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 ended up in a dossier in one sort of bureaucracy or another. Take the form that a family member filled out in hopes of finding a missing person. That form was put in a folder. The tracing service looked at lists and made inquiries. The responses to the inquiries are all in the folder. They will tell you where that person was found or was not found. The absence of anything else in that folder will tell you that that person truly did disappear and probably before being transferred to another bureaucracy which would have made note of that person’s arrival. Taken all together that folder will tell you a story about the people who were looking for that person. It is not always a concerned wife. Sometimes it is a lover or a lawyer charged with liquidating that person’s estate.

The example of someone making a formal accusation of collaboration would have created an even thicker folder. Collaboration was a capital crime. The authorities investigated. So you may end up with police reports written by detectives who went to interview the neighbors. There may be testimonials from friends and relations of the accused. There may be testimonials from victims. There may be notations that will direct you to other files involving the trial or hearing. I once found such a dossier that took up three overstuffed manila envelopes because it went on for more than 20 years. The authorities concluded that the charges had more to do with small town rivalries and postwar politics than anything else but neither side would give it up. If I just had the original accusation, I might be tempted to believe it. But twenty years of claims and counter-claims and the police investigations that followed them puts an entirely different perspective on the matter.

It is also possible that there are more files on the same subject. Depending who wrote them, they might be in the same archive or a different one. For example, more than one member of Dutch-Paris was arrested under a false name. So the family’s effort to find that person under his or her real name came to nothing. But there are documents about that person under the false name. Also, the family may have asked more than one office in more than one country to help find the missing person.

Reading through entire folders of documents in the archives also gives you a sense of the writer. Does this person always exaggerate? Is this person careful in his or her claims? Was this person unmasked as a collaborator in 1952 and sentenced to prison?

Once you have your document and its context, you need to ask three key questions of it: who, when and why.