1997 American Historical Association Conference
H-Net, Humanities OnLine Session: History
Resources on the World Wide Web
University of Salzburg and the Boltzmann Institute
Chief Executive, IMAGE Communications
Design, Salzburg Austria
on the WWW: A project documenting the encounter of the Austrian people
and American GI's after World War II"
First, we would like to say
"Danke Schön" to the American Historical Association
for inviting us to participate in this H-Net session. But, of course, this
itself is testimony to the dynamic capabilities of the Internet to transcend
national limitations upon scholarly exchange and to create truly international
The topic of this panel is
"history resources on the WWW." In May 1995, on the occasion
of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, we undertook a search
of the Net to find out how different people experienced the end of the
war and the postwar era. We didn't find much. So we decided to build up
our own web application - to create or provoke a resource. It's a bit like
the bible says: "Give and ye shall receive."
The contents of the project
which it is now our pleasure to present to you are directly related to
the US. Here's a brief recap of the course of events.
1. The History of the
"The 50th Anniversary
of the End of National Socialism and World War II" provided the occasion
in Austria to address some still-unanswered questions concerning the history
of this period. This process included a wide-ranging oral history dialogue
between historians and the generation which lived through the war and the
postwar period, based upon the conviction that areas of investigation often
ignored in the past, such as those dealing with the experiential and mental
structural dimensions of an historical period and with the consciousness
and historical memory of individuals directly involved, become accessible
only through personal biographical interviews with eyewitnesses to the
events in question.
The point in time was doubly
auspicious. For one thing, since the middle of the 1980s, the Austrian
collective memory regarding National Socialism and World War II had gradually
begun to stir from the "long hibernation" into which it had sunk.
Until then, historical amnesia had virtually been a component of postwar
Austrian identity.1 And, as we said, the 50th anniversary of
the end of the war provided a particular impetus to a process of historical
reflection - in the form of both public and private remembrance.
One of the projects in which
Ingrid Bauer was involved as a historian intentionally concentrated the
questions it posed to Austrian interview subjects upon the end of World
War II and the so-called Era of Occupation.2 That was an ideal
temporal frame in which it was possible to focus on two separate strands
of experience. On one hand, National Socialism and World War II are the
underlying experiences which determine the way the post-war era is remembered.
On the other hand, it is precisely here, in their dealings with "victorious
foreign soldiers" that postwar Austrians' methods of coming to terms
with these events, as well as their strategies for survival, become visible.
During the decade from 1945 to 1955, English, French, Soviet and American
troops were stationed in Austria. We were particularly interested in the
encounter between the local population and US soldiers in the American
Occupation Zone in Austria. How were the GIs seen - as liberators or occupiers?
Which images, myths, prejudices and sympathies have been retained to this
day by the Austrians who experienced this confrontation, which was at all
times an intercultural one? Did it leave behind traces, make a lasting
impression upon individual lives, change orientations? And what was it
about the "Yankees" and everyday life in occupied Austria that
so deeply affected the nation's population that the remembrance of it remains
current to this day?
Following a series of interviews
with Austrians which confronted us with their images of the Americans stationed
there, we got more and more interested in the "American perspective"
of the "occupation job." And even beyond this, the task which
suggested itself with increasing insistence was to somehow reunite these
two opposite poles which had confronted one another in 1945 as "liberator
and liberated," "victors and vanquished," "occupiers
This concept was developed
further in what has been, for Austria, an extraordinarily synergistic cooperation
between historical scholars and the private sector of the economy. IMAGE
Ltd. signed on as the project's professional multimedia consultant, thus
opening up the WorldWideWeb as an overseas communications bridge.
At the same time, though,
our project was an experiment, since, at that time, the communications
potential offered by Internet was being used to only a very limited extent
in Austria. As far as Internet access in Austria is concerned, our project
began shortly before take-off. Even today, only 24% of Austrian households
have a PC at their disposal.
On the other hand, historians
- at least in Austria - seem to be strikingly slow in exploring the possibilities
of this new technology, despite its obvious potential. And this constituted
a particular challenge to oral historians, whose method, after all, constitutes
a communicative, text-generating process. In the words of Paul Thompson,
the English pioneer of oral history, "if we are to remain communicators,
we must move with the technology of communication."3
We thus began our Austrian/American
Dialogue in the spirit of learning by doing. At the address http://www.Austria.EU.net/image/salzburg
you will find the homepage.
2. "Liberators and
the Liberated - Occupiers and the Occupied" - The Encounter of the
Austrian People and US Soldiers after World War II. An Austrian/American
Dialogue on the Internet.4
With the at times highly
contradictory Austrians impressions displayed by oral history texts, photos,
letters, school essays and children's drawings, we tried to erect an overseas
communications bridge to former GIs who were stationed in Austria between
1945 and 1955, to their families and children, as well as to interested
members of the American public. What impressions did "the occupation
job in Austria" leave upon them? How were their experiences
with individual Austrians?
Our Homepage comprised more
than 100 screens. Theoretically, a user can browse through it for over
two hours. And, as we were surprised to learn from the feedback we received,
this seems to be precisely what many of our visitors did. But, of course,
it was clear from the outset that our design had to accommodate highly
divergent time budgets and take into account differing informational needs
of different users.
Our design principle - expressed
in easy-to-visualize terms - was to offer a rich buffet catering to diverse
tastes. A comprehensive "main text" served as an informative
menu. From here, the user can fill his plate according to his own hunger
and palate. By clicking on "hyperwords" such as "non-fraternization,"
"poor Austrians - rich Americans," "strange and fascinating"
or "GI brides," the user can access successively deeper levels
of information containing oral history texts, photos, etc.. Each screen
displays the message "Mail us your own impressions."
To stimulate our virtual
visitors to retell anecdotes and participate in discussions, we set up
a guest book. Here's a sampling of entries:
"I'm a senior at
Patch American High School, Stuttgart, Germany. I just read some of your
pages and really liked them. I didn't know that the US Military was ever
in Austria. (...) Thanks for the information." // Joel A. Borden Jr.,
May 15, 1995
"I have just spent
several very enjoyable hours reviewing this site. As an American "Baby-Boomer"
who had a parent and other relatives serve in the occupation it was truly
a fascinating experience indeed. Congratulations on a job well done - a
marvelous testimony to the value and usefulness of the Internet."//
James P. Millard, March 31, 1996
In order to realize the project's
underlying concept of dialogue unconstrained by national borders, maintenance
work and updating was a must. Responses to user queries were formulated,
permission to publish user feedback in the guest book was obtained, access
statistics were evaluated. To date, about 13,000 users have visited our
3. Who were the Visitors
to our Homepage? And how did the Dialogue work?
Of course we tried to do
our best to have our site registered in as many places as possible. But
even if Yahoo, Lycos, Altavista and all the other search engines list your
site, you might be disappointed that only very few out of those 40 million
Internet users visit your pages.
But it is hardly astounding
that a project like ours will never make it into the charts. If we consider
a statistical evaluation of the search words that users entered at a German
search engine in October 1996, we find the following "top ten":
sex - hardcore - erotic - Australia - girls - travel - shareware - games
- weather - Star Trek.
About 20% of our visitors
came from Europe (half of them from Austria); the overwhelming majority
- 73% - came from the United States.
Source: Access Statistics of http://www.Austria.EU.net/image/salzburg
We were extremely pleased
by the fact that written comments from the US frequently came from former
GIs, or from their children who were tracing a part of their fathers' lives
about which they had perhaps not received too much information at home.
Austrians hardly contributed to our page.
Our evaluation of the accesses corresponds to the general distribution of Internet users, where we find the same overwhelming US-American presence:
The chart above also shows
us that the preponderance of Americans increases with the users' age. Americans
account for 83% of all Internet users over 50 years of age. Since we targeted
elderly individuals, we were certainly not astonished that our visitors
came primarily from the US.
This distribution of the
Internet might also explain the interesting fact that nearly all of the
Austrians who reacted to our site were living abroad - in the US, Canada
or Australia. The group of users who e-mailed us feedback was predominantly
made up of individuals who were apparently tracing their own roots, those
who had selected the topics "World War II" and "Austrian-American
Dialogue" while surfing in the WorldWideWeb. These included Austrians
who had been forced to emigrate when the Nazis seized power, those who
had been motivated by the "American myth" to emigrate during
the postwar period as well as children and grandchildren of Austrian women
who had married American occupation soldiers and had come to the US as
so-called GI brides.
A second reason for the unbalanced
distribution of the origins of accesses is language. The Internet language
is English, so we presented our pages in English. But it is a fact that
most elderly people in Austria do not speak English so that language is
another factor that kept them away from our site. To redress this deficiency,
we tried to at least keep the people of Austria informed by continually
publicizing the feedback we got from the US either in the local press or
Our site soon assumed an
additional function as a kind of lost & found department. Austrian
Besatzungskinder searched for their American fathers; former GIs
attempted to get in touch with Austrian families they had befriended during
the occupation period but with whom they had subsequently lost contact.
Over the course of the project,
we set up a separate category entitled "Desperately seeking"
in order to accommodate these originally unanticipated needs. For instance,
a former GI stationed in Austria between 1945 and 1955 e-mailed us two
photos: one showed an Austrian villa which his unit had seized and severely
damaged at the end of the war. He now wished to express his apologies for
that to the owner. The second showed two little Austrian girls who had
begged him for some food after the end of the war, and he asked us to help
him find them. He had already told his story to his local TV company but
they could not do anything for him. We put the picture on the Net as well
as on local TV. And, much to our surprise, we indeed found the girls. The
former GI came over to Salzburg to meet them after 50 years, and his wife
recorded the meeting on video. Back home they gave the video to their local
TV. (And "our GI," with his good contacts to broadcasting companies,
promised to assist us with the searches Austrians are conducting for people
in the US.) So the Internet was the "bridge" over the big pond.
But communication in smaller communities still needs - and in my opinion
always will need - the synergy of other media. Different media do not compete;
they co-exist. Each one has its specific strengths and weaknesses.
What has taken place here
is, of course, not historical scholarship in the strict sense. It is, rather,
a form of applied history which has contributed to breaking down hostile
images on both sides which have remained intact since World War II. Certainly,
this had long since been accomplished on the political as well as on the
cognitive level. But war also entails a "gut feeling" that engenders
deep-seated and highly persistent modes of thought.
There are still a lot of
older Austrians who, on one hand, were glad to see the end of the war but,
on the other hand, still do not regard it as "liberation." Rather
they see only a "lost war." So, for us, the project also has
a meaning beyond the scientific approach. Born in the 50's we are happy
to live in a country which was freed from the Nazi-regime in 1945, freed
by - among others - the US. Thus, an intra-Austrian, intergenerational
message was also linked to this project.
Our application has now been
up and running on the Net for 1½ years. What have we accomplished
with it? What will we do differently the next time?
We've already gone into the
symbolic significance of this project. In addition, the scholarly results
were also highly positive:
We obtained priceless source
materials such as photographs and letters which GIs then stationed in Austria
sent to the folks back home.
We made valuable contacts
with oral history interview partners in the US.
Several users, following
their initial, spontaneous comments, also provided written responses to
additional questions which we subsequently posed. A few came to Salzburg
where we conducted comprehensive interviews. Others have volunteered as
interview partners for an oral history project with former GIs which we
are planning to carry out in the US. In this respect, the warm-up phase
of our homepage has proved a brilliant success. Of course, Internet cannot
replace the face-to-face oral history interview, since it offers no possibility
of exploring anything in depth.
We were also confronted with
questions which would not have occurred to us without the input of those
Without our web application,
how could we have asked GIs about those Austrian youngsters who hated the
occupation troops, sabotaged them, tried to challenge them in "showdown"
confrontations as often as possible? And how are we to interpret the fact
that some GIs really seem to devote a lot of energy to convincing us that
everybody loved them - except the Nazis, of course -and nobody would ever
have flattened their tires?
Or how could we have learned
about the "scale" which obviously existed in the US Forces, which
mandated that you had to collect a certain number of "points"
before you could go back home. And the number you had to reach seems to
have worked like the carrot fixed in front of a donkey's nose: each time
you think you had it, it was out of your reach again.
We have also established
the fact that many teachers and schoolchildren have employed our homepage
as an educational resource. This has encouraged us to continue our efforts
to more strongly integrate Internet's capabilities in instruction on the
university level as well. This might include history students setting up
their own homepages. Through a project such as this one, the dimensions
which history assumes in everyday life can be communicated in an extremely
Nevertheless, if we started
the same project once again, we would do many things differently:
We would use a much more
"journalistic" and a less scientific approach. Among other things,
We would employ many more pictures.
The statistics summarizing
accesses of our pages show that the screens containing pictures were most
attractive to the public
We would make replies easier.
In our application, users
can reply only by e-mail. Today our provider would allow us to create a
page where users can add their comments directly and uncensored.
We would secure a budget
which allows us to perform the necessary maintenance. In Europe at present,
projects such as this one still tend to occupy a gray zone between scholarly
research, teaching, adult continuing education, etc.
We are sure that the small
number of replies from within Austria is due not only to the fact that
senior citizens are still rather unfamiliar with computers and Internet,
but also to their inability to speak English. And if a project deals with
very personal remembrances and opinions - as is certainly the case here
- no one should be bound to an Internet language which is not his or her
Learning by doing was our
point of departure. We've learned a great deal. It's been a fascinating
experience. We've made a lot of friends. We've gained familiarity with
the enormous possibilities, as well as the limitations, of the WorldWideWeb.
We would do it again - it's part of our future.
1 See, for example, Contemporary
Austrian Studies, Volume 5: Austrian Historical Memory and National Identity,
ed. by Anton Pelinka and Günter Bischof. New Brunswick, London (Transaction
2 The Oral History Project
"Liberated and Occupied - Salzburg 1945/1955," for which numerous
biographical interviews were conducted in 1995, was commissioned by the
Province of Salzburg, Austria, carried out by the University of Salzburg
and the Boltzmann Institute, a non-university research center for social
history and cultural studies of the 20th century, and headed
by the historians Ingrid Bauer and Reinhold Wagnleitner.
3 Paul Thompson, "Sharing
Oral History: Archives and New Technology," in: Reader for
the IX International Oral History Conference 1996 in Copenhagen,
4 The project's initiation, historical research and scholarly preparation are the work of Ingrid Bauer, assistant professor at the Department of History, University of Salzburg, and head of the Boltzmann Institute, Salzburg. Mel Greenwald translated the original German texts into English. The project's interface with WorldWideWeb is being carried out by IMAGE-Kommunikationsdesign GmbH.