Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guest post from Monika Schröder: Obituaries, Advertisements, and War Bulletins...

Today's guest post from Monika Schröder speaks to the historical background of her novel My Brother's Shadow, reviewed here on Tuesday.  How did her archival research with Berlin newspapers inform her work, and how did she consult these primary sources while living half a world away?  As a librarian who likes helping researchers with requests for older material, I found her essay especially enjoyable.

Obituaries, Advertisements, and War Bulletins – How Reading Berlin Newspapers from the Fall of 1918 helped me write My Brother's Shadow, by Monika Schröder

My new novel of historical fiction, My Brother's Shadow (Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, September, 2011), is set in Berlin 1918 during the last months of World War One. The book explores how war and the political transition following WWI affected regular people and children in particular.

From reading secondary sources I had gained basic information about the situation among German civilians, but I needed to find more details of daily life in Berlin. A few excerpts of the Berliner Tageblatt and Morgenpost were available online, but most of those consisted of the front pages announcing important events such as the Kaiser’s abdication or the armistice. I didn’t find any searchable database that would give me access to the original Berlin newspapers of the year 1918.

When I contacted the German Newspaper Archive in Berlin, I learned that the digitization of most of the papers I was interested in had not been completed. The nice lady at the front desk invited me to visit the archive, explained which subway stop to get off and how much it would cost to make copies. I told her that I lived in New Delhi and wouldn’t be able to come personally to the archive until the following summer.

But I needed those papers right away. I must have sounded desperate as she connected me to the director of the archive to whom I explained my predicament. I expected a tart ‘no’; instead he told me that the archive had finished digitizing through the end of 1919 the Vossische Zeitung, an important liberal paper, published in Berlin. That was good news!

But when he asked how I could get to access the Vossische Zeitung from October 1918 to January 1919 he told me that they were not available online yet.

Now so close to my goal I was not ready to give up. “If you have them in digital format,” I said. “Could you burn them onto a CD and send them to me?"

After a pause, he said, “That would be very expensive.”

“How much?” I asked.

I won’t disclose the sum. Let’s just say he was right in his cost estimation, but I ordered them right away and three weeks later I was delighted to receive a package in the mail with the digitized editions of the Vossische Zeitung from October 14, 1918 to January 20, 1919.

I loved reading the newspaper. The official war report was printed daily on the front page, usually under an upbeat headline. But by the middle of October a discerning reader could see that the army leadership slowly began to disclose more and more of the German Army’s dismal situation. The paper also printed obituaries. Every day numerous black framed notices informed the reader of the death of a young Karl or Friedrich who died “in honor of the fatherland” in France, Russia or Belgium.

I also studied the advertisements, which were very interesting and revealing. Due to the British blockade of the German harbors, Germany experienced severe food shortages. By 1918 many raw materials like coffee or cocoa were not available, and the lack of these products forced Germans to be inventive. Many “ersatz” (replacement) products were advertised. For example, I found an ad offering a class for housewives who wanted to learn how to make coffee from chicory and other ingredients. There were also numerous official calls for the collection of raw materials, such as metal, rubber, and cardboard. Others asked children to bring cherry and plum pits for a “Make Oil from Fruit Pits” campaign.

Commercial ads also illustrated the changing role of women in the war economy following the shortage of men. Traditionally considered the “weaker gender,” women now were drafted to work in ammunition factories and conducted streetcars, and delivered milk and mail or moved heavy equipment as the woman in the following advertisement.

I was so fascinated by what I had read that the newspaper became an important part in the story. As an apprentice in a print shop of a Berlin newspaper, Moritz, the main character, reads the headlines of the paper he just helped print and thereby informs the readers of the state of affairs in Germany, October 1918. On the first page of the novel Moritz studies an official war report, knowing that the government is not allowing the truth to come out. He then meets Herr Goldman, a journalist who works for the paper and who takes a liking to Moritz and ultimately helps him to fulfill his dream to become a reporter like himself. When Moritz is sent out to report on an illegal demonstration he sees his mother among the speakers. He witnesses the police disturb the meeting, disperse the crowd and arrest the leaders. What happened to Moritz’s mother? Read My Brother's Shadow to find out.


  1. Thanks for sharing such a fascinating search. I too sometimes have trouble getting the sources I want, and I would have never thought of making a specific request to the archives like that--now I'm adding a new idea to my repertory. :)

  2. Thank you for this great post. I do this kind of research all the time and am always interested to hear other peoples experiences. Newspapers are really such a wonderful resource for historical fiction. I spent a year reading the Völkischer Beobachter on microfilm and found so much usable information.
    I can't wait to read Mu Brother's Shadow.

  3. Another engaging post - thank you both! I very much enjoyed the rich colour this piece brings out about the research efforts behind My Brother's Shadow. If I may be curious, Ms. Schröder, did anything you read or observed in these newspapers surprise you or cause you to reconsider previous impressions or conclusions?

  4. My earlier comment seems to have gone astray, so here is a repeat:

    Another engaging post - thank you both! I very much enjoyed the rich colour this piece brings out about the research efforts behind My Brother's Shadow. If I may be curious, Ms. Schröder, did anything you read or observed in these newspapers surprise you or cause you to reconsider previous impressions or conclusions?

  5. Sorry about that, Danielle - I hadn't realized your earlier comment had gone into spam!

    Alex, I'll be curious what you think of the book, given your focus on wartime children's fiction. Were you reading that newspaper for a research project? (I didn't realize until I looked it up that that was the Nazi party's official paper.)

    Lucy - yes, sometimes that can work. Many archives are willing to go the extra mile for legitimate researchers, but it may also depend on how much time/staff they have.

  6. This was a fascinating article, Monika. I love the way you have used all of the original document, not just the news, to get a flavour of the times. This is, I suspect, be even more valuable insight than any to be gained from the official story.

    Martin Lake