“German History in Documents and Images: Beyond ‘Old National History’”

Work on the relaunch of the German History in Documents and Images website begins in April 2018. We talked with project manager Kelly McCullough about the history of this project, its target audience, and its potential use in transregional research.

Can you tell us a little bit about German History in Documents and Images (GHDI): What is the idea behind it, when did it all start, and even more basically: what is the GHDI page?

German History in Documents and Images (GHDI) is a digital compendium of primary-source texts and images from the Early Modern period to the twenty-first century. The texts, which represent multiple genres, are published in the original language (typically German) and English translation; the images, which are similarly diverse, come from select visual and archival collections. All of the sources are accompanied by critical commentaries that provide context and invite further reflection. The project is divided into ten chronological volumes, each of which was edited by a leading historian of Germany (or team). In addition to documents and images, each volume includes maps and an introduction to the featured time period. The website currently includes more than 4,000 individual sources and approximately 16,000 pages.

“Another View of Things: Rosa Luxemburg,” screen shot of a document page from volume 5 of GHDI, Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War (1890-1918)

GHDI was launched in 2003 with the support of the Max Kade Foundation, New York, and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius. It was created by a binational group of historians associated with the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC. The group aimed to use the Internet, which was then relatively new, to make a large collection of historical documents available online in German and English translation. The project was modeled on early websites such as the “Internet History Sourcebooks” and was very much a product of its time. Access and the need to democratize German history – both by translating primary sources for non-German audiences and by making everything available at no cost – were leading concerns. But the group also wanted to publish compelling and reliable content: texts and images that were both thought provoking and properly attributed; materials that scholars, teachers, and students would want to use and could cite with confidence.

Interdisciplinarity was a major imperative. Originally, the project was supposed to focus exclusively on texts, but the founding group quickly decided that images needed to be included as well, not only because they were equally indispensable as historical sources, but also because they would help the project reach professors, students, and researchers in the fields of art and architectural history, visual studies, and German studies. On the whole, the project aimed to move beyond “old national history” – volume editors were strongly encouraged to include sources representing newer fields of scholarly inquiry (e.g. gender and sexuality, popular culture).

What is the audience you are targeting with this project, who is using the documents and images you are making available?

Our target audience is scholars and researchers, university (and other) instructors, and students in Germany, North America, and beyond. On the basis of website statistics, survey results, and, as importantly, direct user feedback, I would say that our target audience is also our actual audience. According to user statistics, the site attracted approximately 80,000 visitors in January 2018. The U.S. and Germany were at the top of that month’s page-view list. As part of an online survey conducted last year, the GHI Washington collected data from approximately 700 GHDI users from more than thirty countries. The majority of respondents came from North America or Germany and identified themselves as either professors or university students; around 10% identified themselves as researchers.

Qualitative information is harder to gather but often more interesting than statistics or survey results. Google searches show that GHDI is frequently included as a recommended resource in university library research guides in North America and Germany; likewise, it is often featured in university course syllabi, mostly in North America. If you type the site’s name or URL into Google Scholar, you’ll also see that GHDI is referenced in dissertations, M.A. theses, and essays published on university-based research portals. This makes clear that the site is used not only in academic teaching but also in student and faculty research. Searches of this sort also show that GHDI materials have been republished or cited in English-language books by university presses and German language monographs.

Direct feedback from colleagues, either in person or via email, is helpful because it tells us exactly who’s using GHDI. Project-related inquiries from remote users are also instructive. Sometimes, for example, users email us with questions about published materials (in most instances, they are seeking permission to reprint GHDI materials). These messages are always interesting because they attest to the diversity of our audience, both in terms of academic discipline and country of origin. Our three most recent inquiries came from a Dutch graduate student researching Berlin fashion houses, an Eastern European professor writing a book on gardens, parks, and patronage, and a French museum preparing an exhibition on coding.

“Foreign Worker, Guest Worker, Colleague?,” screen shot of an image page from volume 9 of GHDI, Two Germanies (1961-1989).

Would you describe this project as a transregional one and if so, why?

Yes, most definitely. The project was designed to reflect the fact that “German” history happens – and has always happened – beyond the borders of today’s Germany and of any land or territory that ever identified as “German,” linguistically, culturally, or otherwise. One result is that many of our primary-source documents in “German history” originated outside of any “Germany” and were written in French, English, Russian, or other world languages. In a large, collaborative research project that spans more than five centuries and introduces various types of relationships – political, economic, cultural, etc., the whole question of “transregional” is interesting, not least because it is always changing. Whether or how strongly an issue is considered “transregional” depends on the time period, the context, and, in some cases, the selected interpretive framework. The first volume of the project, From the Reformation to the Thirty Years War (1500-1648), includes sections such as “Neighbors and Enemies” and “The Thirty Years War,” both of which could be described as consciously or overtly transregional. But other themes emerge as transregional in a different way. A good portion of the action in the volume, for example, involves people and places in the Swiss Confederation and the Kingdom of Bohemia; the featured images were created not only by “Germans,” but also by Dutch, Italian, and other artists. Here, however, transregionalism is less a conscious choice than the byproduct of the editors’ interest in introducing confessional debates and schisms in Early Modern Europe. Moreover, themes that could qualify as transregional from the vantage point of 2018 may have looked different for the authors of the various eyewitness accounts included in that volume.

There are other challenges, too: in volume four, Forging an Empire: Bismarckian Germany (1866-1890), a unified Germany emerges for the first time and, among other goals, seeks to develop overseas colonies. Accordingly, certain textual and visual sources elucidate aspects of a colonization project that could be described as transregional or even global. At the same time, however, there still is a different transregional story playing out within the borders of a newly unified German nation consisting of disparate member states with their own regional identities and priorities. Transregionalism changes again in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The project’s postwar volumes discuss the division of Germany and the integration of the two German states into separate geographical and ideological blocs, each of which came with its own transregional alliances and partnerships. In the last volume of the project, One Germany in Europe, which covers 1990 until the present, the expansion of the European Union brings other changes; relationships that were once “transregional” are now “European.”

Because these issues are both so challenging and so topical, the GHI Washington is currently developing a new source-based project called German History Intersections. Conceived as a pendant project to GHDI, Intersections is organized thematically as opposed to chronologically: it takes a long view on three topics – “German” identity, migration (both in and out), and knowledge and education – charting their evolution over five centuries (1500 to the present). Using texts, images, and multimedia sources, Intersections will showcase a diverse and outward-looking “Germany” that has always been inseparable from larger regional, continental, and global contexts.         

What is the idea behind the relaunch of the site? Which advantages will it bring, which new features can users expect?

After arriving at the GHI Washington in 2015, our director, Simone Lässig, made relaunching GHDI a priority. The relaunch, which officially begins in April 2018, will include extensive editorial and technical work programs. The ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius is sponsoring the editorial work program; the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft is supporting the infrastructure work. We are extremely grateful for the sponsorship of these two organizations. On the whole, the goal is to bring the site up to date in terms of historiography and methodology, on the one hand, and digital technology, on the other. Many new sources will be added to the site, but the changes will be more than additive. One leading content-related object, for example, is recasting GHDI in light of the transnational and global turns in history.

Among other objectives, the technical relaunch will involve replacing the site’s aged infrastructure with a dynamic platform that sets the content (i.e. the primary sources) off to better advantage. The new platform will also accommodate multimedia sources, which have become increasingly important in historical research in the past decade. So this change will benefit scholars. At the same time, the integration of audio and video sources will make the site more appealing to a generation of students who have grown up with YouTube and iTunes. Additionally, document facsimiles will be added to the project for the first time. On a different note, we also plan into include a comprehensive bibliography.

After GHDI is migrated to the new platform, the site’s 4,000-plus existing sources will be enhanced with metadata and custom data tags. This work will lay the foundation for new ways of navigating the site: at the moment, the sources are anchored in different chronological volumes, where they are divided still further into genre-based categories (i.e. document, image, and map). In the course of the relaunch, diverse sources relating to certain subjects or themes (e.g. youth movements) will be tagged accordingly, so that future users will be able to search across volumes and genres for materials on those subjects. Among other advantages, these new navigational options will make the site more useful for transregional research. GHDI presently includes hundreds of sources on transregional topics: sources on trade, on foreign and imperial policy, émigré letters, etc. At the moment, however, these sources are scattered throughout the website and embedded in discrete sections. The relaunch will make these sources easily discoverable as materials with relevance for transregional research.

Kelly McCullough manages the German History in Documents and Images (GHDI) website, which is published by the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC. She also coordinates (together with Insa Kummer) the German History Intersections project and is involved in other digital initiatives. She has a Ph.D. in art history. Before joining the GHI Washington, she worked in various Philadelphia-area libraries and special collections.


Citation: Kelly McCullough “German History in Documents and Images: beyond ‘old national history’” – in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.04.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9619.


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