30th Aug

Why Was the Document Written?

The most important question to ask about any document is why the person who wrote it took the trouble and used the paper to write it. I’m having a surprisingly hard time thinking of any documents out of the hundreds of thousands that I have read in wartime archives for which that is not true. Even the most seemingly neutral bureaucratic records, such as number of trains that went through a station, could have been falsified for various reasons.

But that is a level of research that is not likely to come up in looking for your own family’s history, so let’s take a much more obvious example.
In 1945 a young woman wrote that her husband, who died in the concentration camps, gave away his fortune to help Engelandvaarders escape. But just because she says it does not make it true. You have to ask yourself a number of questions.

The first asks about the context of the report. Why did she write it and for whom? Was it in her private diary? Was it a letter to a friend? Was it part of a legal claim to have the money returned to her from government funds? In short, does she have anything to gain from this claim? Obviously, if the government reimburses her for the money she says that her husband gave away, she has a lot to gain. I’m not saying that Read the rest of this entry »

16th Aug

When Was the Document Written?

Let’s continue our discussion of how to evaluate historical documents. In order to answer the question of who wrote the document and what his or her agenda may have been, you also need to know when the document was written.

In the case of the Second World War, the closer to the event a document was written, the more reliable it is. You might think that documents would get more reliable with time because more information would have been available, but they are not.

In 1944 and 1945, when the war was still happening, people reported what they themselves knew to be true. They may have been mistaken and emotions ran high, but they reported the truth as they saw it. Everything had happened recently enough that the community of witnesses kept each other honest. Plus the police and other authorities were checking people’s facts.

But things got swept under the rug in one way or another pretty quickly after the war. Every government in Europe promoted a particular myth about what had happened. Books were published that established the official history of events. Cultures developed Read the rest of this entry »

2nd Aug

Who Wrote the Document?

In the last post I talked about the importance of knowing the context of any historical document. You also need to ask three key questions about any documents: who wrote it, when and why.

Who wrote the document? You need to know this to judge whether the author can be expected to (a) know the truth and (b) tell it. Very few people knew the entire story about any resistance action during the war for the obvious reason that it was a dangerous secret. But that does not mean that different individuals did not know different parts of the story.

Obviously, if you are reading the records of a purge trial in which a policeman was likely to be sentenced to death if he was found guilty for turning resisters over to the German police, you would not trust what the man said. What about the testimonies of the witnesses? They are more trustworthy, but they are not necessarily Read the rest of this entry »

17th Jul

A friend has asked me for some advice on how to research his family history during WWII. I know that there are a lot of people trying to piece together how a relative escaped Nazi occupation or served in the Resistance, so I’ll share these thoughts with all of you. I’ve already mentioned useful archives in other posts, so these will be about the method of research.

The most important thing to keep in mind about any document from the war is context. You need to know who wrote the document, when and why. And you need to understand not just the context of the time but of the particular document. It is not enough to find a page of a document on the internet or to rely on a single report.

No one writes things down, especially during a paper shortage, without a reason. The reason might be to convey family news to a relative in another town or country. It might be to file a missing persons report in the hope of finding someone who was arrested. It might be to accuse someone of collaboration or to make a case for the defense of the accused collabo.

All of these documents called for some sort of response and most of them Read the rest of this entry »

5th Jul

The Weather and Civilians

If you wanted to know what the weather would be like during the war, you had to go stand outside and make your best guess. Even if weather forecasting had not been such a new art, the ordinary person would not have had access to any such reports. The ordinary person could not even read what the weather had been like in other places the day before because that information was classified. The British and their allies, who lived on the leading edge of the westward moving weather, weren’t about to share that information with the Luftwaffe to make their bombing raids any easier or safer. In order to keep the militarily useful information about the weather from the German army and air force, it was kept from everyone.

Yet the weather played a huge role in everyone’s lives during the war. In the first place, if bad weather kept the air forces on the ground, civilians could sleep in their beds the whole night through without fear of a bombing raid. Good weather might well bring bombers, but it would also make sleeping in the fields more bearable.

As shortages of food, fuel and clothing increased over the course of the war, ordinary people became more and more vulnerable to the weather. In many cities women and children Read the rest of this entry »

21st Jun

As I write this the world outside my window is covered in icy slush, and sleet is beating down. Large drops of mostly frozen rain pelted my face as the dog and I picked our way around patches of ice and through the icy clumps of snow left on the ground. The weather seems a lot like what Engelandvaarders and aviators described for some of their treks over the Pyrenees into Spain in January and February 1944, except the wind isn’t as strong or as cold. I was also much better dressed for the weather than they were and walking on a flat sidewalk rather than a sheep path in the mountains.

So it occurs to me that there is another vital factor about moving through a wartime city or boundary land that a map cannot convey: the weather. It made a world of difference for Engelandvaarders and aviators whether they were climbing the Pyrenees in dry and mild weather or in the middle of a blizzard.

On the other hand, a little bad weather was a help Read the rest of this entry »

7th Jun

What’s the Point of Footnotes?

What is the point of footnotes (or endnotes, as you call the ones at the end of the book)? It’s quite simple: they distinguish fiction from non-fiction.

Footnotes essentially establish a history book’s credentials. Footnotes tell the reader where the author found his or her information. They keep the historian honest because they make it possible for other historians to check his or her work.

And don’t think that that never happens. When I first started graduate school, a scandal rocked my department because a man who had recently gotten his PhD there published a sensational book about Nazis. One of his (and my) professors, who had spent decades researching the Nazis, did not agree with the book. So he traveled from California to the archives in Germany and found the document on which the student had based his entire thesis. It turned out that the student had missed the “not” in the sentence, which negated the thesis of his book. My professor always said that the point of the scandal was “never translate in the archives” but it also gave all of us a very healthy respect for footnotes.

But footnotes are also the friend of the researcher and writer. The footnotes in other people’s books Read the rest of this entry »

24th May

By the end of 1943 there was no doubt in John Weidner’s mind or that of any of his colleagues in the leadership of Dutch-Paris that the German authorities were on their trail. And they had every reason to think that those same German police would be particularly persistent in hunting down resisters who helped Allied airmen. After all, there were plenty of public announcement posters to that effect plastered around trains stations and the like. Why then, did they put the escape line for civilians and their aid to Jews in hiding at risk by helping airmen?

There were many reasons. For one, Dutch-Paris helped the persecuted. These men were being hunted down, so Dutch-Paris helped them. For another, a number of men and women in the line wanted to help the Allied war effort. Like others, they felt that getting trained aircrew back to their bases in England would mean more bombers flying over Germany, which would mean that the Allies would win the war sooner. Others felt that it was the least they could do to show their gratitude to these young men from other continents who had left their homes to risk their lives to liberate them.

And then there was politics. Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government-in-exile did not Read the rest of this entry »

10th May

Suspicion was a Survival Skill

As I mentioned in my last post, the German police, especially the counter-intelligence officers of the Abwehr, were very good at their jobs. One of the things that they were so good at was playing on the trusting natures of some resisters.

They did this by hiring local men and women as agents provocateurs. These agents, known as V-men, passed themselves off as resisters in order to entrap legitimate resisters. The legitimate resisters had no defenses against this other than their own prudence and suspiciousness. The resistance was, after all, a clandestine and volunteer society. Anyone could start a resistance organization, including, it turned out more than once, the Abwehr.
It didn’t help that some resisters were very young and many were not the naturally suspicious sort. So if a friend introduced you to someone as a resister and that person said all the right things, who were you to say he or she was not a resister?

Jean Weidner and other leaders in Dutch-Paris were all too well aware of the danger of informers and were constantly trying to impose safety protocols on the organization. More than once they verified some one’s bona fides with the authorities in London via the Dutch embassy in Switzerland. They were remarkably successful given how many people were in involved across three countries. But even so, they could not keep themselves a secret.

When British military intelligence arrested a Belgian V-mann in 1944, they found the calling card of Dutch-Paris’s top man in Paris among the traitor’s papers. A young Dutch resister had given him the card when he was in Paris claiming to be looking for places for Engelandvaarders to hide. By that time the young Dutch man and most of his colleagues had been arrested and deported to concentration camps.

Similarly, when a young Dutch-Paris courier went out to a café in Amsterdam, she ran into another young Dutchman whom she had met in Paris. Her acquaintance introduced her to his companions, a Dutch resister and his French colleague. Or so they said. They were really an Abwehr officer and his V-mann, a fact she did not discover until after she returned from Ravensbrück.

So the German police including the Abwehr knew that Dutch-Paris existed although they were confused about the details. The safety protocols that the organizations’ leaders had put into place, however, meant that the Germans could not capture the group for some time, and even then they never found the leaders.

26th Apr

How did the German police capture so many members of Dutch-Paris? The short answer is that they, especially the Abwehr (military intelligence), were very good at their jobs. And they had help from the Nazi policy of terror.

Despite the round-up, Dutch-Paris counts as a great success story in the world of the resistance. But even so, Abwehr officers knew about the line, if rather hazily. They had a lucky break in early February 1944 when a collaborationist French police unit arrested a Dutch-Paris courier. After a few days, the French police turned her over to their German colleagues.

According to the postwar testimony of the French commissioner, he turned her over because he was afraid that she was an agent provocateur sent to test his loyalty and that he would end up in the concentration camps if he did not. Obviously, the man’s testimony is not entirely reliable because he gave it at his own purge trial for crimes that carried the death penalty. Nonetheless, Read the rest of this entry »

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