If we have learned anything from pondering the implications of history in the digital age, there is a sense among those who have written about such things that a profound change is occurring. Throughout the past several months of blog postings here, I have attempted to draw attention to some of the central ideas behind the transformative and disruptive influence of new media on history: Consumers of historical inquiry are demanding more interactivity from the results of historical research; professionals in the humanities are finding new ways of gathering and analyzing data from the exponentially growing body of information on the web; instant communication is breaking down and changing concepts of intellectual authority and learning; and models of productivity and profitability have been dramatically destabilized as access widens to large amounts of information.
Indeed, it has even changed the way I approach history. Before we delve into the subject of this article, the changing relationship of digital media and its effect on a narrow slice of my field of research (in this case, General Motors and the Nazis) it is worth noting that my methodology in producing this work has been purposefully altered for this piece. First, this writing is entirely “born digital,” produced exclusively on this blog. Second, I am writing in the first person, common to blog formats in order to personalize the exploration of this historical problem. As regular readers of this blog will notice, this is a departure from most of the academic writing found here, written in the “objective” third person. Finally, I have chosen to avoid footnotes where possible and hyperlink my sources instead, so that the reader can follow my train of inquiry to the conclusions I have reached.
So what does General Motors, the Third Reich, Edwin Black, Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., and digital history have in common? As it turns out, they are more interrelated than one might think. It is a sorted story of colorful personalities, war profiteering, accusations of conspiracy, and historiographical controversy. In order to understand its breadth and depth, hang on with me I present some background on the topic.
General Motors and the Nazis
General Motors (GM) was already a sprawling, worldwide company with a strong presence in Europe by the time Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. The most comprehensive histories of GM, like Alfred Chandler’s Strategy and Structure (1969) and Scale and Scope (1990) as well as the memoirs of long time president and chairman Alfred Sloan’s My Years at General Motors (1963), provide a myriad of technical details about GM’s business during the 1930s and 1940s; however, none these texts explicitly discusses GM’s business connections to the Nazis. Likewise, a perusal of GM’s history and heritage website, http://www.gm.com/company/historyAndHeritage.html reveals almost nothing about the company’s wartime activities. If one pays close attention to GM’s own account of its history on the above website, an observer might note that GM had acquired three major overseas subsidiaries by 1933: Vauxhall in England, GM-Holden in Australia, and Adam Opel AG in Germany.
From my own reading of the above texts, as well as primary and secondary sources I will discuss a bit later, we can fill in the details. Opel, located in the industrial suburb of Russelheim outside of Frankfurt, was purchased by GM in the late 1920s and was already the largest automotive manufacturer in Europe by market share. The Great Depression hit the company pretty hard, as it did to most businesses, but was already heading into recovery by the early 1930s. Its products were chiefly cars and trucks built and distributed in Europe, although GM also exported vehicles to the continent manufactured in United States.
The Nazi seizure of power in Germany affected the automotive market in Germany in two important ways: Hitler was keenly interested in stimulating consumer demand by promoting small, affordable automobiles for the German public. This came in tandem with the large Nazi public works highway project, the Autobahn, meant to increase employment. Thus, he fostered competition among automakers (an interesting story unto itself) which was eventually won by Ferdinand Porsche and led to the creation of Volkswagen. Although they lost this competition, this led to efforts by Opel’s management, including the head of General Motors Overseas Operations, James Mooney, to align Opel’s business operations with Nazi demands. It would not be long before that relationship would come to fruition by causing the company to focus on increasingly large orders for the Opel “Blitz” truck by the German military. These were manufactured at a new expansive factory in Brandenburg, near Berlin. As it turned out, these trucks were critical to the overall military strategy of the Nazis, which focused on rapid, massive attacks deep into foreign territory. This made the need for reliable supply lines, and vehicles to service them, increasingly important.
Growing friction between the xenophobic Nazis and the American-owned car company eventually resulted in GM executives choosing a few Nazi Party insiders who could be reliably depended on to lead their subsidiary in Germany. This way, the American parent company could maintain ownership and managerial control of its overseas operations while appearing to the Nazis to be under their leadership. Profits were more problematic for GM, as the Nazis had strict rules against profits leaving Germany. Thus, like many other foreign companies, these gains were either reinvested to expand operations, or sequestered in blocked accounts.
After Germany attacked Poland, military production at Opel increased. GM executives were unable to resist Nazi pressure to push Opel’s operations in this direction. Brandenburg continued to produce Blitz trucks. Also, consumer automobile production had all but halted at their man factories in Russelheim, which were retooled to build engines for the workhorse bomber/fighter of the German airforce, the JU-88. This was the military hardware the Nazis used to rain down bombs and destruction on London.
Opel’s fate progressed rapidly thereafter. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, its ally Germany declared war on the US. Remaining American personnel were withdrawn from Opel and the parent company dispensed of its subsidiary as a tax write-off. Behind the scenes, Opel’s lawyer maintained US ownership of the company. Opel continued to produce military equipment for the Nazis for a little less than four years before the Third Reich was ultimately destroyed by the Allies. During this last phase, the company used slave labor as part of the Nazi work/death camp system set up in the places in Europe it occupied. In the aftermath of the Nazi defeat in Europe, the US military authorities took control of what was left of Opel factories in Russelheim. By 1947, GM was in a formal process to regain ownership of its property and finally was able to take full control and repatriate profits from the Nazi period in 1951.
The above story of GM and Nazi Germany was not well known until 1974. At that time, there was a high profile hearing against the Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) for alleged monopolistic and anti-competitive practices. The Judiciary Committee staff attorney, Bradford Snell, issued a report demonstrating that these companies had been buying up the mass transit infrastructure in various American cities with purpose to dismantle it and sell vehicles directly to these municipalities. What was innovative about the report, however, was that Snell highlighted the past Nazi connections of both Ford and General Motors. A copy of the report can be found here: http://www.worldcarfree.net/resources/freesources/American.htm
There was predictable protest from the car companies after the issuing of the above report, but since that time, a growing body of literature has explored the topic of American automotive companies and the Nazis. Unfortunately, much of it was conspiracy theory and of dubious scholarly merit. This changed, however, when the topic of corporate collaboration with the Nazis gained wider prominence with a large number of Holocaust restitution cases were brought against companies, including GM, in the late 1990s.
Enter Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. and Edwin Black
Although there are others, Turner and Black are probably the most well-known historians of business and Nazis. Black is responsible for the best-selling book on the topic, IBM and the Holocaust. Likewise, Turner’s contribution to the field is General Motors and the Nazis. But what does all this have to do with digital history, you ask? Turner and Black’s scholarship intersect in ways that bring out some important issues around digitization, accessibility, and copyright. Thus, we need to take a closer look at how these two individuals are involved with the topic.
Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. had a long, illustrious academic career. Soon after finishing his PhD at Princeton, Turner was hired as a professor at Yale in 1958. Specializing in German history, Turner spent much of the first two decades of his career there mentoring students and formulating his own ideas on the Third Reich. This came to fruition with his book, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, published in 1985. Turner had come to oppose the historiographical consensus that industrialists were major supporters of Hitler, instead arguing that they feared the Nazis for their sometimes anticapitalist rhetoric. Furthermore, Turner brought a lassiez-faire, pro-business bias to the fore in this seminal work, enthusiastically promoting the work of Knut Borchardt. Borchardt was the subject of fierce controversy in the German scholarly world in the 1970s, when he conflated the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the coming of the Nazis on the Republic’s purportedly overly generous social safety nets, an argument that has been repeatedly utilized to criticize Keynesian economics more broadly.
This would not be the only controversy that Turner would become embroiled in. He is probably most well known for his involvement in the “David Abraham Affair,” which appears prominently in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream (1988). In that episode, Abraham had worked on the same topic as German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, except from a Marxist perspective, arguing that industrialists had been natural allies with the Nazis. Turner found errors in Abraham’s citations and translations and aggressively attacked Abraham for academic dishonesty. Turner attempted to block the publication of Abraham’s work. Other colleagues of Turner’s, including former student Peter Hayes, and Gerald Feldman, also leveled criticism against Abraham. This led some early supporters of Abraham, including Carl Schorske, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Thomas Bender to come to Abraham’s defense. They accused Turner and his ilk of “fetishing facts,” which barely concealed an ideological attack on Abraham’s work. Ironically, both Hayes and Feldman were also subsequently hired by companies accused of Nazi-era collaboration. A short encapsulation of these events can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Ashby_Turner
Thus, when GM found itself targeted for criticism in the late 1990s when Holocaust survivors began to sue, Turner, who had conservative, pro-business credentials, was a likely choice to investigate the company’s Nazi past. The New York Times noted that Turner was among the “academic all-stars” hired by various corporations to investigate their past http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/18/business/chroniclers-collaboration-historians-are-demand-study-corporate-ties-nazis.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm. Furthermore, Turner was well established with institutional support at Yale with a large number of graduate students to assist in helping GM investigate its business with the Third Reich.
According to Turner, he spent one year in GM’s employ working on their Nazi-era documentation project. Subsequently, Turner published the book General Motors and the Nazis in 2005, utilizing this documentation. Turner opens his preface (viii) with a description of his role in the project:
With the goal of assessing the validity of these accusations and setting the record straight, this book examines GM’s relations with Opel and the German government. It was made possible by a documentation project that I directed during the years 1999-2000 under the sponsorship of the General Motors Corporation. Initiated by GM in response to pending class action suits on behalf of victims of forced labor against American corporations that had owned German firms during the Third Reich, the project was designed to locate all available relevant records and provide information to GM.
Crucial to our discussion on digital history, Turner then provides a glimpse of his methodology in putting together the GM collection. Turner continues:
To that end, GM granted full and unrestricted access to its files and those of its subsidiaries. The relevant records of GM, Opel, and some of the corporation’s other foreign subsidiaries were copied onto compact discs and cataloged, along with those located in other repositories, in a compact-disc database. Upon completion of the documentation project, a complete set of the discs, designated as the General Motors-Opel Collection, was donated to GM to the Manuscripts and Archives Division of Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library, where all are available to other researchers.
Finally, Turner concludes his preface by asserting his independence from GM:
This book was not commissioned by General Motors. It was written after the documentation project was completed and without any financial support from GM. Its contents were seen by no one at GM prior to publication. It is therefore an independent undertaking by the author, who bears sole responsibility for its contents.
And there we are to take Turner’s words at face value. The result is a book that is written primarily from the perspective of GM’s managers. Turner argues that the corporation did not do business with the Third Reich by choice. He concludes:
Implicit in much of the criticism of GM’s role at Opel is the assumption that the American corporation did business in the Third Reich by choice. Such was not the case…A failing subsidiary can be written off, but dropping one that was generating rising profits was simply not feasible for an American corporation answerable to its shareholders and subject to stock-market forces at home during a period of lingering depression in the United States…Like other American companies with operations in Germany, GM therefore opted under the circumstances to hold on to what amounted to a hostage of the Third Reich in hopes of better times (151).
To paraphrase, Turner’s analysis of GM’s actions boils down to the assumption that profit motive outweighed any moral concerns among the corporate management. According to Turner, GM eventually recovered a mere $261 thousand dollars in profits in 1951, which included a complex calculation of tax write offs, compensation from the US for war damage, and currency devaluations under the new West German Government (149). In a footnote, however, Turner concedes that GM was awarded over $10 million dollars in tax refunds, which is less than the $33 million dollar refund other texts have claimed (Working for the Enemy, Trading with the Enemy) – and still a drop in the bucket compared to GM’s total profits during this period (190).
Thus, we are left to make three assumptions based on Turner’s work: That whatever Turner’s relationship was with GM, it had no influence on his conclusions; that criticisms of GM’s actions were groundless based on his reading of the sources he was personally responsible for assembling; and that his accounting of GM’s recovered profits are accurate.
Naturally, there would be those who would question Turner’s conclusions. Unfortunately, Turner passed away in 2008 not long after General Motors and the Nazis was published. Confusion about Turner’s relationship with GM manifested itself in two somewhat contradictory obituaries. The one written by his former student, Peter Hayes, notes that Turner’s last book was “written independently of the firms involved and for which he received no remuneration from them.” http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0905/0905mem7.cfm However, the obit written by William Grimes in the New York Times simply states that he was hired by GM and his research led to the publication of his book. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/19/books/19turner.html?_r=0 In my own conversations with Grimes last year, he noted that the word “hired” connoted that money changed hands, but that there was not yet solid evidence to suggest how much Turner may or may not have been paid by GM prior to the publication of his book. More on this later.
I was not the first to be skeptical of Turner’s conclusions. You can read about where I place Turner in the historiography here: http://jasonweixelbaum.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/collaboration-in-context-new-historiographical-approaches-to-alleged-americannazi-business-ties/ In any case, when Turner published his book in 2005, Edwin Black was already the most well known writer on the topic of corporate collaboration with the Nazis. His book, IBM and the Holocaust was a worldwide bestseller. Likewise, Turner was already on Black’s radar after Turner wrote an exceedingly negative review of his IBM book in the Business History Review: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3116406. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the other two critical reviews of Black’s book both came from Turner’s peers, Peter Hayes and Michael Thad Allen (also from Yale).
Aside from the possible ideological motivations of the above critics, it is unsurprising that some academics balked at Black’s work. Literally from the first few pages, where he calls the publishing of his research “historic bravery and literary fearlessness” (5) to his self-referential recounting of the review process of his manuscript with “some of the finest editors and translators in the book world” in his conclusion, the text contains plenty of overstated commentary. That said, it is fair to say that a bestseller will also have its share of positive reviews. The famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Atlantic magazine editor and journalist Jack Beatty, and head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, all gave IBM and the Holocaust glowing reviews that are present in the book’s front matter. Black also notes that the prolific and well-regarded German historian, Gerhard Hirschfeld, reviewed, and presumably approved of the text before its publication (441). Beyond sensationalism, Black proved to be very aggressive when it came to countering criticisms of his work. He has published an entire page of retractions from various publishers about IBM and the Holocaust: http://www.edwinblack.com/index.php?page=80219
As such, it should not be shocking that Black decided to set his sights on Turner’s work for his next book, Internal Combustion (2006) which happened to also concern automotive corporations. Like Snell, Black highlighted anti-competitive and anti-innovative practices of car companies and used their history of doing business with the Nazis as a vehicle to support his criticism.
This leads us to the crux of our digital history conversation. Black went to Yale and attempted to access Turner’s collection. Black had difficulties looking at the source materials at the archive and wrote a piece in June 2008 on his website, The Cutting Edge News, claiming that a conspiracy existed between Turner, Yale, and GM: http://www.thecuttingedgenews.com/index.php?article=113&pageid=22&pagename=Investigation. This piece has also been published in other places, including the Jewish Virtual Library http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/gm.html. Here is what Black wrote this about his experience at Yale:
The GM Opel documents assembled for the company’s probe and Turner’s commissioned examination were digitized on CD-ROMs and donated to Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, where the collection is categorized as being “open to the public.” In point of fact, the obscure collection can only be viewed on a computer terminal; print-outs or digital copies are not permitted without the written consent of GM attorneys.
Sterling reference librarians, who are willing to make the collection available, complained to this reporter as recently as October 2007 that they do not know how to access the digitized GM materials because of a complicated and arcane database never before encountered by them. One Sterling reference librarian answered a question about the document by declaring, “I have spoken to two reference librarians. No one knows anything about it [the GM Opel Collection], no one is in charge of it. No one knows how to access it.”
Yale archivist Richard Szary, who supervised the accession of the collection, said that for the approximate half-decade that the documents have been on file, he knows of only “one or two” researchers other than this reporter who have had access to the papers. Szary, who was previously said to be the only Yale staffer who understood how to access the materials, facilitated this reporter’s on-site access. He has since left Yale. By late November, however, in response to an inquiry by this reporter, a senior Sterling librarian said her staff would “figure out how to make it available” by reviewing technical details.
This led to a historical conundrum. Who’s word does one trust? Did Edwin Black exaggerate his experience there? Was there really a conspiracy? Should we consider Turner the final word on the topic?
I decided to make a trip to New Haven and take a look for myself.
Before I get to my own investigation, some preliminaries are worth noting. First, unlike any other archive I’ve visited to date, I was required to sign up on Yale’s website and request the materials I wanted to review in advance. The FAQ and login instructions were not as easy to find as I would have liked, but are accessible here: http://www.library.yale.edu/mssa/ifr_faqs.html#11. I also noted that you had to request your materials at least two business days ahead of time; however, this was not necessarily unusual for collections stored off-site. By comparison, when I did research using various collections at Harvard Business School, I was required to call ahead and make an appointment, but no electronic registration was necessary. Was this a sign of conspiracy, though? Not really.
The copyright info on the finding aid website http://drs.library.yale.edu:8083/HLTransformer/HLTransServlet?stylename=yul.ead2002.xhtml.xsl&pid=mssa:ms.1799&clear-stylesheet-cache=yes was as stringent as I expected:
Copyright is retained by General Motors Corporation for materials authored or otherwise produced in the course of its business activities. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.
Copying Restriction: Copies of the documents in this collection may not be made for researcher use without written permission from General Motors. Researchers must also have written permission from General Motors to take digital photographs of documents from this collection. Researchers interested in applying for copying permissions should address a letter to GM Legal Staff care of the Carrie S. Beinecke Director of Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
Another detail that piqued my interest was the request process for the documents themselves. They were listed by box number. If the materials in question were on CD-ROM, why would I need to request a box? In any case, I perused some of Turner’s footnotes and decided to request the first several entries in the collection, which included annual reports that might give some overview of GM’s Nazi Germany business activities. This led me to take a closer look at the processing notes on the finding aid website:
The original PDF files of documents scanned by Professor Turner’s research team were printed out, partially by Yale University Library staff and partially by staff at General Motors. Legibility issues in some of the PDF printouts result from poor quality in the original scans. The original document numbering sequence established by the research team was maintained and used in lieu of folder numbers; gaps in the document numbering sequence reflect gaps in the original PDF documents.
Now I was a bit confused. What did Black look at? These seemed like paper files, not a digital archive.
To New Haven
So far so good. Then I made the drive to Yale. The grounds are beautiful and gothic, much like my graduate alma mater, Boston College. I snapped a few pics of Sterling library before going in:
I was not allowed to snap photos inside.
Everyone was pleasant and friendly. I found the manuscript reading room easily enough, received an ID badge and sat down at the table to review my materials. I was asked which box I wanted to see first, which again, was a bit odd; but I did not question it. I figured someone would eventually lead me to a computer like Black had to do. I did notice that the archivists whispered to each other only somewhat out of earshot that I was not allowed to take any digital images of the files.
Instead, the archivist brought boxes containing folders and paper files to my desk. They appeared to be freshly printed documents and I immediately began to suspect that the collection had, in fact, gone through some changes since Black’s visit. I decided it was time to get more details on the collection.
I spoke to the current archivist on duty, Michael, about the collection. He said he remembered the collection being put together and even the Edwin Black visit. He also stated that he recalled the CD-ROm files being printed out into paper form not long after Black’s visit. Michael also gave me the name of the archivist in charge of this process, William Landis (there was no mention of Richard Szary as Black had written), who was still in the department. Luckily, he was in the library that day. I was told someone would go get him so we could talk.
William Landis appeared shortly thereafter and informed me he was in charge of taking in the collection. To my surprise, he expressed frustration because Turner’s project was conducted outside the purview of the Manuscript Archive. In a slightly different fashion than what was presented in the finding aid, Landis stated that Turner and his team originally donated the collection to Sterling on CD-ROMs. They were meant to be viewed on library-owned laptops that were set up to prevent users from copying documents or connecting to the internet.
Worse, the PDF files on the CDs were huge, ranging from one gigabyte and larger. Landis said, had he been able to advise Turner, he would have his team set up the collection with one PDF file per scanned page.
Thus, Landis noted, when Black came to visit, he had enormous problems with the laptop and loading these large PDF files. Mind you, this was also several years ago, so it is unsurprising that the library machines meant for public use were probably running slow. Therefore, it was easy for Black to jump to the conclusions and write that this was somehow purposeful on GM’s part to limit accessibility to the collection. I got the impression from the archivists that Black may have been impatient and cranky during his visit to the Sterling Library.
And here is the kicker: Landis said his team decided to print out the PDFs to make them more accessible as a direct result of Black’s troubled visit.
The CD-ROMs were then returned to GM when they were done. Landis and his team simply used the same numbering system in the collection. In essence, this was just a massive print job.
I spoke to Landis a bit about the situation with Black and Turner, and also told him about the Abraham affair, and how it was possible that Turner, because he had demonstrated his sympathies for the more pro-business, right-wing side of politics, it made sense that GM chose Turner for the project.
Landis had noted that “it was a masterstroke on Turner’s part to allow GM to provide access to these documents.” Also, that there “were probably more documents on GM available [at Sterling] than at GM headquarters itself.” If Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me is any indicator of how protective GM is of its public persona, Landis may be on to something.
I inquired to Landis if there was any way to know how much Turner was paid to produce the collection, or if there were any further communications on record between Turner and GM. There was, of course, a collection of Turner’s papers at the library, but he expressed doubts that anything like that would be in there. Still, I consulted the finding aid.
Ironically, there were documents on Turner’s GM project, but they were in database format and not accessible. I was told it would take five business days to put them together. Unfortunately, I was just up there for the day. Would Black continue to believe a conspiracy was taking place if he were in my shoes? The question of Turner’s possible remuneration would have to wait for another time.
However, while I was there at the archives, I had a decent opportunity to evaluate the materials themselves. Did Turner and his team attempt to present a particular story through the documents? I was in a good position to investigate.
My own reading of the documents I had time to view did not match up with Turner’s analysis. While the document organization itself has an internal logic, which begins with James Mooney’s diaries and a collection of documents comprising of a rebuttal to the Snell report, there were other items of interest worth noting.
A collection of reports and memos in the very first box were quite striking. For instance, document 000523 is an internal report provided by C.R. Osborn (a local manager) to Mooney, dated November 22, 1939. Note that this is not long after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Osborn states:
The organization of Adam Opel AG has naturally been designed to make its maximum contribution under peace time conditions. General Motors as owner of the company, however, fully recognized the altered situation which now exists, which makes impossible the full utilization of Opel’s productive organization for the purpose for which it was intended. It appreciates, therefore, the desire of the German government to capitalize the excess productive capacity of Adam Opel AG for purposes made necessary by the present situation.
German National Interests
1. Productive capacity of Adam Opel AG must be adjusted as rapidly as possible to war conditions. Productive capacity should be interpreted to mean all those elements necessary for the manufacture of goods.
2. The products at present manufactured by Adam Opel AG will continue to be essential in the two major phases of Germany’s national life – military and economic.
a. Military – There will continue to be a substantial need for trucks, special vehicles and passenger cars for military purposes. The Opel organization should be in a position to take care of all such requirements as they develop in the future.
I decided to look at the annual reports in Box 10 as I noted I would do earlier. I found more interesting material.
Speaking to the problem of calculating profits, I found in the first folder, 9389-9436, an annual report for 1938 for the Overseas Operations Group written by James Mooney.
At the outset, in document CR009391 (p. 1) Mooney states: “In spite of adverse political and economic conditions throughout the world, the General Motors Overseas Operations overall results in 1938 were actually the largest in the history of the Company, with the single exception of 1937.” Net sales amounted to aproximately 335.2 million dollars for that year alone. Opel’s production accounted for a little less than half of those sales.
That is quite a bit of money.
In any case, I wanted to see how far these annual reports went into the Nazi domination of Europe. File 9540-9576 is even more revealing. This is an Annual Report by Mooney’s replacement, Graeme K. Howard, for 1940. It is dated February 15, 1941. Let us be aware that this is now after the Nazi domination of France and the Low Countries.
The conclusion of this report (p.29, document CR009574) states:
Although the above trends are somewhat adverse to American business, the long term outlook for the Overseas Operations is by no means one of depression and discouragement. As stated in the last report, the longer term profit potentialities will be measured more by the organization’s ability to make the necessary adjustments to new conditions abroad than by any real limitations on true opportunity. The need and demand for both passenger and commercial vehicles will be greater in the years ahead than ever before, and the participation and rewards of the Overseas Operations will be mainly a matter of policies, and accomplishment.
This is not GM lamenting its role in Nazi Germany. This is a company that is preparing for the eventuality of a Nazi dominated Europe.
One must always be wary of conspiracies. Where there other researchers influenced by Black’s assumptions that Turner created digital files that were difficult to use on purpose? It is hard to say. As I perused the collection, I found myself wondering if Black was aware of the irony: his own involvement in trying to access the collection ultimately increased its accessibility.
In this case, digital files were not the wave of the future. Perhaps the timing was not right for the technology. If Turner had partnered directly with the archivists at Sterling, maybe there would never have been a conspiracy theory for Black to make in the first place.
Also, it was not lost upon me that if there was a bias in Turner’s process assembling the GM-Opel collection, it certainly was not present in the documents I was able to briefly review. There is plenty of damning evidence that GM knowingly partnered with Nazis during most of the twelve year Reich, and particularly during the opening of its most lethal phase.
If anything, Turner’s analysis speaks more to his own bias than to the documents he collected. There is irony here as well, considering his place in the annals of American history as one who prominently called out bias and demanded objectivity and transparency from other historians.
Finally, it is now worth knowing that the GM-Opel archives, despite their stringent copyright, are reasonably available to other researchers to verify the role GM played in Nazi war aims. Investigation into GM’s role will continue, not in the realm of zeroes and ones, but on old-fashioned paper.
It is a challenge to write about a textbook in the first place; but probably even more challenging to review one on web site design and planning. My first thought in taking on this task was that it would be like trying to wax poetic on your next set of stereo instructions. Nevertheless, a good how-to book is worth mentioning – if only to leave breadcrumbs for others on similar paths. Dan Brown’s Communicating Design fits the mold.
In order to understand this book, first we have to get with the lingo: This book is about “deliverables,” which outside the design world can be safely referred to as documents. Secondly, the book is about the structure of various web-based projects and how the deliverables fit into that structure. Third, Communicating Design provides some guidance into going about creating these structures for future projects.
So what does any of that actually mean? A lot of this book has to do with planning the presentation of material on the web and how to design the user experience. Thus, a lot of this book has broken down this process into simple bits of advice: Write down what you are actually planning to do, organize your thoughts when you lose focus, put yourself in the shoes of the person who will actually navigate your web page, etc etc. While much of this wisdom seems like a no-brainer, it is good to see these steps broken down into requisite parts.
A few conundrums appear in Communicating Design design that are also worth mentioning. The vexing problem of web site maintenance is one of them. How does one manage the fidelity of links with the chaos of the ever expanding universe of online content? Furthermore, how does your content stay relevant generally? There’s not much about history here, but Brown’s text does provide a road map for historians wanting to present their work in the digital realm.
As we wind up this series of blog posts on the implications of historical inquiry in the digital age, it makes sense to return to a central question: Who owns history? This is an inquiry that is actually much older than the internet itself, posed famously by luminaries like E.H. Carr and Eric Foner. That said, the emergence of open source, widely available platforms for discussion of all things historical has complicated this issue.
For instance, Roy Rosenzweig is guardedly optimistic about Wikipedia in his piece, “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42. The problem, Rosenzweig notes, is endemic to public history generally; how can you present complicated historiographical disputes in a format meant for public consumption? Likewise, William G. Thomas III writes in “Writing a Digital History Article from Scratch: An Account” http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/essays/thomasessay.php, that both historians and readers need to adapt to the impermanence of historical inquiry. History is, after all, an ongoing project. The speed, accessibility, and temporary nature of digital media only quickens our perception of this fact.
Chuck Tyron argues that the ongoing dialog between historians and the public is nothing new. In “Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere” http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mla2009/tryon/mla2009draft, Tyron notes that blogging is a natural outgrowth of this timeless exchange. Yes, there are the problems of fragmentation and misinterpretation from the results of professional historical inquiry, but there is also the democratizing element we have been exploring here on this humble blog all along: the walls have broken down between the academy and the public by the new digital tools at our disposal – for better or for worse.
Ultimately, this transformation embodies a continuation of a long running debate over who gets to have intellectual authority. This was true in Leopold von Ranke’s time just as it in ours. The question is: What kind of context will this dialog will play out? Because these changes are happening before our eyes, future historians have a their work cut out for them. Good luck to them.
Tom Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010).
It was only a matter of time before the digital humanities discovered virtual worlds. In an overt reference to Margaret Mead’s famous 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, Tom Boellstorff endeavors to apply the principles of anthropology and ethnography to the growing virtual landscape called Second Life (SL). I am personally excited about this work; I have spent a good deal of time over the last few years in SL. In this virtual world I have attended political events, I’ve curated music and visual art and been to many entertaining events, and had interactions with many academics who were there specifically to study this virtual world.
For those who are not aware, SL is not a game; it is a virtual setting where the users can create whatever content they want. I am tempted to provide my own impressions, but I will allow Boellstorff to describe it:
A man spends his days as a tiny chipmunk, elf, or voluptuous woman. Another lives as a child and two other persons agree to be his virtual parents. Two “real” -life sisters living hundreds of miles apart meet every day to play games together or shop for new shoes for their avatars. The person making the shoes has quit his “real” -life job because he is making over five thousand US dollars a month from the sale of virtual clothing. A group of Christians pray together at a church; nearby another group of persons engages in a virtual orgy, complete with ejaculating genitalia. not far away a newsstand provides copies of a virtual newspaper with ten reporters on staff; it includes advertisements for a “real” -world car company, a virtual university offering classes, a fishing tournament, and a spaceflight museum with replicas of rockets and satellites.
All that said, there are lots of locations within SL that are dedicated to serious academic inquiry. This is what Boellstorff is concerned with. He starts by demarcating SL as a virtual world, rather than a game; that it is a community, not just escapism; and that his intention is not to promote or vilify the platform that he is studying. Beyond that, Boellstorff admits a problem that is a common thread in the digital humanities: that it is constantly in flux. Thus, Boellstorff chose to examine SL during its “coming of age,” starting a year after SL was founded in 2004 through 2009. Ultimately, Boellstorff argues that SL is a social community where cultural creation is just as valid as the “real world.”
Structurally, Boellstorff divides the text into three parts; the first part concerns a description of the setting of SL, providing theoretical underpinnings via the work of people like Clifford Geertz and Benedict Anderson, and then details his methodology, which revolves around interacting with residents at face value, purely within the context of the virtual world. The second part involves a breakdown of the culture of SL, including discussions on the users’ sense of space, personhood, intimacy, and community. In the third part, Boellstorff gets into the meat of his argument, contending that humanity has had a concept of “the virtual” well before the digital age, and that technology is simply another medium for people to express and create culture.
Boellstorff does a decent job of balancing jargon and theory with straight forward descriptions of interactions and experiences within Second Life. On the other hand, his conclusions seem self-evident to me as a longtime “resident” of this virtual world. Of course SL is an extension of the real world, where people bring all their noble and baser inclinations and desires. It is a changing world of contradictions, which makes it not all that much different from the real. Where Boellstorff shines is being able to demonstrate that individuals are able to change their perspective in ways they could not do in the flesh; thus, people can change their race, gender, or appearance and learn from the way people interact with them. In my own experience, this was particularly important to transgender friends I had in SL. With this in mind, however, many people brought their cultural biases, which led to many of my friends having similar hurtful experiences they have had in the real world. Boellstorff demonstrates that human culture has not changed fundamentally with the advent of virtual worlds; instead, it has added more dimensions and platforms to express it.
The expectation of participation in cultural institutions is both a very new and a very old concept simultaneously. On one hand, the very essence of culture is public participation. If it was not, there would be a whole lot of cultural historians who would disappointed. On the other hand, an atomized modern society, with an industrialized mass-approach to entertainment and eduction, can leave many of us in a Kafka-esque maze where we feel very much disconnected with our cultural institutions.
Then came the internet.
As Nina Simone argues in Letting Go?, the public (or at least, the American public) has come to expect to interact and participate more when they visit museums and other public institutions. In the age of social media and the smart phone, it is no surprise that people want to engage more with new technology. Places like museums are realizing they have much to gain from these developments by creating new platforms for the public interact with their institutions.
This, of course, creates tensions. As inherent in the title of the above text, museums are not accustomed to ceding authority to the public. Thus, Erica Dicker argues that this fundamentally changing the role of the curator. In “The Impact of Blogs and Other Social Media on the Life of a Curator” http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2010/papers/dicker/dicker.html, Dicker demonstrates that curators are spending a lot more time learning and working with social media in order to consider new exhibits.
Michael Frisch (also in Letting Go?) that this is a both/and scenario. In other words, the public and curators are sharing authority over the content of public institutions. Whether or not this is a constructive development in the long term is hard to say. Like so many other texts considered here on the topic of history in the digital age, these changes are happening before our eyes. Can one really know what the new paradigm will be if the ground is shifting beneath their feet?
This week’s offering of History and New Media presents an interesting topic: Spatial History. There are multiple takes on what exactly this means, but the writers considered here tend to agree that the digital age has advanced the capability to conduct and present results in this field. To that end, we will briefly review here its various aspects – how Spatial History can be defined, its applications, early utilization, methodology, and innovative approaches.
Richard White’s “What Is Spatial History?” http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29 is a fairly detailed assessment of a number of ways Spatial History can be delineated: From early and more recent studies of travel patterns within the US, to utilizing historical collections of botanical data to describe ecological change over time. We also have a more lengthy and detailed example of Spatial History in Stephen Robertson’s “Putting Harlem on the Map” http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evidence/robertson-2012-spring/. Here Robertson uses geospatial tools to provide visualizations of housing, entertainment, and cultural locations over time.
John Corbet’s study, “Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861,” provides a classical example of Spatial History. Minard’s nineteenth century quantitative analysis of Napoleon’s March set a methodological benchmark for later historians using Spatial History. Likewise, Edward Tufte goes deeper in describing the issues raised by Minard’s study in “The Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design,” http://digitalhistory.concordia.ca/courses/dh/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/tufte.pdf in terms of how Spatial History can demonstrate causality in historical events, be compared to others, and demonstrate complexity with multiple layers of data.
The last piece under consideration is more fun; in September of last year, The Guardian provides a brief discussion of Strange Maps by Frank Jacobs http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/interactive/2012/sep/07/weird-maps-to-rival-apple-in-pictures which demonstrate innovative (and humorous) approaches to recent Spatial History projects. This includes how far one would have to travel to find a McDonalds in the US, or the juvenile invectives against the French given by the British in the late eighteenth century.
In sum, Spatial History is a useful tool for visualizing data that involves our physical space in some way. Since maps are generally important for explaining history generally, it makes sense that access to new tools to deepen the level of analysis are helpful in producing more nuanced and rich ways of explaining human experience.
As part of the curriculum for the History and New Media, my classmates and I have been asked to evaluate various apps for the Smithsonian in order to provide feedback for further improvements. We had a selection of apps to choose from, and based on the Smithsonian’s presentation, my personal preference was for the one related to visual art. Those of my readers that have known me a while are aware I used to be a professional graphic designer in another life; likewise, I was curious to see how the presentation would work on a smartphone – a relatively new device to me. In any case, the app looked slick and easy to use in the presentation; thus, I downloaded it and gave it a shot.
At first glance, the app has three options: Exploring the Exhibition, Joining the Conversation, and Visitor Information. Exploring the artwork was relatively smooth. I was a bit flummoxed momentarily by the “tutorial” bubbles that came up on the first portrait I viewed telling me how to vote for a piece and/or read additional content. For me, I found that a bit redundant, and because I couldn’t navigate until I figured out how to make the bubbles disappear, a bit jarring. I get that for visitors even less savvy than me, this might be useful, though.
The Join the Conversation piece was less useful to me, personally. A list of comments from other patrons did not do much to enhance my experience. I wonder if that section was there simply to add more content. For my part, I thought the main section with the images and artist statements were robust enough.
The visitor information page was a bit more useful, giving information about the competition, ways to donate, and about the app itself. This particular section gave me a sense that it would be easy to learn general details about the exhibit, which is something I tend to look out for.
In sum, it is a well designed app. I liked the look and feel and the navigation was easy. The artwork was crisp and clear and it was easy to jump to the artist statements if I wanted to read more.
Today’s offering on the nature of data is a little of what we’ve already seen (if you’ve been following along with the past dozen posts or are in my History and New Media class) and a little of something new. Trevor Owens conveys interpretations of this topic most clearly (http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/defining-data-for-humanists-by-trevor-owens/) noting that data is several things at once: a constructed artifact, an object created for an audience, and information meant to be processed and subjected to analysis. On the latter category, data is always in flux depending on perspective. Owens also writes that the social web created by new internet media allow for collective analysis. In his piece on crowdsourcing opinions on the construction of the statue of Einstein at National Academy of Sciences (http://www.trevorowens.org/vitae/tripadvisor-rates-einstein/) he demonstrates how public interpretation can co-create meaning for cultural heritage sites.
Lev Manovich takes us further down the rabbit hole by attempting to define the data base (http://vv.arts.ucla.edu/AI_Society/manovich.html) and demonstrating its prevalence in new media. Here things begin to become less concrete. Is a database a narrative? Can they exist in genres of information such as computer games? What can be ascertained here is that all narratives are databases, but not every database is a narrative. Matthew Kirschenbaum attempts to point out that methods of storage in the digital age are just as important as the data itself (http://texttechnology.mcmaster.ca/pdf/vol13_2_06.pdf) but ends up being sucked into the black hole of post modern jargon and in-group wink and nod references, much like the previously reviewed book Radiant Textuality, that threatens to completely obscure his point.
Meanwhile, Patrick Leary expresses excitement at the use of information technology to access vast new quantities of previously inaccessible primary source material to study the Victorian age (http://victorianresearch.org/googling.pdf). Jean-Baptiste Michael, Yuan Kui Shen, and others make a familiar point about the usefulness of applying quantitative methods to scan millions of digitized books in order to tease out observations about culture (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/176.abstract). Ironically, this article is hidden behind a login for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which subjects you to spam about subscribing to their various magazines in order to gain access. Seems like everyone is attempting to give away a free ipad these days. Finally, we are left with Michael Davies’ somewhat disembodied analysis on how commonly used terms and phrases produce limited success with tools like Google Books.
Obviously, data is important and on the minds of academics. How it is defined, what form it takes, and how it can be utilized can be explained with various degrees of coherence.
Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (New York: Palgrave, 2001).
Like Eugene Provenzo’s Beyond the Gutenberg Galaxy, McGann’s work is now a bit dated; however, examining how the digital humanities has developed will likely continue to be important. And like Provenzo, McGann underscores this importance by inferring a connection between the literary world and the digital world. Indeed, McGann’s primary argument in Radiant Textuality is the implication that the digital age is simply a continuation of the literary age; furthermore, the book and the computer have often been set up in opposition to each other instead of as complimentary modes of communication.
Beyond that provocative thesis, there a several subthesis. The most prominent of McGann’s is that our perception of a text as information only removes the self-reflection of the audience. McGann sets books apart from digital media, suggesting repeatedly that there does not yet exist the capacity for this medium to reproduce the critical evaluation of the human reader. McGann concedes that there are powerful new ways of aggregating data, but that these methods enhance, rather than replace our modes of critical reflection.
To that end, McGann attempts to convey these arguments in seven chapters, split into three parts. The first section invites a comparison between the two forms of media, such as they existed in 2000. The second section demonstrates the practice of digital humanities via the The Rossetti Archive http://www.rossettiarchive.org/. The final part details a second project, the IVANHOE game http://www.ivanhoegame.org/, which is essentially a visualization project of post-modern literary discourse.
This book is meant for, I dare say, a very narrow audience. The text is packed from beginning to end with literary references and theoretical jargon. The book’s structure breaks down in several places into literary device. Early on, this takes the form of a script for a play, in which McGann makes fun of academia. Later, McGann’s text devolves into poetry and self reflective prose. This is the height of post-modern literature. It self referential, loaded with in-group language, and says very little clearly.
That said, the merits of such a text are to convey the state of mind some academics found themselves in at the dawn of the digital age. There is a healthy mix of optimism, confusion, pessimism, and attempts to intellectually reconcile the emergence of new media. For those that like post-modern musings, I have never encountered a book that embraces this form of writing more wholeheartedly, perhaps with the exception of Stephen Pfohl’s Death at the Parasite Cafe. For those of you that like the most pointy of pointy heads, dig in!