Lecture on 26. January 2011
Getting ready to head to the history building for my big moment!
In January, I gave a lecture to the PhD Seminar for Modern History about the progress of my project to date. Below, you will find the exact lecture, which was given in English, as well as the quoted parts of the letters that are in their original German. For this online version, I have included translations of the sections that are in German to make it more accessible. I have also included a new section at the end about the discussion that took place following the lecture. Enjoy!
26. January 2011
Lecture by Kaci McAllister,
Fulbright Research Fellow at the University of Tübingen
The title of this lecture that you were given, Women in the Shadows of the War: Love, Loss, and German-US Relations in the Post-Nazi Era, is a bit misleading for what I want to talk about today. That is the title of my overall research project, which spans a total of ten months and won’t be finished until July. My project is concerned with two collections of letters written by my family members; one from the Second World War and one from the 1960s. Today I will be discussing the former. A more appropriate title, therefore, might be ‘Meine Lieben zu Hause!’ [‘My Darlings at Home!’]: A Case Study in What Letters Can (and Cannot) Tell Us about the Past.
In May of 1999, my grandmother’s family home in southern Germany was being renovated when my uncle made a startling discovery. As the tiling in the upstairs bathroom was being ripped out, an opening was discovered inside a wall that contained a small basket. That basket was filled with over two hundred letters--the correspondence that my great-grandmother, Emilie, and great-grandfather, Josef, shared during World War II. After Josef’s death in 1943, Emilie never spoke of him again, not even to her own children. My grandmother and her three siblings grew up in the war-torn city of Ulm with a mother who was so traumatized by the death of her husband that she was unable to show her children affection or love.
The discovery of this collection of letters was thus an emotional one. For ten years, the letters gathered dust in the attic in Ulm. Even if my grandmother and her siblings had wanted to read the letters of their father, they could not; his letters are written in Sütterlinschrift, the former standardized method of writing in Germany, which uses a different alphabet and is very difficult for the untrained eye to decipher.
In May of 2009, during my semester abroad at the University of Regensburg, I went to Ulm to visit my grandmother’s sister, who lives in the house that they grew up in. While I was there, she showed me this collection of letters, guessing that I might find them interesting. When I returned to the United States for my final year of undergraduate work, I discussed the letters with my professors, who agreed that the story of my great-grandparents does indeed have wider implications in academia beyond a mere personal ethnographical study. Moreover, the study of these letters in the context of the ongoing debate about Ego-Dokumente in Germany insured that my research would find a place at a university here, and so I was awarded a Fulbright research grant to the University of Tübingen.
The specific goals of my project are threefold. First, the transcription into German of the letters and their eventual translation into English. Since September, I have transcribed 145 of the letters written by my great-grandparents, and plan to finish the remaining letters in the coming weeks. Second, during the semester break, I will be researching the time period and specific people or places mentioned in the letters in order to annotate the collection. I will also be conducting interviews during this time of my family members in order to fill in any remaining gaps in information. Third, during the summer semester I will be writing an introduction to the collection summarizing my findings and identifying broader themes for possible post-graduate work. The end product will be a collection of transcribed, translated and annotated letters with a supplementary introduction.
As I have stated, my research is far from finished. My grant is not even halfway over yet, and I still have many months of study ahead of me. As such, I will not be discussing conclusions or outcomes of my project today, but instead would like to talk about why letters are an important source for historians, the kinds of issues one might experience when handling them and how those issues are to be addressed, as well as the material in my specific collection of letters and what one might be able to learn from them.
In the textbook Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth- and Twentienth-Century History, Miriam Dobson writes a chapter on the interpretation of letters as historical sources that has provided me with extremely valuable information about how to begin my own interpretation of this collection of letters. She captures my initial feelings about my project exactly when she writes,
“Re-opening an envelope dried with time, inching out a crisp letter, and gazing down at a page of crabbed handwriting, the researcher feels she might be experiencing the same emotions felt by the first recipient, however many years ago. Addressed to a named reader (or readers), we feel we are breaking the ties of confidentiality and unlocking the mysteries of a past age. Letters seem to promise the personal, the familiar, the intimate: as such they represent a hugely exciting source for the historian.” (Dobson, Miriam and Benjamin Ziemann, eds. Reading Primary Sources (London: Routledge, 2009) p. 57.)
This excitement is especially present for me due to my already existing personal connection to the letters and their authors. With each letter of Josef’s I read, I am unlocking more information about a man for whom no other such record exists. All of their lives, my grandmother and her siblings have been shaped by not just the physical absence of their father, but also the lack of knowledge about him. It is thrilling to know that when I finish my project, some of that information will be available to my relatives. The letters also reveal a side of their mother that they likely do not remember--that of a loving wife who cared desperately for her husband and small children. I cannot begin to imagine how this kind of information will affect them so many decades after the fact, or even if it will affect them at all. The scholar in me is curious to hear their reactions in the interviews I will be conducting in the coming months, no matter what those reactions may be. But the great-granddaughter in me is hoping for something else, something more akin to understanding, or even healing. Instead of being a hindrance, I believe that this mixture of perspectives will make me a more sensitive, capable listener, and will lead me to ask significant and appropriate questions.
For my grandmother and her siblings, reading Josef’s letters may be a way of getting to know their father; indeed, it is the only way such a thing would be possible. But from an academic perspective, these letters do not necessarily provide us with a “true record of the writer’s inner world. Instead, letter-writing is seen to be part of an individual’s attempt to establish the meaning of their life (rather than just reflect or communicate existing truths). [...] The ability to write provides a forum in which the individual reflects on his or her life in a distinct manner; in the case of letters, in the form of a solitary written reflection which is also part of a dialogue with the reader or readers.” (Ibid., p. 60.)
Thus, from reading his letters, we get an idea not of who exactly Josef Müller was, but of how he projected himself in writing as a husband and father, of what kinds of things he thought were important, and of the topics and concerns that were acceptable, politically and socially, to be discussed between a German husband and wife during World War II.
The topics themselves are often mundane, day-to-day experiences in the greater context of their love for one another and fervent hope for a future in which they would be together as a family again. As Dobson explains, “Private letters are often full of this ‘nothingness’: descriptions of ill-health, family gossip, the passing on of greetings--all about people of whom little other record is left, and whose lives still remain opaque.” (Ibid., p. 60.) Indeed, health in particular is a serious cause for concern for both sides in these letters: Joseph suffered from chronic stomach pains and wrote a majority of his letters from various military hospitals in France, and Emilie is both pregnant and attempting to raise three children under the age of six by herself.
For example, in a letter dated the 28th of February, 1942, Josef writes: “Zu Hause wäre ich bestimmt nicht ins Bett gelegen. Aber auf der anderen Seite glaube ich, daß ich zu Hause auch kein Geschwür bekommen hätte, dafür hättest Du meine Liebe schon gesorgt. So ist es, also weg mit dem ,,Wenn und Aber“, sich ins Bett hineingehauen und bald wieder gesund geworden.”
[“If I were at home, I would certainly not be consigned to bed. But on the other hand, I also believe that at home I would not have gotten this ulcer in the first place; you, my love, would already have taken care of it. But that’s the way it is, so away with the ‘what-ifs’ -- I’ll just huddle myself up here in bed and get better as quickly as I can.”]
Sometimes, however, the letters diverge from these everyday themes and are surprisingly poetic. In a letter written on March 8th, 1942, Josef paints a philosophical picture of his idea of family and child-rearing that speaks to his implicit concern about his absence at home:
“In diesen Tagen der Jugend, wo das Kind allmählich anfängt die Begriffe von Gut u. Böse zu begreifen und wo es sich um alle Erscheinungen des Lebens zu kümmern anfängt von Stadt u. Dorf, von Arbeit u. Spiel u. von Armut u. Reichtum bildet sich gewissermaßen ,,die eiserne Portion” seines Begriffe überhaupt. Das, was die Kinder hier erleben u. erschauen sind die Ausgangspunkte für ihr ganzes Leben, für ihren Geist u. für ihr Gemüt. Ihre ganze spätere Art geht daran aus u. kehrt dahin wieder zurück. Wie kann es möglich sein, daß das Kind von seinem Vater einen guten Eindruck bekommt, wenn es sich nicht gütig u. liebevoll mit ihm beschäftigt. Ein Vater, von dem die Mutter nicht liebevoll spricht, von dem wird das Kind in seinem seelischen Leben kein gutes Bild bekommen. Auch wird der Ärger, den die Eltern andauerend vor ihren Kindern austragen einem schlechten Eindruck bei ihnen hinterlassen. Wie ganz anders ist es aber dann, wenn die Kinder lauter frohe und heitere Dinge sehen, wenn sie die Liebe der Eltern unter sich spüren u. ihre Liebe zu den Kindern tage täglich erfahren dürfen. Sie werden mit diesen Dingen ihr Leben lang Umgang haben, ihr ganzes Leben wird gesonnt, erwärmt u. geformt. Nicht allein das, wenn keine besonders ungünstige Momente hinzukommen, dann wird das auf die nächster Generation weitergetragen. Aus der glücklichsten Jugend wird ein glückliches Volk. Dieses Volk wird dann dafür einstehen, daß die Voraussetzungen für eine glückliche Jugend erhalten bleiben.”
[“In these days of youth, in which a child gradually begins to comprehend the concepts of good and evil, and in which he begins to consider all aspects of life, of city and village, of work and play, and of poverty and wealth, he forms to some extent the “iron ration” (basic ideas) of his overall perceptions. That which the children experience and see now are the starting points for their entire lives, for their spirits and minds. Their entire dispositions later in life begin there and return there again and again. How can it be possible, then, for a child to receive a good impression of his father when he has no affectionate or loving experiences with him? A child will not have an emotional connection with a father of whom the mother does not lovingly speak. The anger that some parents constantly display in front of their children will also leave a bad impression with them. How completely different is it then when the children see happy and cheerful things, when they can feel the love between their parents among them and experience this familial love themselves? They will have those associations with them their whole lives, and those lives will be full of sunshine, warmed and formed by those past experiences. Not only that, but if no particularly unfortunate moments are to be had, then that impression too will be passed on to the next generation. Out of a happy youth arises a happy nation (Volk). This nation is then responsible for ensuring that these conditions for a happy youth are maintained.”]
The extrapolation of the individual family onto the concept of the German “Volk” is a direct link to the politics of the time period and is hardly a unique instance in the collection of letters as a whole. References to the war and Hitler are made often by both sides of the correspondence, although they are distinctly more common and detailed in Josef’s letters. This is unsurprising; as a soldier he was immersed daily in the war, whereas Emilie was most directly affected by the absence of her husband and the hardships of the homefront. As such, Emilie typically writes of the war in passing, and speaks most often of its end. For example, in a letter from the 30th of January, 1942, she writes, “Habt Ihr die grosse Rede des Führers heute abend auch gehört? Wir wollen hoffen und glauben dass dies alles für unser Vaterland ein siegreiches Ende nimmt.” [Did you also hear our leader’s grand speech this evening? We want to hope and believe that this all results in a victorious ending for our great country.”] This is as patriotic as she ever sounds. More often, she references the war indirectly, referring instead to the separation caused by it: “Dein Geld das Du geschickt hast (60.- M), sowie der Koffer mit Deinen Privatkleidern ist letzte Woche ebenfalls eingetroffen. Wenn ziehst Du wohl diese wieder an. Ich habe sie mit ganz gemischten Gefühlen ausgepackt” (February 13, 1942). [“The money that you sent (60 Marks) as well as the suitcase with your civilian clothes arrived last week, by the way. When will you be able to wear these again? I unpacked them with such mixed feelings.”]
When Josef mentions the war itself in his letters, it is often in emotional references to the “Heimat,” his past experiences, and what it means to him to be German. This supports Dobson’s idea that, “To make sense of who they are at the present moment, human beings tell stories about their past. For those who are physically separated from loved ones, the act of letter-writing can provide a medium for reconciling past and present and fashioning a workable sense of self." (Ibid., p. 60.)
It is clear from his letters that Josef was not willingly stationed away from his family, and that he wished instead to be at home, reunited with his wife and children. Thus, writing about the war and his life as a soldier provided him with a forum in which he could justify his absence through contemporary rhetoric. For example: “Nun war ich mich zum ersten Mal am atlant. Ozean und habe Ebbe und Flut beobachten können, schöne stolze Schiffe gesehen. Da muß man wirklich als deutscher das Herz mitgehen u. ein stiller dankbarer Gedanke ist unserem Führer gewidmet” (February 9, 1942). [“For the first time, I went to the Atlantic Ocean and could observe its ebb and flow and look at the striking, proud ships. As a German, my heart went out to them and a silent, grateful thought was given to our leader.”] Even more along these lines, in a letter from February 15th, 1942, he writes: “Den Dienst, den wir hier tun, machen wir ja für die Heimat. Wenn es in meinem Alter auch etwas schwer fällt, noch alle diese Anstrengungen mitzumachen, so bringt alleine der Gedanke an die Heimat u. deren Schutz uns in den Stand diese Anstrengungen u. Entbehrungen zu ertragen. Ich empfinde es als Stolz, wenn wir hier sozusagen mit den Wache halten für die deutschen Belange trotz der Ablehnenden Haltung der hiesigen Bevölkerung.” [“The service that we do here, we do of course for the homeland. Even if it seems somewhat strenuous at my age to put forth so much effort, the mere thought of the homeland and its protection is enough to put us in a position to endure all of the stress and deprivation. I feel proud that we are the guard, so to speak, of German interests, even in spite of the hostile demeanor of the local population.”]
It is impossible to know to what extent such statements made by Emilie and Josef were indications of their true feelings about the war and their country’s leader, or to what extent they wrote what they thought was expected of them as German citizens. As Dobson writes, “We have a record of what ordinary people felt was an acceptable interpretation or commentary on their lives and on political events occurring.” (Ibid., p. 65.) There is, however, a family story that indicates my great-grandmother’s patriotism was perhaps only skin-deep. After Josef’s death in 1943, it is said that Emilie took down the German flag from in front of their house, causing a neighborhood scandal. It is precisely these kinds of anecdotal stories that I will be looking for in the interviews of my family members to supplement the material found in the letters.
Another common theme in their correspondence is the role of women during the war. Emilie often writes (not surprisingly) that she feels overwhelmed by the job of raising three children alone while pregnant. Josef responds to her complaints with words of encouragement, but which also indicate his expectation of her to “do her duty” in spite of any hardships she might encounter:
“Ich weiß, daß wenn ich heimkehre, Du alles zum besten besorgt hast. Erziehung u. Gesundheitszustand der Kinder werden sich in bester Ordnung befinden, Haus u. Habe werden gut verwaltet sein, ich weiß, daß Du Dich nach Deinen besten Kräften alles daran setzten wirst, Deine vielen und aufgetragenen Pflichten aufs Genaueste zu erfüllen. Das wird dann Dein Stolz sein, zu sagen, ich habe diese Pflichten nicht gefürchtet, bin nicht irre geworden an ihnen, sie haben mich nicht unterkriegen können, sondern ich habe sie alle gemeistert, nach bestem Können u. Wollen. Ich selbst aber werde mich dann freuen u. heute kann ich beruhigt meinen Dienst tun, weil ich weiß, daß Du das alles meistern wirst” (February 22, 1942).
[“I know that when I return home, you will have taken care of everything perfectly. The upbringing and health of the children will stand in perfect order; our house and possessions will have been managed well. I know that you will have put forth every effort in fulfilling your many and difficult duties. That will then be something for you to be proud of, to say, ‘I did not fear these duties, I did not allow myself to falter, they could not get me down, but instead I coped with them all to the best of my ability.’ I personally will be pleased then as well, and today I can do my duty in good conscience, because I know that you will achieve all of this.”]
In another example from February 28th, 1942, he writes:
“Und so ist es ein Stolz für Dich liebe Mama, diese Aufgaben erfüllen zu dürfen u. täglich in den leuchtenden Kinderaugen den Dank für diese Pflichterfüllung zu erhalten. Eine Familie zu be-treuen als Mutter u. Hausfrau ist wohl schöner und dankbarer als viele anderen Berufe, wenn auch da Lohn hierfür sich hier nicht in der klingenden Münze wiederspiegelt.”
[“And thus it is a point of pride for you, my darling, to be given the opportunity to fulfil these tasks and to receive thanks for your efforts through the bright eyes of our children. To care for a family as a mother and housewife is certainly more pleasant and gratifying than many other jobs, even if the earnings are not reflected in the sound of jangling coins.”]
From Emilie’s discouragement at her predicament as a single mother, a situation that she believed to be temporary, one can imagine what losing her husband all together did to her overall outlook on life. This idea indicates that perhaps a line can be drawn from these early letters to the emotionally drained woman she was perceived as years later.
In Reading Primary Sources, seven key steps for interpreting primary sources are listed. I would like to mention just a few of these and explain how they can be applied to this specific collection of primary sources. One aspect of interpretation is to examine if and how a source uses imbalanced binary distinctions, or concepts that distinguish between social groups or collectives in an imbalanced manner. (Ibid., p. 60.) A frequent example of this occurs in Josef’s letters as he describes the differences he has observed between German and French people while stationed in Paris, bearing in mind the nature of the propaganda of the time and how it may have influenced Germans’ perceptions of foreigners.
On the 25th of February 1942, Josef writes, “Die Verhältnisse in diesem Marinelazarett sind echt ,,französisch”. Man sollte es nicht glauben, daß in Mar. Lazarett des größten franz. Kriegshafens mit den Krankensäle nicht einmal fließendes Wasser war. Das mußten die deutschen nach der Besitzung erst einrichten.” [“The accommodations in this naval hospital are really ‘French.’ One can hardly believe that in a naval hospital situated in the largest French wartime harbor, the sick rooms do not even have running water! The Germans will have to deal with that after the occupation.”] It is important to note, however, that as many positive things are said about the French locals he encounters as negative, and that while he demonstrates prejudice against aspects of French culture and lifestyle, these prejudices do not appear to extend to individuals he meets while in France.
Another key aspect of interpreting primary sources is to examine whether a source includes references to the narrator and/or reader. Clearly, letters are an excellent example of this sort of discourse, as Ziemann and Dobson describe: “When the importance of the reader is flagged in the narrative itself, this needs special attention. A good example are again letters from the two World Wars, in which many soldiers directly addressed their wives, tried to anticipate their reactions, and to embed these reactions into their account of life at the front. Such a narrative strategy helped to foster a ficticious consensus between the spouses, and possibly helped them reassure one another of the continuing relevance of their marital relation even over extended periods of separation. Not only their content, but also the narrative form of these letters was an important part of their communicative function.” (Ibid., p. 9.) In fact, this feature of identifying both narrator and intended audience is what makes letters such a unique class of primary sources. Though they may not indicate the exact thoughts or state of mind of an author, “they do allow the careful historian to examine the complex web of relationships between individual, family, and society that shapes a person’s sense of self and their understanding of the world they inhabit." (Ibid., p. 69.)
The last step in analyzing primary sources that I would like to discuss is the importance of context for the interpretation of a text. According to Ziemann and Dobson, “an awareness of the circumstances in which the text is produced is important.” (Ibid., p. 11.) In that vein, four levels of contextual analysis exist: situational, media, institutional, and the wider historical context. The first two are relatively clear: the place and time the source was composed in, and its form of communication (in this case, letters). Institutionally, the letters are interactive encounters between family members. The wider historical context of the letters can be gleaned from the examination of other primary sources from the time period, as well as secondary sources. I have already begun to gather this information, as it will help in both the annotation of the letters as well as my written introduction.
The transcription of over two hundred letters, the countless hours of translating and researching, editing and interpreting can be quite taxing at times. The emotions that the letters contain and the tragic story of their eventual end make my task seem daunting on the best of days. However, knowing that my work has meaning--for myself, for my family, and for wider circles of people in academia and elsewhere--provides me with a strong sense of motivation. Ziemann and Dobson sum it up best when they say, “In these secular times, we are looking for different kinds of truth: about how words allow relationships -- of power, of community, of love or hate -- to be created and sustained in different ways and at different times. In examining the ways in which these communications work, we can reveal something significant about the changing nature of social and political interactions and experiences over time." (Ibid., p. 15.) If I can contribute something, even something small to that idea, I will feel that my work has been successful. And at the moment, I feel that I am off to a good start.
Instead of a formal closing, I would like to go into a close reading of two letters from the early weeks of Josef and Emilie’s separation, one written by each of them. I would like to invite you all to read them over and then I’ll open the floor to comments. As I myself am at an early stage in the analysis and interpretation of the letters, please feel free to ask as questions but understand that I may not be able to answer them yet. I will also circulate copies of the original letters, so if there are mistakes in the transcription please alert me to that as well. ☐
The discussion that followed this presentation was very enlightening. My peers and professors asked thoughtful questions that helped me recognize the many different directions that this project could take. The analysis of the two letters brought about some interesting ideas; for example, how couples maintained the semblance of a conversation taking place in the present even when one partner was away, or what the possible differences might be between Josef’s letters, which were primarily written from military hospitals, and those of soldiers from the front. Questions of to what extent Josef and Emilie had to worry about censorship also came up, and it was determined that although very few letters were actually read by wartime censors in the grand scheme of things, the punishments for dissent were so draconian that most letter writers of the period feared the possibility that their letters would be read by a third party.
Broader, thematic topics of discussion included the possible changes in self-perception or the perception of foreigners within the letters themselves, and the overall changes in social connections over time. At one point, a peer asked a question dangerously close to the ever-present, “Was he a tried and true Nazi?” question, which resulted in a disapproving professor replying that that question that should never be asked, because such speculation brings nothing useful to the discussion. The lecture ended with a question that I myself have wondered over and over again: Why did Emilie save the letters, and why did she go to such lengths to prevent their discovery? We will never know for sure, but I am hoping that over the next several months, I will be able to at least start making some guesses.