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Collection of War Letters

Project: "The Handwriting of the War"

The project includes a) the collecting of war letters and documents, and b) the formal cataloguing of the material with using new digital software. For the first time a definition is found for the research term "war letter" will be formalized ;this term which has been in use for about 20 years by scientists but to date has not been formally defined. The result will be the creation of a formal unit and the real ways of communication by letters during the Second World War. Valuable material will complete the holdings of museums and archives.

Situation of source material. The war letters stored in archives in Germany constitute only a fraction of the correspondence written during the Second World War. This means that any analysis of this material has only been done on individual examples. The samples available for analysis can therefore no be regarded as representative. This fault provides critics of research on war letters with their strongest argument. In addition the documents are not yet stored and registered at a central place.

Safeguarding the material. Considering that these "old letters and stuff" has been sitting in people's homes for the past 50 years and is often just thrown away, it is obvious that source for this material is constantly decreasing. As the number of those who provide a voice of the war generation dwindle, the letters left behind remain as the only evidence of the original version of that time. The letters are important, irreplaceable documents not only for the analysis the events of the war but also for their subjective perception, which is why it is high time to supplement the holdings in archives with the remaining extent documents still found in private households. These documents need to be registered at a central location and become available to scientific research. The destruction of such material must be prevented, and valuable source material should be saved for modern history research.

Variety. Private correspondence by nature is obviously a matter of individual documents. Therefore, the variety of material grows in proportion to the rising quantity. Every letter is different from the other. Because of this an increase in the variety of the material will result in analyses with more differentiated conclusions. With an increase in variety the quality of the source is also increasing. One example is that tere is currently an enormous deficits of longer series of letters in the archives. The deplorable state of holdings and their manual analysis lead to a pre-selection of scientists. They have to come to unilateral results. Applying the constructive media model, it is not the absolute quality of the stimulus which leads to the effect of (mass-) communication but the selective perception which is applied to it, so reality is subjectively constructed. Taking into consideration this aspect a huge amount of series of letters is necessary for research, if one wants to get to know this subjectively constructed reality of the whole German war generation.

Working technique. Cataloguing can only be done if the source material is available at our pc-location, since all documents will need to be scanned into digital files and basic information will be extrapolated using by new computer techniques. Larger letter series especially are suitable for later analysis because attitudes and changes in attitudes are comprehensible in longer series. The letters will then be evaluated and analyzed. The scanned documents will be at disposal. In this way high quality research can be conducted independent of the location of the actual letter.

Formal cataloguing. As a first step all of the material will be formally catalogued. The research unit has not been defined to date. In scientific works many documents are submitted under the term "war letters" but this term has not been clearly defined. Formal characteristics of the source material will be examined in order to define the research unit. Subdivisions might include officers' mail, home mail, army mail, post of war prisoners or prisoners of concentration camps, mail from jails, prisons, forced labor camps; letters, cards, telegrams, packages etc. were also subject to legal requirements and restrictions. Using the formal analysis it will be possible, for example, to identify the mail routes for private communication and frequencies during the war. Enclosures should be catalogued as well, since they were the cause for struggle between the Supreme Command of the Army, the Reich Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the customs offices, as all these agencies were concerned with black market trade, customs and exchange offences, looting or hoarding. Here we can talk about undermining the exploitation of occupied territories. Upon closer examination of formal aspects we will get a clearer understanding of communication as a form of political pressure as seen by censorship or by a variety of restrictions in camps or prisons. Communications with codes were used. The transmission time and the relationship between sender and addressee is another important aspect for the quality of the communication process. The amount of war letters might be judged anew thinking in the above mentioned context. In the conclusion the form of a letter is an important part of the structure of signs within the written communication.

Please visit our page "Research Projects" to find out more information on how we intend use the source material.