Encamped Voices. Sound Recordings of Internees from World War II

During World War I, the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission was established. The collaboration of linguists, orientalists, experts on Africa, and musicologists produced more than 2,500 grammophone and phonograph sound recordings in German prisoner of war camps. Examples of the music and the songs of “foreign peoples” on wax cylinders were intended to enlarge the collections of the Berlin Phonogram Archive. The speech and dialect samples of various groups of internees on wax discs formed the basis of the Sound Department of the Prussian State Library, established in 1920, and were transferred to the Berlin University in 1934.

The topic of my research are those sound recordings that were produced between 1939 and 1942 under the supervision of the university. Drawing legitimacy from the practice, already established during the First World War, of producing sound recordings in prison camps, three research projects were also carried out in prison camps during the Second World War: in order to analyze foreign languages, sound recordings were again made of African soldiers of the French army, who were interned in German camps in occupied France, as well as Russian soldiers interned in camps in Brandenburg. A third project extended the research agenda established in the 1920s of recording German dialects to the widest possible range: in 1941, academics recorded the dialects of German “Heimkehrer”(repatriates) from Galicia and Volhynia in “volksdeutschen Lagern” (camps of “ethnic Germans”).

My research project traces the unexamined history of the preserved sound recordings from a perspective informed by the history of knowledge and the history of science. It examines how the voices were transferred from the camps to the holdings of the Sound Archive of Humboldt University in Berlin. (Editor’s Note: in German, the word “Lager” is used to denote both a “camp” and a storage space or depot where archival materials are held.) It also asks about structural relations between the camps and the depot of voices in the archive. Sounds, speech, languages and their technical recording and reproduction are situated in an eminently political context that must be analyzed with a view to the past but also to the present.