Covert Networks during the Holocaust

In my work I have coded, visualised and interpreted data on covert support networks based on six case studies in Berlin. Earlier works on support for persecuted Jews focus either on historical reconstructions of individual activities or the personalities of helpers in general. I defended my thesis at the University of Mainz in July 2012 and was awarded the grade summa cum laude and published my thesis with De Gruyter.

Dwelling from the existing body of research I aimed to shift this rather actor-focused approach towards the analysis of internal structures and collective activities of illegal support networks. Building a database to store a large number of relations among actors and visualising them was an important methodological step that helped me achieve this. Due to highly distorted and fragmented sources I was forced to pay special attention to the risks in working with a database and visualisations.

Most of the multiplex relational data that I collected is based on autobiographical testimonies, post 1945 applications for remuneration or interviews, some of which took place more than 60 years after the events they depict. As a result, these personal testimonies have been transformed into more or less fixated, often anecdotal narratives. These narratives are rather reflections of their author’s self-conception than accurate depictions of past events. Another problem is the clandestine nature of illegal support activities: names of actors and sources of support were kept secret whenever possible, contemporary written accounts are valuable exceptions. Other sources were Gestapo interrogation reports which contain information that was not given voluntarily and likely contains false and misleading information.

All these sources have strong biases which make them difficult to use for formal analysis and lead to highly fragmented sets of actors and relations. Even though many of these gaps cannot be fully closed, a large number of relations can still be deducted from third party accounts, existing historical research and historical contextualization. This works better for some actors than for others.

My goal was to relate individual motives, forms of support, time and frequencies of support, the intensity of personal relations and structural positions of both supporters and refugees. I was particularly interested in the conditions under which networks evolved, their roots, their ability to adapt to the rising pressure of persecution, their internal social dynamics, critical success factors and potential weaknesses. My research was supervised by Harald Welzer, Jörg Raab and Sönke Neitzel. Together with my colleagues Christian Gudehus (Project Leader) and Susanne Beer I was part of the project Frames of Reference of Help which was located at the Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research then at the Centre for Advanced Study in the Humanities / Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen. Project Partner was the Memorial for the German Resistance / Gedenkstätte deutscher Widerstand Berlin.