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declassified archives military archives

Non-written sources in military archives

BY KATHLEEN VAN ACKER, ARCHIVIST WITH THE SECTION CLASSIFIED ARCHIVES (BELGIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE).

The Committee of Military Archives thanks Kathleen Van Acker, our Secretary General, for her great commitment and active participation to this blog

Introduction

The traditional idea we have of archives are piles and piles of old paper, boxes stacked in long racks. Archives, in the public opinion are text-based.

However this idea has changed, the mantra “no documents no history” is surpassed. Within the archival terminology the term “document” has evolved too, following the different evolutions in types of information flow.

In the 19th century, Jules Milechet: the famous historian and curator of “les Archives Nationales” in France, already stated that documents are only one sort of source among other sources.

We also see this evolution in the archival definition:
information or data stored on a medium and used as an extension of human memory or to support accountability. We don’t speak about “a document” any longer, but we use the word “a medium”. This medium can have different formats, in general we speak of:

  • written
  • visual
  • oral
  • 3 dimensional

To illustrate these different mediums we will show some of the different sources kept by the section Classified Archives (Belgian Ministry of Defence) and explain their importance in historical research.

Written sources

We are all familiar with the “traditional” archives, i.e. the written documents.

In the section Classified Archives the written archives are the biggest part of our collection. We have the military archives since the mobilisation in Belgium in 1939, so it is logical most of them are still written. Some examples are field journals, official documents, listings of prisoners, etc….

Royal decree concerning the Belgian Sûreté militaire, established 1st April 1915

Visual sources

Next to the written sources we have the visual sources. We are all familiar with photos and the sentence “a photo says more than a thousand words”. Next to written documents we have a lot of photos in our archives. We have the official documents, an example are the Personalkarte WWII, where you will find a photo of the prisoner with his personal data. For researchers in family history it is always an emotional moment to see their grandfather, great-grandfather as a prisoner.

Personalkarte (WWII)


Gail OKAWA did a study on Japanese prisoners during WWII describing her feelings when she came across a photo of her grandfather: “the first time I came across his mug shot in the INS file was especially chilling for me as I imagined his humiliation
(Gesa E. KIRCH and Liz ROHAN, Beyond the Archives, Research as a Lived process, 2008)

History becomes very real in this case.
We have more examples like this, next to the listings of prisoners of the STALAF and OFLAG prisoners camps, we have a collection of photos from those camps, mostly found in personal archives. They give an unique view of the life in those camps

Stalag baracks (WWII)
Stalag: prisoners cooking their meal (WWII)

Another example is the diary we found in the archives of the Tandel sisters.
The Tandel sisters were volunteers in the resistance during WWI and WWII. Two unmarried sisters, Laure and Louise, joined the Red Cross at the outbreak of WWI. Very soon they joined the resistance. When they got arrested by the Germans, Laure was sent to the Siegburg prison where she stayed 6 months. She wrote in her diary, wrote poetry, and made drawings. After her release she and her sister joined “La Dame Blanche” a resistance group in Belgium. During WWII Laure and Louise joined the resistance group “Clarence”. Two remarkable ladies, who left us a great amount of information about women in the intelligence world.

Drawing by Laure Tandel of her cell in the Siegburg prison (WWI)
Drawing by Laure Tandel of her cell in the Siegburg prison (WWII)

Oral sources

We don’t have a lot of oral sources in our archives, as said above, we mainly keep the more “traditional” archives. But we do have a piece of archive which is quite interesting: a tape of a encoded message from the GRU to a Belgian officer who was recruited as a spy.

During the Cold War, Colonel BINET was recruited by the GRU. During a meeting with one of his contacts in Vienna, he was spotted by the CIA who contacted the Belgian military intelligence service. After a surveillance operation, BINET was arrested.

The methods used by BINET and the GRU are very well documented by the records we received, but also by the objects we have. Not only are they an example of an oral source, but also of the three dimensional sources

Three-dimensional sources

In the BINET archives we have a lot of objects used by Colonel BINET and the GRU.

We are not exaggerating when we say they could be used in a James Bond film.
BINET used the obligatory briefcase with a secret compartiment to take classified documents home. They used hidden slips of paper with codes, secret ink etc… All of these object were transferred to the archives and give an unique view of the espionage methods used during the 80’s.

Binet’s suitcase with secret compartiment
Binet’s pen with hidden code
Binet’s wallets with codes written in invisible ink

Conclusion

In my experience as an archivist I can say that the written sources, certainly in the past, mostly give information about the political affairs and administration. They didn’t give a lot of information about people who didn’t held positions of power.

Luckily the scope of history has widened, and we find that information in the other sources, which I illustrated in my examples above.

I can state that the quote “no documents, no history” is not correct. I would like to believe that nowadays we can say “no trace, no history”. The written sources are still very important history, but they aren’t the only one. Archival sources can take all forms.

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