German Archive Privacy Laws

German privacy laws are no joke. For the past two weeks, I have been doing archival research in Freiburg and Berlin. In all of the archives in which I have worked (so far five), I have had to sign paperwork that says I will protect the personal information of subjects whose identities I come across in my research. I do not have a problem with this, but today I was in for quite a surprise in the East German division of the German Federal Archive (BA-SAPMO). When I registered online and checked in yesterday, I had to sign release forms about the protection of personal information for specific archival collections. Today, as I was sitting in the reading room and working through a series of documents that I could not photograph (ah, the feeling of Russian archives) due to their personal nature, an employee came up to me and told me that he needed to speak to me about my research topic. He led me into a back room and then began to interrogate me about my research topic in depth and what I was hoping to find in the documents that I had requested. He then asked about my university and said that he would need to keep a photocopy of my university ID in the archive records.

This, oddly, was a moment that felt like being back in Russian archives. I was actually surprised that all I had to do to register for the German archives was to email and fill out some forms online. In each reading room all I had to do was tell the staff my name and they would give me my files. In Russia, however, the archive registration process is far more strict. To apply to work in Russian archives, one need to present a signed letter (an отношение) that explains your topic, the dates of study, and your university affiliation. The letter has to be on university letterhead and a signature of the highest possible academic rank is best, that is it is better for it to be signed by a dean than a professor. When questioned about my research, the archive employee asked me about my university affiliation. He asked if I had a letter about it, and I had a minor deer in the headlights look as I said no, had bad flashbacks to Russia, and stated that I had my student ID. He said that would suffice.

Before I could get my files, I had to assure the staff member that I would anonymize any personal information that I found in the records I was perusing. When my dissertation is complete, I also need to submit a copy to the Federal Archive so that they can have it on record. My ID and answers were sufficient, and I was granted access to the remaining folders that I had requested, or rather had requested for me. The excellent take away from German archives is that the staff is very helpful. I emailed the archive’s general email account in May when I was planning my trip. My topic was given to some archivists, who put together a 20-page packet that listed all of the files that I should consult. Upon my arrival to this particular archive yesterday, I was handed sheets of paper for additional files that I should consult. At the time, one staff member handed me the privacy forms to fill out and proceeded to order 14 files for me without me knowing what exactly was in them. Thankfully, it was useful information.

New Archival Adventures

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.

The day was off to an excellent start when I saw this beautiful Mercedes W124 on the way to the archive.

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.

Approaching the German Military Archive.

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.

Victory Day 2018

Today is my favorite Russian holiday, Victory Day. Every May 9th, Russians celebrate the end of the Second World War, or as they call it the Great Patriotic War. The day commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany and the fighting in Europe. Commemoration of the war rose to its height in the USSR during 1960s and 1970s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, celebration of the victory, while still an important date, was less of a state sponsored affair until the mid-2000s, when President Vladimir Putin brought the military parade back to Red Square. Ever since, it has been a massive national holiday complete with major celebrations around the nation.

Last year, I had the fortune to be in Moscow for the celebration. It was truly a spectacular day. This year, I woke up and watched the entire Moscow parade from my desk in Pittsburgh while drinking my morning coffee. The parade this year was quite interesting, and Putin’s annual address gives clues to the mindset of contemporary Russia. In this post, I will comment on some of the thoughts that popped into my head as I watched the parade.

The popular image of military parades on Red Square, complete with ICBMs, is a Soviet tradition. The main military parades, though, were held on November 7, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. There were only a handful of Victory Day parades that were accompanied by military technology, generally those around major anniversaries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of November 7th as a holiday and parade worthy occasion, the display of Russian military might has transitioned to the anniversary of its most important victory.

This year, Putin opened the parade with an address that discussed both the importance of the memory of the Second World War as well as Russia’s stance on military strength and the global balance of power. He opened his speech by saying, “I congratulate you on Victory Day, a holiday that has always been, is, and will be the most dear and scared for every family in our large country.” Although public speeches are good forums for hyperbole, Putin said this statement in earnest. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union lost roughly 27 million citizens. No family was untouched by the damages and death of the conflict. It is indeed a sacred day for the memories of Russians.

Putin’s 2018 Victory Day address.

Putin stated that it was the duty of Russians to keep remembering the war, and to never allow for the rewriting of history. He explicitly mentioned saving Europe and the world from the horrors of war, slavery, and the Holocaust. Mention of the Holocaust itself is already a radical break from the war memory of the Soviet Union, in which there was a policy of not “dividing the dead,” that is, not to highlight the suffering of any specific group during the war. A vast variety of Soviet citizens perished, and the Soviet state chose a policy of pan-Soviet remembrance versus individualism. Putin’s comments about the Holocaust and slavery, though, are a thinly veiled comment on the ongoing conflict with Ukraine. In the past few years, Ukrainian nationalists have celebrated some figures who fought for Ukrainian nationalism and independence amidst the Second World War. These persons are troubling, though, as they often collaborated with the Nazis in an attempt to realize these goals. Putin concluded his speech with a statement towards other nations. He commented on fragile global relations and stated that Russia is committed to “open dialogue on all matters of global security, ready for a constrictive equal partnership for the sake of agreement, and peace and progress on the planet.”

Russian soldiers parading on Red Square. Notice the yellow paint to guide the tanks, troops carriers, and missiles.

After Putin’s speech, the different groups of soldiers marched off of Red Square to make way for the technology. As usual, the motorized portion of the parade was led by a T-34 tank, the Red Army’s iconic vehicle of the Second World War.

T-34 tank with the Soviet flag leading ATVs with the names of the major battle fronts of WWII.

This year, though, it was followed by ATVs bearing the names of the battle fronts of the war. Many staple tanks, troop carriers, and missile systems of the Russian army then progressed across Red Square. There was a well choreographed moment in which the band started to play the popular war song Katyusha while the modern missile launchers rolled past. Katyuhsa was the nickname for the Red Army’s mobile rocket launching trucks of the Second World War.

Modern Russian rocket launchers.

Taking from Soviet tradition, though, the annual show of military might included the public parade debut of a variety of military technology including varieties of armored fighting vehicles and supersonic jets. The focus of the new equipment this year was unmanned combat vehicles such as drones or remote-control armored devices for clearing minefields.

Russian drones.

This year, the parade featured two guests of note. The most important of which was Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. The parade commentary noted that this is the first year that Victory Day was celebrated as a national holiday in Israel. The parade covered also included a brief focus and shout out to a notorious, adoptive Russian citizen, Steven Segal.

Clearly, the Victory Day parade is not going to go anywhere under the leadership of Putin. The next few years of commemoration should prove to be interesting given Russia’s role in global politics. Next year’s parade should be fairly tame, though, in comparison to whatever will happen in 2020, the 75th anniversary of Victory Day.

Make Friends with Librarians

Digital Humanities (DH) projects are often interdisciplinary and require the help individuals from a variety of backgrounds. Perhaps the most important people for these projects are librarians. At my university, I am lucky in that there is an entire DH initiative based out of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences as well as the library. Many of the staff members who train us in DH methods and advise our projects work directly for the library. They have also served as excellent liaisons between students and the wide variety of library services that are often hidden.

My dissertation incorporates a large DH digital mapping component. I’m tracking the locations of German prisoner of war camps in the USSR from 1941-1956 as a way to make a large-scale economic argument about the long-lasting detainment of the German POWs after the end of the war in 1945. One stage of the mapping process that I’m about to undertake is layering the locations of the camps over Soviet produced economic geography maps from the 1940s to discuss POW contribution to various sectors of the economy. To do this, I must do a process called georeferencing. I take a scanned map and line up points (such as cities, or tracing rivers and coastlines) from it with my base-map in the mapping software. Before I can do the process, though, I needed to get high quality scans of the Soviet maps.

Based in the library, we have weekly drop-in hours for DH. People can come it and consult others in the room for help with their projects. In my case, I’m working with a GIS librarian, as well as a CLIR Fellow in Data Visualization who also has a GIS background. When discussing the georeferencing task with them, they introduced me to the library’s chief digitization specialist. She invited me on a trip to the library’s offsite storage location, where the digitization department is based for space concerns. The staff helped me scan a series of maps on special, face-up scanners at a very high quality. One issue with my map sources is that they are quite often large, fold out maps bound into thick books. These types of sources would be extremely difficult to scan on a traditional copy machine scanner like I have access to in my department. The library’s digitization scanners were face-up and had a special platform specifically for bound books that allowed the two sides of the spine to be at different levels to create a flat surface under the glass scanner face. The scanning specialist also saved the scans for me in the highest quality resolution, which is necessary to zoom in and do all the tracing and lining up of points more accurately.

Super fancy scanners. Apparently the Library of Congress uses these same ones.

In addition to doing my scanning work, I was allowed to wander through the library’s offsite book storage. Not all university libraries keep all their books on the shelves of the library. As they acquire more books, older, rarely used books are taken to offsite storage areas. Many of my good book finds have been from seeing what was on the shelf near a different book that I found through a catalog search. This, unfortunately, is not possible with offsite books. However, the offsite librarians gave me free reign to wander around the offsite stacks. I searched in a few sections for the books that I use (generally Library of Congress DK books) to see if I had been missing any useful, older books.

Books, books, and more books!

Walking through the stacks, I felt like I was living out the archive scene from GoldenEye. I was super giddy to get to see the library technology and storage facilities, and the library staff was equally excited to show off their wares and help a lowly grad-student with her research. Make friends with the librarians. They will make your research life much less stressful, and you might get to take a fieldtrip to a cool school-based location.

Continuing to live out my James Bond fantasies.

Soviet Military Maps

Do you like Cold War era espionage and intrigue? How about mapping and historical geography? Are you a fan of James Bond films? Care to pretend like you are in one? Well, boy do I have the resources for you to realize these fantasies. Two Christmases ago, I was having coffee with a childhood friend, who told me that he had purchased his mother some declassified Soviet military maps for Christmas. This reminded me of an article that I had been sent by a different friend from Wired. Basically, the Soviets engaged in a large-scale map making project for the entire world. A cache of these maps had been discovered in the former Baltic republics of the Soviet Union. Enterprising locals, some of whom had a fair amount of disdain towards the Russian government, realized that they could make money selling off these former top-secret military resources.

I’m not sure how my friend came across them, but he did and purchased a few original maps as well as a few reproductions through eBay. The original maps are in wonderful quality, the reproductions not so much. We had coffee and I translated the map key for him. Fast forward to about a month ago, another good friend showed me a review of a book called The Red Atlas, authored in part by one of the subjects of the Wired article, John Davies. It’s the first book to examine the Soviet military maps in depth. I altered my friend to the book, and he in turn gave me the information for the eBay store from which he purchased his maps.

Being a bit of a mapping nerd these days, I was ecstatic to see that there was a Soviet military map for Boston, its surrounding area, and the Atlantic Ocean. At only $25, I felt compelled to buy the map. Mostly I wanted it for the map of Cape Cod, where I spend most of my time when not required to be at school or gallivanting around Russia. It only cost $5 for shipping from Latvia, and the package arrived four days after I ordered it.

I got a map from Latvia in four days. It took 2 months to receive a letter from the USA in Moscow.

Upon opening the map, I was extremely happy to see the level of detail that the Soviets had put into the map. Chatham Light House was there, as is CQX, the tiny municipal airport that can only service propeller planes. Naturally, the Hyannis Airport was on the map, as is Camp Edwards and its Otis Air Force Base.

Cape Cod as mapped by the Soviets in 1986

Luckily for me, my university library had just ordered a copy of Red Atlas, which I was happy to check out. The book itself is a Soviet history nerd’s dream. The cover states совершенно секретно (sovershenno sekretno, top secret). The majority of my archival sources were generally stamped with this, so it’s a phrase that I’m always interested to see. Indeed, as Davies and Kent note in their book, there were different maps, which had different scales, details, and levels of secrecy. Thankfully, this book includes handy keys to decipher the military maps. Using the key with my Boston map, I’m able to discern quite a lot more from the map than just how the Soviets tactically analyzed the area from which I come.

So most of my map of Boston happens to be the Atlantic Ocean. You have to know where to sail the submarine if you want to avoid the plot of “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”

Knowing Russian, I am able to read from the map that is from the 1986 iteration of mapping, though the map itself was printed in 1993. With a quick Yandex (the Russian Google) search, I was able to decipher the acronyms of the publisher. The map says that it was published by the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff with the original information from the Main Directorate of Geodesy and Cartography of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. I know that the scale is 1:1,000,000. According to Red Atlas, this means that my map was a small-scale/general terrain evaluation map, which was an unclassified map. The book also gives me a better understanding of where the map was printed. My particular map was printed in December 1993 with a factory code of И (or I) for Irkutsk, a major city in Siberia.

TL;DR – Soviet military maps are cool. You can buy them online, and there’s a nifty book that explains the maps and the massive efforts it took to produce them, an undertaking that was and still is shrouded in mystery.

Digital Mapping and Family History

It’s a new year and I’ve got a cool HASTAC Fellowship, so I’ve decided to add a blog component to my website to occasionally write about cool stuff related to my research, digital humanities, and mapping. I’ll be kicking this all off with a somewhat personal post. Those who have followed my personal travel blog from Russia might know of my brush with fate and how I was able to reconnect with part of my family that we hadn’t really been in contact with since my grandmother, her sisters, and her parents were evacuated by the British during the Russian Civil War. At least one member of my grandmother’s mother’s family remained in Simferopol, Crimea, and became a known Soviet poet, one who was the first to witness and write about the Holocaust. There’s actually a fantastic book written about him. I last saw his daughter in Moscow in July and again in October of 2017.

After my grandmother, her parents, and her sister came to America, my great-uncle was born. He passed away about a year ago and my father brought us some of the pictures and letters, which he had kept from his parents. It seems that my grandmother’s father’s family remained around present-day Ukraine. Some stayed in Kiev, others in Berdichev. Being a historian and the only living member of the family that speaks Russian, I was intrigued to look at the photos and letters. However, it soon became apparent that my knowledge of the history would become depressing.

One of the items that was most shocking was a photograph of the extended family. The bottom of the photo has a caption saying that Isaac was killed at the factory. The back of the photo, though, was much more troubling. It says that it was taken in Berdichev in 1923. Upon reading that, I immediately had a pit in my stomach. Berdichev was one of the major sites of the Holocaust, where the majority of the city’s Jewish population was exterminated. It is highly likely that all of those pictured perished.

A subsequent letter from 1948 between my great-grandparents and one relative from Kiev alludes to the toughness of the war. The author, Inda, notes that she had received a letter two years before, and only just found the time to write back. She states that her family was doing much better after the war, but that “it is painful to write about the others” and that “due to the officer beasts, many in the family perished.” Most in the Western world don’t understand the toll of the Second World War on the Soviet Union. 27 million Soviet citizens perished during the war, 2 million of whom were Jews in the Holocaust. It is not an exaggeration to say that every Soviet family was touched by the war and lost at least one person. While I had suspected some of this, I had never known the extent. Indeed, my own extended family suffered losses during the war.

This brings me to my connection between my personal life and my research. For the past few years, I have worked as a teaching assistant for a course on genocide and weapons of mass destruction. One year, we read Father Patrick DesBois’s The Holocaust By Bullets, which chronicles the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, primarily in the territory of the Soviet Union, beyond the major deathcamps such as Auschwitz or Treblinka. Unlike at those camps, where killing was mechanized and impersonal, the vast majority of the executions in Soviet territories was by cruder, personal means such as shootings. Berdichev was one of these sites. While using Father DesBois’s book, I found out about his interactive mapping project, as I was embarking upon my own work with German prisoner of war camps. I consider Father DesBois’s map of the Holocaust by Bullets to be one of the best interactive mapping projects I have ever come across. In addition to plotting the extermination sites, each location features information from relevant archival sources, either German or Soviet, as well as testimonies from those who remained. Anyone interested in historical GIS, digital humanities, the Holocaust, or the history of World War II should know of this resource. This mapping project quickly and easily conveys the magnitude of the exterminations. It also readily illustrates the human toll of the Second World War on the Eastern Front. More work of a similar nature should be done to visualize the economic and human destruction of the Second World War.


I’m Susan Grunewald, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA USA).

Меня зовут Сьюзен Грюневальд, аспирантка кафедры истории Карнеги Меллон Университета (Питтсбург, США).

Ich heisse Susan Grunewald und ich bin doktorin-Kandidatin in Geschichte bei Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, USA).