LETTERS AS SOURCES? BETWEEN FRONTLINE AND PENCIL – PERSONAL EXPERIENCES OF LUXEMBOURGERS DURING WWII IN NAZI LABOUR AND ARMED SERVICES
The current project WARLUX aims to study the biographies of young Luxembourgers, born between 1920 and 1927, who were drafted by the German Nazi authorities for Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst) and the German Army (Wehrmacht). The conscription of young Luxembourgers is mostly displayed in documents, starting from police, enrolment registration records by regional authorities, lists of transportations and records about their service. However, for the study of biographies, a more personal insight of the affected people is required, as behind these administrative files ley 10.000 other stories.
The focus of WARLUX is to analyse the evolution of experiences evoked by the World War II war from an actor-centred perspective and to re-evaluate the traditional categories of analysis by taking into account the multitude of war experiences and coping strategies of the people affected. The focus on the biographies will help to analyse the individual experience of the soldiers, recruits and women. In this regard, personal documents will constitute the core source for the overarching research question including enlistment records, personal files of the German armed forces and the RAD and ego-documents such as letters, diaries and autobiographies. Nevertheless, the project aims to collect personal insights, voices and individual impressions of the affected people. How to get an insight into the personal and individual view of our study objects? Their names are mostly known, in memorials, lists and literature. Between year numbers and historical frameworks, biographies consist out of much more, like the individual preferences, backgrounds, dislikes, characteristics, relationships to friends and family etc. This is not readable from state documents and from lists and passports from the military service. To analyse their view, we need to dive deeper into the analysis. What is left from their voices? Next to memoirs and oral history videos e.g. there are more sources to consider, the so-called “ego documents” such as diaries and letters. Letters are a unique source and provide more information about the individual fates as administrational documents.
If the letters is preserved it can give an interesting individual insight the momentum of the life of the affected people. The war was a major life notch in everybody’s lives in Europe. This crucial epoch changed the lives of the entire country and they being robbed of their the dreams and lives of the concerned people. The letters and other ego documents represent a cut in their lives, written from distant places, far away from home and the loved ones, desperate, sad and scared.
To keep the value in mind, what can these letters tell us, from an analytical and scientific point of view?
The unique and new approach of temporal parallel spatial approach in looking into what happened in and outside of Luxembourg with this generation will draw a new detail in the history of World War II in this country.
WARLUX projects intend to draw another picture of these people and approaches the biographies from their individual perspective and fate. Out of the mass group of the 10.000, the projects intend to complement the pictures itself. Families and friends were separated. The connection to home was only possible via letters and parcels; a communication network of distribution news and greetings and signs of life. Nevertheless, the experiences distinguish from each other in a crucial way. While the families at home had to think about food, logistics, Nazi terror and switched into the survival mode; The young men and women abroad suffered from homesickness and fear and the hope for the war’s end. The letters represent a bridge to the homeland.
FIELD POST LETTERS AND OTHER LETTERS IN RESEARCH
The analysis of letters is different than memoirs or state, administrative documents. Letters express the momentum of the experience of the event, emotions and thoughts. Memoirs written years or decades after the war can represent a distorted image of the true events but letters can show only a short glimpse in the everyday life. One must also note that the content and the style of the document vary from its receiver. A mother received a sign of life from the son (everything alright, I have enough to eat and I am doing fine), while letters addressed to a friend might include another storytelling about front life. It should be taken into consideration which information wanted the writers to tell the others, what was essential to them and what has the other to know.
The war letters were written under abnormal conditions. Some things remained unspoken; some sender flippantly integrated the horror of everyday war life into their letters. The reality of war is therefore not always reflected in these type of documents. Field post letters differ clearly from ‘normal’ letters in peacetime. In the case of field post, transport times between 6 and 30 days can be assumed, provided that the shipment is not prevented at all due to a post block or loss. The conversation cannot take place immediately, but rather be “simulated in thought” by the writer, 30 and more than with correspondence in normal times, the transport route itself, the account of sending and receiving, will be the subject of the exchange. The time delay has the effect, especially in war with its rapid changes; a message can be out of date before it reaches the recipient. The awareness of this will influence the content of the letters. Nevertheless, the field post provided a communication tool to stabilize personal relationships and to share news, emotions and experiences.
These documents play a crucial part in the research of individuals and their personal stories; although there are also limits to the analysis. Census banned the soldiers to reveal their position or to give details about combatants or units in case of an interception of the documents by the enemy. Next to official army regulations, the soldiers concealed facts or other traumatic events either to write the loved ones not to worry or because of the inability to express the horrors and the deaths they had to endure in battle.
Letters give there a filtered and chosen impression of the war experiences but are nevertheless valuable for the research about individual stories.
LETTERS BY LUXEMBOURGERS – BETWEEN HOMESICKNESS AND THE WISH FOR CIGARETTES
Luxembourger conscripts were torn apart from their families during their labour and army service; they were torn away from their friends and social environment. Letters promised a way of communication.
The content, such as the quantity, depended on the person who wrote, where he or she was stationed and whom the letter was addressed. But every letter sender had one in common: Even at the front in Russia or Africa the young recruits remain sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. They shared their fears, their hopes for a soon war’s end or they wrote simply about daily events (marching, sleeping, details about food) and wishes and needs to receive warm clothes, groceries and cigarettes. Besides the interdiction of writing in other than German and the will of desertion, the recruits wrote personal wishes and thoughts home to escape as soon as possible this ludicrous situation in fighting in German uniform (only the mentioning of the wish to desert could have ended with severe consequences such as the execution).
The young men talked about contacts with locals in Russia and in Poland, fighting against Resistance (partisans), longing for intimacy with women, or friendship, postponing of hopes and wishes and future plans. Nevertheless, the letters provided the possibility to share thoughts and memories of better times, hopes and future plans and asking about the state of art in the Hemecht (home). Next to the situation at the front or in abroad labour service camps, the who stayed at home experienced as well difficult and frightening situations, such as intimidation by the national socialistic occupation authorities, air raids (from 1944 on), nutrition and in general the uncertainty as to how it will continue.
Letter circles and pen friend networks were established to write the recruited to keep the link to home, to be not forgotten. Young women wrote regularly to their fellow Luxembourgers in many parts of Europe, to provide them with the daily news or to send writing material and cigarettes. For the called to arms, it meant comfort and support, even a word like Hello from the far home.
The two spaces, home and front, have to be taken into consideration to study the individual experiences and biographies of the who were born between 1920-1927 and their families.
Behind every letter lies another story, behind every story another fate.
Call for Contributions
To extend the collection and to profit from these unique sources more documents are needed to conduct further research.
Therefor a Call for Contribution for the public is carried out by the team of WARLUX. People in Luxembourg Families and witnesses are called to share their memories and personal documents. WARLUX intends to find and identify personal documents, diaries, memories and photos which give an individual insight into their individual experiences and stories. Families and witnesses are asked to look into their cellars and attics, in old boxes and cupboards from grandparents and parents to find documents and photographs about this period of life.
The research team at the University of Luxembourg will (according to the agreement of the donors) scan it and store the documents properly. The families could send us the documents, or we can take from (with health measurements), we digitize the documents (with the approval of the families) and bring the originals back.
The letters and other ego documents will be used for qualitative data analysis to add and to study the individual experiences of the researched generation.
 Das Gesicht des Krieges. Feldpostbriefe von Wehrmachtssoldaten aus der Sowjetunion 1941-1944 (s. Anm. 2), S. 19.hu
To contribute and support the research of WARLUX
please contact the team via email, telephone and fax :
Telephone + 352 46 66 44 9575
Fax: +352 46 66 44 36702
- Martin Humburg, Das Gesicht des Krieges. Feldpostbriefe von Wehrmachtssoldaten aus der Sowjetunion 1941-1944, Opladen; Wiesbaden 1998.
- Klaus Latzel, Kriegsbriefe und Kriegserfahrung: Wie können Feldpostbriefe zur erfahrungsgeschichtlichen Quelle werden?, in: Werkstatt Geschichte (22) 1999, p. 7–23.
- Nico Everling, Liebe Jett. Feldpost eines Luxemburger Zwangsrekrutierten, Luxembourg 2003.
- Katja Rausch, „Es geht alles vorüber, es geht alles vorbei…“ Philippe Gonners Briefe von der Ostfront 1942-1944, Luxembourg 2003.
- Veit Didczuneiet, Jens Ebert and Thomas Jander, Schreiben im Krieg. Schreiben vom Krieg. Feldpost im Zeitalter der Weltkriege, Essen 2011.