-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Feldpost im Zweiten Weltkrieg.
Didczuneit, Veit; Ebert, Jens; Jander, Thomas (Hrsg.)'Schreiben im Krieg - Schreiben vom Krieg.
Feldpost im Zeitalter der Weltkriege.'
Klartext Verlag Essen 2011. Gebunden; 538 S. ISBN 978-3-837-50461-3
Cape, Ruth (Hrsg.): 'Youth at War. Feldpost Letters of a German Boy to His Parents,
1943 to 1945'.
(= Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature).
New York: Peter Lang Publishing 2010. Gebunden; 234 S.
ISBN 978-1-433-11109-9; EUR 52,40.
Rezensiert für den Arbeitskreis Historische Friedensforschung bei
H-Soz-u-Kult von: Kaci McAllister, Historisches Seminar,
Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen.
Personal correspondence has been viewed by scholars as an important
contribution to the understanding of key historical figures and
intellectual movements for centuries. But with the rise of social
history over the course of the last one hundred years, letters have
become instrumental in the exploration of "the lives of the poor and
powerless in society". More recently, an academic tug-of-war has
ensued as scholars attempt to determine exactly where the boundaries of
the genre lie. Much of the debate centers around Feldpost letters from
World Wars I and II, which may be able to provide insight into a period
of history with which society still struggles to comprehend. "Schreiben
im Krieg, Schreiben vom Krieg" is a compilation of essays exploring a
wide variety of topics related to Feldpost letters from the First and
Second World Wars. The topics range from the importance of studying
letters, to the unique challenges they present, to what can be learned
from their content; each author has his or her own ideas about where and
how Feldpost letters fit into current research and themes in modern
European history. Although the edition hardly offers a consensus among
academics as to how exactly wartime letters can or should be best
interpreted, many of the ideas it presents complement one another, while
still others offer different perspectives or even contradictions. The
scope of the material and the sheer wealth of information the edition
contains insure that it is a gold mine for scholars interested in the
many applications of Feldpost letters in the field of modern history.
The overall purpose of the edition is to highlight the increased
usefulness of Feldpost letters to modern research as access to
eyewitnesses dwindles (p. 12). The greater purpose, however, extends
beyond their meaning to research and into their meaning to humanity: "Ob
wir aus der Geschichte lernen, hängt maßgeblich von unserem
verantwortungsbewussten Umgang mit ihr ab" (p. 12). The book begins with
several essays on the history of Feldpost in Germany and is then divided
thematically into five major sections: theoretical questions,
international perspectives, gender-specific writing, Feldpost in
literature, art and media, and, fifth and finally, practical
illustrations and case studies. Each section contains between five and
twelve essays that explore themes such as Feldpost letters as objects of
public reflection or the wartime experience of German soldiers stationed
in France during World War II (p. 383, 511).
Many contributors focus on the important role Feldpost can play in
modern historical research in spite of the challenges the genre
presents. Michaela Kipp identifies Feldpost as a rich and irreplaceable
supply of commentary on soldiers' perceptions of world, situation, and
self (p. 458). Using the letters of two German soldiers stationed in the
Soviet Union, Kipp demonstrates that the systematic evaluation of
Feldpost letters can in fact shed more light on the psyche of the German
soldier, and in turn help answer the larger questions surrounding
research on national socialism. In his article on Feldpost and
narration, Christian Heuer discusses Feldpost letters' relevant
functions as Ego-Dokumente in historical didactics, including acting as
sources of information on everyday routines at the front and at home,
the mental and physical impact the war has on individuals, and
linguistic patterns of interpretation. He views letters as documents of
communicative and cultural memory and as sources of the retrospective
history of certain groups and communities (p. 66). However, he places
emphasis on the fact that letters do not necessarily provide insight
into the "reality" of the past, but rather into the way that historical
subjects construct their own narrative identities (p. 72). Ingo Stader
emphasizes the importance of Feldpost letters from World War II in
determining the effectiveness of the Nazi propaganda campaign (rather
than any "real" insight they may offer into the wartime experience of
their writers), drawing a comparison between Feldpost and modern social
Elke Scherstjanoi takes a critical stance on the genre of Feldpost,
delving deep into the genre's limitations with references to the
published World War II letters of Heinrich Böll. She raises a crucial
point when she reminds the readers that Feldpost research should avoid
taking the polarized "perpetrator-victim" point of view (p. 119). Such a
view accomplishes little and fails to answer key questions, such as why
the writer shares specific information with the recipient, what he or
she may have consciously omitted, or what kind of function the exchange
of letters played in society (p. 124). She cautions strongly against the
overestimation of Feldpost as a genre: "Feldpostforschung kommt ohne
andere Quellen, darunter andere subjektive (Tagebücher, Berichte,
Erinnerungen), und ohne strengste Quellenkritik nicht aus" (p. 122).
In spite of the challenges they face when working with Feldpost letters,
most contributors to the edition choose to focus on what can be learned
from them, rather than what cannot. The objectives, approaches and
ultimate findings of the authors vary considerably; for example, an
essay on Feldpost as a medium of social communication by Clemens
Schwender presents a case study that uses letters to investigate the
psychology of gossip (p. 127). He tests his thesis using the nearly two
thousand items of correspondence between a husband and wife from World
War II, identifying the material as authentic insight into the mood of
the couple (p. 131). From a methodological standpoint, Schwender's
contribution is outstanding, as it provides a detailed explanation of
his process of random sampling, including corresponding data tables (p.
132). Other popular topics in the study of military history are included
in this edition, including articles on the experience of the "foreign"
as well as war as an adventure or positive experience as reflected in
soldiers' letters (p. 178). Kerstin Wölki focuses on letters written by
German soldiers stationed in France during the Second World War and
explores the idea that many behaved as if on vacation, as they were
neither at home or completely integrated into their new surroundings (p.
519). Her essay provides valuable new information to this area of
research and draws not only upon Feldpost letters but also diary
entries, demonstrating the close relationship between these two types of
Another new addition to the current study of Feldpost is Youth at War, a
bilingual edition of preserved letters written by a fifteen year old boy
whose childhood was cut short by Germany's need for more manpower in
World War II. The editor, Ruth I. Cape, examines the letters as
historical sources and bases her interpretations of them on the
biography of their writer, Gerhard G. Gerhard served in the war from
1943 to 1945, first as a member of the student anti-aircraft artillery,
then in the compulsory national labor service (R.A.D.), and finally in
the German navy on the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. In 1945, he
spent three months in an American prisoner of war camp and then returned
to his home of Bühl, which was located in the French-occupied war zone.
The one hundred and forty letters were found in his home shortly before
his death in May of 2008, tied neatly together and arranged
That their author is so young and that almost every letter he wrote home
was preserved make the letters particularly unique. By publishing the
edition, Cape attempts to "provide a close and, in many respects,
unfiltered look at a specific historical and social environment" (p. 3).
Whether or not a collection of letters can actually accomplish such a
task is open to debate, a fact which Cape herself recognizes:
"Obviously, they cannot be interpreted as an objective and complete
description of war reality. Rather, they are selective and a mixture of
war experiences, rumors he might have heard, his assumptions about
future events, and conscious or unconscious omissions" (p. 17). But even
while taking such limitations into consideration, she refutes the
position that Gerhard's letters merely represent letter-writing
conventions of the times, instead stating that, "in their frankness they
present an abundance of information, genuine human feelings, concerns,
and hopes that allow the reader to look into the heart and mind of this
boy, who might very well represent the sentiments of many other young
soldiers who served in the Second World War" (p. 17).
Upon examination of the letters themselves, they do appear to reveal
more than just the superficial correspondence of a child to his parents.
Alongside the expected mundane descriptions of daily military life and
laundry lists of requested items, Gerhard also writes, with a startling
sense of maturity, about how it feels to spend Christmas away from home,
and how he regrets having taken his mother's "thoughtful care" for
granted while living at home (p. 46, 65). Because the collection seems
to be almost entirely complete, it is possible to observe changes in
Gerhard's personality through his writing style. Most remarkable are his
growing sense of awareness of what is happening around him, and his
developing understanding of what home means to him (p. 80, 101).
Cape's introduction offers a wealth of ideas about ways the letters can
be interpreted. She answers many of the questions that surround a
collection of German letters from World War II; for example, questions
regarding censorship (both internal and external) and the writer's
possible identification with Nazi ideals. She also provides useful
background statistics, such as that there were "approximately 400
military post offices with eighteen workers per office who handled
around 40 billion letters during the six years of the war" (p. 11). The
structure of the edition is simple, with a lengthy introduction followed
by the transcribed letters first in English and then in their original
One major strength of the edition is Cape's inclusion of a variety of
suggested approaches for further study of this particular collection of
letters. She purports that they could be used to explore sociological
themes like "family and friendship dynamics during war times," or the
cultural history of a nation (p. 17). Her emphasis on asking questions
rather than answering them gives the reader a chance to consider his or
her own ideas about how Feldpost can contribute to modern historical
research. In a brief departure from strict academics, she even suggests
that Gerhard's letters could serve as the basis of a piece of
literature, diary, or short epistolary novel: "A reader with an interest
in creative writing may use his Feldpost as the basis for composing
letters to which Gerhard might have responded. What is written in the
mail sent to him is a question that constantly arises while one reads
his lines" (p. 19).
In the introduction, Cape outlines her principles of translation,
stating that she seeks "to be as literal and exact as is consistent with
readable English" (p. 20). But many of the translations are rather
disconcerting in their directness, preserving German punctuation even
where incorrect in English (p. 30, 40, 76). Knowledge of the German
language is helpful for getting a feel for Gerhard's style in the
translations; someone without that knowledge might find the odd word
order and strange punctuation distracting.
Despite the occasionally dubious translations, the English section of
the edition makes for an interesting read at the very least because of
its numerous explanatory footnotes. The footnotes contain helpful
clarifications for abbreviations, places, people, and especially unclear
situations that arise in the letters. In one letter, Gerhard alludes to
a situation involving Russian prisoners of war, telling his parents they
can draw their own conclusions from the incident (p. 69). In the
corresponding footnote, Cape clarifies the meaning of the exchange,
concluding that, "As a member of the student anti-aircraft artillery (in
German, Luftwaffenhelfer or Flakhelfer) one was ranked below those
Russian voluntary assistants" (p. 123).
Both "Schreiben im Krieg, Schreiben vom Krieg" and "Youth at War" offer
extensive information on the current stance of research regarding
Feldpost letters and can guide readers to a better understanding of this
challenging but exciting genre of primary sources. While recognizing the
limitations that Feldpost letters present, the editors of both volumes
generally emphasize their role in the study of the wartime experiences
of common soldiers in World Wars I and II. Few would argue today that
Feldpost letters are truly authentic accounts of individual lives.
Ultimately, however, it is critical to remember that every collection of
letters may be examined within the greater context of the genre, but
must be evaluated on an individual basis. Certain letters may only be
able to reflect the effectiveness of propaganda or the letter-writing
conventions of their times, while others may hold the potential to
become "partially a mirror of a historical time period" (Cape, p. 6).
And because of their mystery, their banality, and above all their
possibility, Feldpost letters will likely remain a heavily debated genre
among historians and academics in the years to come.
 Miriam Dobson, Letters, in: Miriam Dobson / Benjamin Ziemann (eds.),
Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth-
and Twentieth-Century History, New York 2010, p. 59.
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