From the Archives

There are research projects whose primary aim is to analyse a pre-defined body of sources, e.g. a set of newspapers in a certain period, or an intellectual’s complete papers. More often though, historians begin with a research question and then fan out into various archives, libraries and personal collections to compile as many sources as necessary to answer said research question in a well-reasoned and accurate way. Obviously, digitalization has had a remarkable effect on how we pursue research today. Most archives have online catalogues and provide finding aids, and more and more sources are being digitised. But while we may have the feeling that the material is at our fingertips, the challenge is not to succumb to the temptation of collecting all available data. After all, nothing can replace the creative work of following the paper trail in the archive, coming up with new ideas (and oftentimes discard them again), and identifying new connections and actors.

Thus, after weeks of intense research and email-writing, I visited London in order to excavate published and unpublished material on the activities of a group of jurists during the “London Moment”, among them the National Archives and the Library of the London School of Economics. One of the highlights of my trip was the collection of the papers of the so-called Society for the Protection of Learning and Science, or SPSL, at Oxford University. Established in 1933 as the Academic Assistance Council, the SPSL helped German university teachers to find a sponsor for their emigration to the United Kingdom, e.g. colleges and research institutes.[1] It also assisted several German jurists to escape to the UK. Their files document the agonizing process of applying for a visa in the 1930s, and are a testimony to the invaluable, (if insufficient) work done by the SPSL. The stories I found still resonate today (without wanting to draw too many parallels), with academics from authoritarian regimes – or those heading there – desperately trying to find employment in the EU or the United States. Fittingly, to use the SPSL papers, one needs the permission of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), which performs much the same functions today.

Finding unique sources requires detective work and endurance – but also a little bit of luck. Coincidentally, the papers of the United Nations War Crimes Commission were just recently digitised and are now publicly accessible at the Wiener Library in London.[2] The bright reading room has a UNWCC workstation – basically a desktop computer with access to the PDF files. A Power Point Presentation offers a short introduction to the collection. Unfortunately, one cannot save copies of the files on a USB stick, and making photographs of the screen is more impractical than using microfilm readers that allow for scanning. Other than that, the collection is unique. It includes the UNWCC’s complete papers, its minutes, reports, correspondence, case files etc., allowing for new detailed studies on its role in the history of international humanitarian law.

[1] Catalogue of the Archive of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, 1933-87, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford,

[2] Records of the United Nations War Crimes Commission, The Wiener Library,

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