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Digital History Anthologies on the Web: German History in Documents and Images

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 August 2013

Kelly McCullough
German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.
James Retallack
University of Toronto


Initial public offerings (IPOs) in the dot-com world do not always turn out to be the darlings they are expected to be. Ask Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook's IPO in May 2012. But even successful new ventures often defy their founders' expectations. As we hope to suggest in the following report, German History in Documents and Images (GHDI)—a project that has put thousands of primary source texts, drawings, photographs, and maps on the internet, along with hundreds of pages of accompanying commentary—has drawn critical appreciation from specialists and nonspecialists alike, but it has also raised thorny questions about authorship, authority, and audience. Those questions concern the writing of history in general and the newer, more specific discipline of “history on the web.” Like the project itself, this report is the result of a collaboration among the GHDI project staff, which is based at the German Historical Institute (GHI), Washington, D.C., and the GHDI volume editors, all of whom teach (or taught) German history at colleges and universities in North America. In the following pages, we will discuss the origins and early goals of the project, describe the challenges associated with the realization of a large, collaborative history project of this nature—whether in book or digital form—and reflect upon what we perceive as the promise and perils of digital history anthologies.

Digital Media
Copyright © Central European History Society of the American Historical Association 2013 

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1 German History in Documents and Images (GHDI) is an initiative of the German Historical Institute (GHI), Washington, D.C. It was made possible by the generous support of the Max Kade Foundation and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, and was undertaken in cooperation with the Friends of the German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C. The authors would like to thank current GHI Director Hartmut Berghoff for his support for the project. The site can be viewed at

2 We have not attempted to integrate into our analysis other websites that present documents on German history. They differ fundamentally from GHDI in format and purpose, and the term “anthology” does not describe them well. See inter alia four such sites: 1. Lebendiges virtuelles Museum Online (LeMO): 2. PMS-Data: 3. Protokolle des Preussischen Staatsministeriums (1817–1934/38): 4. The G-Text Primary Source Archives on H-German was never fully realized:

3 Cohen, Daniel J. and Rosenzweig, Roy, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)Google Scholar, 20. In chapter one, “Exploring the History Web,” Cohen and Rosenzweig provide an excellent overview of the history of digital history. Their book, which also contains much helpful information gleaned from their hands-on experience at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, is an indispensable resource for historians who are interested in developing their own web-based history projects. The entire book is available online at

4 Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History, 29.

5 See also Mösslang, Markus, “Conference Report: Editing Documents in the Age of Technology: Principles and Problems,” German Historical Institute London Bulletin 24, no. 2 (Nov. 2002): 106116Google Scholar.

6 See In addition to primary-source websites, the originators of GHDI were also impressed with websites such as H-German and H-Soz-u-Kult, which had already emerged as powerful resources for members of the profession in general.

7 The exceptions were the Weimar and Nazi periods, which have already been the subject of excellent, English-language documentary anthologies, notably Kaes, Anton, Jay, Martin, and Dimendberg, Edward, eds., The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Noakes, Jeremy and Pridham, Geoffrey, eds., Nazism 1919–1945: A Documentary Reader, 4 vols. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1983–1995)Google Scholar.

8 “The present” is a moving target. It was first defined as 2006 and later redefined as 2009 to include primary sources on the end of the Grand Coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel.

9 These categories were Government and Administration; Parties and Organizations; Military and War; Economy and Labor; Gender, Family, and Generation; Region, City, and Countryside; Nature and Environment; Religion; Literature, Art, and Music; Elite and Popular Culture; and Science and Education.

10 Dirk Schumann, Minutes of the GHDI Steering Committee Meeting, November 21, 2002.

11 A list of the entire editorial team follows: Thomas A. Brady, Jr., and Ellen Yutzy Glebe, editors of volume 1, From the Reformation to the Thirty Years War, 1500–1648; William W. Hagen, editor of volume 2, From Absolutism to Napoleon, 1648–1815; Jonathan Sperber, editor of volume 3, From Vormärz to Prussian Dominance, 1815–1866; James Retallack, editor of volume 4, Forging an Empire: Bismarckian Germany, 1866–1890; Roger Chickering and Steven Chase Gummer, editors of volume 5, Wilhelmine Germany and the First World War, 1890–1918; Eric D. Weitz and Eric S. Roubinek, editors of volume 6, Weimar Germany, 1918–1933; Richard Breitman, editor of volume 7, Nazi Germany, 1933–1945; Volker Berghahn and Uta Poiger, editors of volume 8, Occupation and the Emergence of Two States, 1945–1961; and Konrad H. Jarausch and Helga A. Welsh, editors of volumes 9 and 10, Two Germanies, 1961–1989, and One Germany in Europe, 1989–2009.

12 Here, the staff was mindful of the recommendations given in Lynch, Patrick and Horton, Sarah, Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 5961, 99–100Google Scholar.

13 The German Historical Institute is extremely grateful for this partnership, which has played a crucial role in the development of GHDI.

14 On a different note, some editors advocated the two postwar-volume option because it would have allowed GHDI eventually to incorporate a medieval volume and still have ten volumes in total.

15 Notes by Kelly McCullough, GHDI editors' meeting, November 22, 2003.

16 Presentations by Kelly McCullough, Roger Chickering, James Retallack, and Helga A. Welsh at the Annual Meeting of the German Studies Association, Arlington, Virginia, October 8–11, 2009; presentations by McCullough, Chickering, Retallack, and Konrad H. Jarausch at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, San Diego, California, January 7–10, 2010.

17 Editors Thomas Brady and Ellen Yutzy Glebe were assisted by Heidi Bate, Katherine G. Brady, Jeanne Grant, and Julie Tanaka.

18 This is true of many historical websites. Cohen and Rosenzweig, for example, describe the unforeseen popularity of the Library of Congress's “American Memory” project among K-12 teachers and students. Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History, 26.

19 Because all of the GHDI editors teach (or taught) at North American universities, American and Canadian students were the primary target audience. There was always a strong awareness, however, that the website would be used by students in other English-speaking countries, especially the United Kingdom and Ireland.

20 At one time the PDF print versions of the documents did not include the editors' accompanying abstracts. The abstracts were later added in response to user feedback.

21 To use the word “networks” is perhaps too strong. To date, the links that appear in GHDI have been entered sporadically and unsystematically. It is difficult to add links on a piecemeal basis as a project develops, and it is also a time-consuming process.

22 The website's keyword-search function can also create unintentional narratives or stories within stories. To stay with the present example, a keyword search on “Krupp” returns fifteen documents and nine images, which are listed in chronological order. In effect, the story of industrialism and militarism is created by the search results themselves.

23 On “eliminationist” antisemitism, see Goldhagen, Daniel J., Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf, 1996)Google Scholar.