An Archival Odyssey, or: Baedeker’s Guide to German archives (featuring a cameo appearance from Captain von Trapp)

When I first realised that I would have to visit over fifty archives in Germany and Austria in order to complete my current research project, I did fall prey to certain misgivings. Intimate acquaintance with the intricacies of regional public transport networks all over Germany would surely prove the least of my worries – what of the archives themselves, each with its very particular set of rules and regulations, unwitting violation of which might easily cast a foreign researcher into outer darkness?

Take the Austrian State Archives, for instance, with their implacable and inalienable rule that each researcher may only order a maximum of three boxes per day. Admittedly, the boxes are fairly large, but if one knows what one is looking for, they can still be polished off fairly expeditiously. In desperation, towards the end of my month-long sojourn in Vienna, I therefore inveigled my husband into accompanying me, buying a weekly ticket and sitting there working on his latest opera-libretto, whilst I worked through “his” three boxes at a frantic pace (needless to say, only the person who has ordered a box can collect or return it…!). Only then could I release him, and embark upon my own daily quota.


Then there are the long-term inhabitants of the archives, whose habits repay careful (and sometimes wary) attention – the archivists themselves. These can range from the “characters” on the desk at the German Federal Archives in Berlin – the grumpy East-Berliner who bawls out any scholar who dares to put their microfilms away improperly, and the acerbic receptionist who refuses even to talk to a researcher who has forgotten to place their handbag (however small it may be) in the locker-room – to the enchantingly friendly denizens of the recently- founded Zentralarchiv des Bezirksverbands Pfalz in Kaiserslautern, where one is permitted to take bags inside (shock horror!), make free photocopies on the scanner-printer in the Director’s office, or even have tea and sandwiches with his assistant in the reading-room itself.

Every archive certainly has its foibles: the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office, for instance, subjects all its visitors to a full airport-style security check before they enter – yet, once inside, the researcher is given a rare privilege indeed: permission to photograph documents indiscriminately at no extra cost (as opposed to the average, exorbitant charge of 50 cents per photocopy). Meanwhile, if you are filling out registration forms at the Bavarian State Archives, beware the little box marked volljährig – if you forget to tick it, you will have inadvertently declared yourself to be “under- age”, and risk the ignominy of being mistaken for a precocious teenager, at least in jest.

Even the names of the archival search-engines often betray a certain classicizing charm: INVENIO, ARGUS, or VERA, to name but a few. But that’s nothing compared to the occasional random gems about whose existence these very databases would never think to inform you: propaganda pamphlets from the 1920s railing against the rise of Sunday shopping in rhyming verses of surpassing kitsch; advertisements for a purveyor of smoked meats sporting a strangely appealing little piglet made of sausages and salami (pictured above), or even the fulminations of General Jodl of the Wehrmacht High Command in June 1941, decrying the flagrant and unnecessary use of ‘primitive’ or  ‘barbarian’ acronyms – including Stalag and Stuka.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of this collection, however, has to be a request in 1936 from U-boat Commander Georg Trapp – yes, the Captain von Trapp, of Sound of Music fame – begging the Austrian Education Ministry to let him give lectures to schools about the vanished glories of the Habsburg navy. You couldn’t make it up…


So, in the end, the idea of spending eight months travelling to those fifty or so archives turned out to be rather more daunting than the reality, which was always leavened both by these moments of incidental humour, by the kindness and helpfulness of most of the archivists whom I encountered – and, ultimately, by the thrill of the chase.

This post was originally written for the University of Cambridge History Faculty newsletter.