1997 American Historical Association Conference

H-Net, Humanities OnLine Session: History Resources on the World Wide Web

Ingrid Bauer

University of Salzburg and the Boltzmann Institute

Albert Topitz

Chief Executive, IMAGE Communications Design, Salzburg Austria

"Applied History 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 scientific communities.

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 Project

"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 and occupied."

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 homepage.

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

IMAGE 12/96

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:

Source image for GYU's fifth WWW user survey - Location split by age

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 on TV.

Source - GYU's fifth Web user survey - Native/first language split by location

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.

3. Summary

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 who responded.

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 powerful way.

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, that means:

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 mother tongue.

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 Publishers 1997).

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, p. 947.

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.