I was able to contact and receive responses from archivists before my arrival. They helped me find files to order, which I did from America, that would be ready upon my arrival.
Sometime yesterday afternoon I arrived in Freiburg, Germany. I basically passed out from the travel and woke up early to arrive at the German Federal Military Archive a little after 8AM this morning. The building is fairly imposing and is surrounded by a very large metal fence. I walked up to what looked like a security guard kiosk and told the man there that this was my first time at the archive and that I was trying to find the reading room. He was super friendly and said that all I had to do was sign into a ledger. At the end of the day, I was to sign out. If I wanted to pop down the block to the café for a snack or coffee, I did not have to sign out. He then told me to go to a building near his kiosk, where there would be an automatic door. He pointed to a window on the first floor and said that I would be able to find lockers for my things there. I did indeed find the locker, which requires a 2 Euro coin to operate (good thing I got a chocolate croissant and a coffee on the way to the archive). I then found a man in the hallway, who happens to teach in the CUNY system, who told me how to get to the reading room. There was a friendly guy working at the desk and my ordered files were ready for me. All I had to do was once again sign a few forms agreeing to the terms of working in the archive and protecting the personal information contained within some of the folders. That was it. There was no need to show an ID. There was no need to sign the folders in and out. Nor did I have to sign inside the folder that I had read it, for what topic, and which pages.
The staff was also extremely friendly and helpful. Although I read German fairly often for my research, I never speak it. It’s been roughly seven years since I have extensively spoken German, and that was at my undergraduate institution. The words are coming back, but my ability to string together a sentence is not helped by being tired from my travels. Thankfully the staff was patient and didn’t insist on switching to English, which was a fear that I had. Some Russian archival staff didn’t mind when I didn’t know the exact word or phrase for something, but others would quickly become angered and begin yelling. Here the most I got was a slight chuckle from my pauses trying to remember how to say a few words to describe the situation.
During my first day, I was able to read through eleven files. I have about four more that I ordered this morning that I didn’t get to. I also ordered another six folders before leaving. To do this amount of research in the Russian State Military Archive would have taken a minimum of two and a half weeks due to the five file request limit and a waiting period of four days to receive files. Much of the speed in processing the files is also because I can take photos of documents. In Russia, photographing archival materials is largely forbidden, so I spent much of my time fully reading through documents, taking notes, translating on the spot, or copying whole documents into my note taking program. While processing the large numbers of files to order from home I began to worry that my three-week trip to Germany would be too short. Currently I’m wondering if I budgeted far too much time to get through the files in the archives. I’m sure I’ll be able to fill up my free time.
On a last note, the afternoon security guard at the archive is Russian. I saw him reading a book in Russian and started to speak to him in Russian. He grew excited and asked me where I was from. Our conversation only ended because someone else came to the kiosk to access the archive. At the end of the day, he asked my name and where in the city I was staying. I asked if he would be there tomorrow and he happily replied yes. I think I have a new best friend.