[NB: Post co-authored by Maitreya and Kṣitigarbha]
For both of our projects, we both have a lot of thoughts on primary sources in particular. How do we find enough source material? Will the availability of primary sources affect our potential for scope and is this necessarily a bad thing? How do we most effectively present the information we find in these sources? These are undoubtedly questions everyone in this course will have thought about at one point or another, as this is something that we’ve all had to consider while writing our projects.
In Erica’s case, the bulk of the Red Cross archives about World War II are not open at the moment, and what is theoretically accessible is in Geneva. While it does make sense that, for the purposes of data protection, the ICRC won’t place personal information about refugees on the internet, it is frustrating nonetheless. The Red Cross did do a major report on its actions (or lack thereof) during the Second World War, which was published in 1948, but the sheer volume of information to be absorbed is truly daunting. I suspect that there are other letters, and hopefully records of conversations between ICRC agents and representatives of the Nazi Germany (and likely other) governments, but I’ll likely be mining the bibliography of books that I’ve been able to find on the subject for more information about letters. Jean-Claude Favez wrote an excellent book about the ICRC and its interactions with Nazi Germany which does contain records of letters, reports, etc., but more reading will be required.
One of the concerns that is somewhat unique to Erica’s project is the somewhat peculiar nature of writing about international organizations. Erica will elaborate on this in a subsequent blog post, but she is slightly worried about writing a history that is not strictly transnational in nature. She thinks that when you are writing about an international organization, it is easy to completely neglect ‘transnational’ ideas, and write a history that is completely removed from nation-states. One of the strange paradoxes of transnational history that she has come to appreciate throughout this course is that transnational history has a complicated relationship with the nation-state – it both attempts to transcend it in rejecting strictly comparative views of history, but also kind of requires that the basic category of nation-states continues to exist so that transnational trends can be examined in detail. Where this specifically comes in for Erica’s project is that it might be very easy for me to just write about internal, high-level decisions in the Red Cross without thinking about the transnational networks involved in making decisions. For example, it would make sense for me to write about the Red Cross’ interactions with both the Swiss and German governments, as well as examining the actual work on the ground that Red Cross inspectors were doing in occupied Eastern Europe. Erica has realised throughout the course of her project that she almost needs to do almost the opposite of what Sian is considering – she needs to look at a more broad-based examination of the Red Cross actions so that her project remains truly transnational in scope.
In Siân’s case, the primary sources really have dictated the nature of the project. The initial idea for a project was to explore the transnational links between the different welfare state systems adopted across Europe before and after the Second World War. Whilst this sounded viable at first, after thinking more about sources that would highlight transnational links between these welfare states, it became obvious this could only be achieved through tracing how ideas moved from place to place and person to person.Obviously, this would require a very narrow approach in regard to sources, as trying to understand how an individual might have been inspired by an idea means that more personal sources (such as diary entries, letters, etc.) and sources dealing with particular episodes (e.g. newspaper articles) would need to be used. This has inevitably put an end to any idea of a pan-European history as was initially conceived, as it has become very clear this would need far more than a 5,000 word project to do it any sort of justice! Instead, the sources have led towards a more microhistorical perspective on the topic.
At first, this was a seriously daunting prospect, something which was discussed in last week’s blog post. Trying to shed any sort of meaningful light on a topic such as the welfare state in a microhistory seemed impossible. However, after last Tuesday’s meeting, it became obvious that several members of the class had had nearly the exact same issue. Not only that, but people seemed somewhat excited about narrowing down their focus of study to such an extent. After discussing this as a group it actually became fairly clear that, in a paradoxical way, having a smaller lens through which to approach a topic can often lead to more source material becoming available. For instance, had the topic remained as broad as initially intended, it would not be as clear what particular primary material should be approached first. This is definitely not an issue now. Hearing the opinions of others in a similar situation has been an enormous comfort and help in this regard. Having to rely on your own resources to go and find primary evidence from which you can make a valid argument can be extremely daunting to say the least. Knowing that you are not the only person whose initial idea had to be modified significantly is reassurance that this is simply all part and parcel of carrying out your own research.
The challenges regarding both may be slightly different, but the key thought we both shared when discussing our projects was how to get the most from the primary sources we could.