The (Comical) Unpredictability of Archival Research

archival files, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

I’m in Berlin this week, working on a couple of research projects–some tying up loose ends and some launching into new work. The tying up of loose ends is proving to be rather more difficult than I had hoped, but it’s a good lesson in the unpredictability of archival research, both for good and for bad.

The project in question began some years ago as a serendipitous discovery in an archival file I was combing through in the Evangelisches Zentralarchiv in Berlin. I stumbled upon some correspondence about a pastor in Berlin who had started this Protestant-Nazi group, essentially looking for ways to link his desire for spiritual renewal in Germany with the “national renewal” of the Nazis. (This was in 1934, just a year or so after Hitler had seized control of Germany.) The thing is, Pastor B. was a little over-enthusiastic, and soon found himself the target of verbal attacks and written complaints from the local German Christian Movement (another and much bigger attempt to fuse Christianity and Nazism, rather more radically than Pastor B. was hoping to do) and the local Nazi Party, which objected to Pastor B.’s comparisons of himself to Hitler and his use of Nazi symbols like the swastika.

Anyways, along the way, I discovered that some of the records for Pastor B. were still located in a parish archive in Berlin–essentially a stash of old files (maybe 20 or 30 photocopier boxes worth) in a closet or on shelves in a room in a church. Last year, I e-mailed Pastor A. from the parish to see if I could access the archive, and because this was all on short notice, I went to the church in person to follow up. No e-mail response. Stonewalled by the church administrator, Herr S.

Fast forward one year and I made new plans for another run at the parish archive. This time, a few weeks before coming, I e-mailed a friendly contact of mine who was known to the parish, Dr. Professor. So Dr. Professor called the new church administrator, Frau H. No luck (I won’t repeat the words he used to describe her, but they were pretty funny.) Dr. Professor then contacted Retired Pastor S. from the parish, a man who seemed to be kindly disposed to my gaining access to the archive. Then nothing. Silence.

A week before I was to come to Berlin, I e-mailed Pastor A. from the parish, who, I quickly learned from an auto-reply, was on holiday all summer (nice gig!). Consequently, I e-mailed Frau H., the church administrator. No answer.

So once again, for the second year in a row, I cold-called the church myself, asking if I could use their archive. Twice. On my second try, I got to meet church administrator Frau H. in person! I gave my Spiel about being the Canadian professor who had written and was hoping …. Frau H. took about 1.2 seconds to let me know there was nothing she could do. The fact was that she was not responsible for the archive. Frau K. was. Frau K. happened to be a volunteer who came on Mondays … sometimes … to tend the archive. But she was sick, and unavailable. (At this point I could feel all my convictions about German organization and competence shattering inside me.)

But I am a professor, and this means something in Germany (sigh), so I did not budge. I asked who else was responsible, and what else could be done. I only had a few days for research in Berlin. Nothing could be done, I was told. End of story. (So much for the weight of being a professor.)

Just then, another woman–we’ll call her Angel–walked up and joined the conversation (even mixing in a little English to augment my serviceable but grammatically uneven German). Angel noted that the archive had suffered water damage some years ago, had been moved to another church, then moved back, but not reorganized yet. (This is a very serious condition, this not being an organized archive.) But she also urged Frau H. to at least try to make some calls, so Frau H. disappeared into her office to do just that. Angel reiterated to me that Frau K.,who ran the archive, was only a volunteer, but also noted that the parish had actually been waiting quite awhile for the reorganization of the archive … and that they were not a private archive, and had to open their doors to researchers, after all. I made it clear that an unorganized archive (how unorganized could a German archive get?) would not overwhelm me, and that I had worked with many church archives across Germany over the years. (This was true!) Angel hoped Frau H. could convince Frau K. to let me try to find the files I needed.

My dear wife Colleen watched this entire soap opera unfold. I’m not sure if she was praying or rolling her eyes.

Angel and I then opened the door to Frau H.’s office to see if there was any news. Turns  out that Dr. Professor’s efforts had born fruit, for Retired Pastor S. had already called Frau H., and now they were talking again. Frau H. was smiling and sounding upbeat! Could there be a breakthrough? Frau H. hung up, and announced she would call Frau K. … which she then proceeded to do! Frau H. left quite a stirring message for Frau K., noting that a Canadian professor was here to use the archives, that Retired Pastor S. had said it was “urgently necessary!” for him (me!) to have access THIS WEEK, because that’s all the time he (me!) would have for research in Berlin. Hanging up the phone, Frau H. smiled (at me!), and sounded hopeful for a breakthrough. Everyone smiled (again!) and said, “Thank you.”

That was on Tuesday.

Thursday, I called to see if Frau K. had surfaced or called. No.

Frau H. and I agreed I should call Friday. That was today. I called. There was no answer.

So, once again, for the second year running, I strike out at the archive of a Berlin parish church.

Let me hasten to add that Germany is normally the best place in the world to research, with very organized libraries and archives and phenomenally competent staff. For example, I’ve been helped by the same archivist at the Evangelisches Zentralarchiv in Berlin since I started researching there in 1993. It is 2014.

But I am feeling a little cynical, because it’s not the first time I’ve been stonewalled. In 1993, while doing doctoral research in Saxony (where the central church archives had been bombed to smithereens in 1945, along with the rest of Dresden), I wrote to no less than seven church districts to ask about doing research in their archives. Six replied. All wrote, “No.” The reasons varied from renovations to retirement to (my personal favourite) “Nothing happened here.” Thankfully, I had another professor to help me then too, and he opened the doors. I ended up researching at the district which hadn’t even dignified my request with a reply. When I got there, they had set a few things aside for me to see: a completely organized, typed catalogue of their archival holdings (YES!) and stack of five files totalling about nine inches in thickness, each one with the title “Church Struggle” (WOW!).

I was hoping for a similarly happy ending this week, but it doesn’t look like I’ll get it. I think it’s time to finish the article with 90 percent (likely) of the research done, say what I can say about Pastor B.’s Nazi Christianity, and move on to something new.

BUT WAIT! … After over a week of not hearing anything, the volunteer in charge of the parish archive e-mailed me and expressed regret over not having found out in time to open the archive, and informed me that they had decided to scan the documents I was looking for and e-mail them to me. After a number of e-mails with 25 pages of scans came in, another e-mail informed me that there was more information they had found, and that they would photocopy that and send it in the mail. So all’s well that ends well. Now I can round out my account of Pastor B. and produce the article.


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