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The Internet Is Making History

A hundred years after the start of World War I, an online encyclopedia on the topic is being developed at Freie Universität

Nov 29, 2013

Indische Fahrradtruppen im Juli 1916 in der Somme-Region. Forscher aus aller Welt wollen den Krieg nun aus globaler Sicht beleuchten. Ihre Erkenntnisse sind von 2014 an in einer Online-Enzyklopädie verfügbar.
Indian bicycle troops in July 1916 in the Somme region. Researchers from all over the world are studying the war from a global perspective. Their findings will be available in an online encyclopedia starting in 2014. Image Credit: John Warwick Brook / Imperial War Museum

It was a conflict on the edge of Europe that started it all: In Sarajevo, then the capital of Bosnia, a student named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914. His wife, Sophie, was also killed. Mere weeks later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, starting a catastrophic chain reaction. Within just a short time, many nations around the world were enmeshed in the war.

Trench warfare, fierce fighting in fixed positions, and rivalry between Germany, France, and England are the major features of the image of World War I as presented in history books to this day. “Academics have traditionally tended to focus on the Western Front,” says historian Oliver Janz, a professor at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute (FMI) at Freie Universität Berlin. By contrast, he says, the war’s impact on Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and neutral countries has long been neglected.

That will change in the summer of 2014, the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, when an online encyclopedia containing international publications on World War I will, for the first time, present the events that occurred all over the world. The project is being funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). It is headed by Professor Oliver Janz and Professor Nicolas Apostolopoulos, head of the Center for Digital Systems (CeDiS) at Freie Universität, who initiated the project jointly with the Bavarian State Library, in Munich.

Through the founding publishers – alongside Janz, Professor Ute Daniel, of Technische Universität Braunschweig, and Professor Alan Kramer, of Trinity College Dublin – a network of more than 1,000 specialists from all over the world has been built up over the past two years. The project is also supported by 20 partner institutions in ten countries. The result will be freely available on the Internet next year under the title 1914-1918 online.

The project has “grown into a huge undertaking” since its start, says Janz. The number of participants and cooperation partners and the number of articles have grown far beyond the planned levels, but there have been no signs of issues with online publication or open access. “In light of the inquiries we received, such as the one from the Imperial War Museum, in London, there was no question that the original group of participants should be expanded,” Janz explains. Current research groups from Switzerland, Italy, and Portugal also got in touch with the organizers in Berlin and asked to participate. This means the encyclopedia’s content could hardly be fresher, says Janz.

Ruth Leiserowitz, Deputy Director at the German Historical Institute (DHI) in Warsaw, agrees. Like the DHI locations in London, Paris, Rome, and Moscow and the Orient-Institut Istanbul, the Warsaw DHI has played a major role in the digital reference work. “There has hardly been any research on World War I in Poland, so we initiated a project to close that gap,” Leiserowitz says.

Three researchers are working at archives in Warsaw, writing new articles. The financing comes mainly from external funding from the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation (FWPN). “The research is a challenge, because many of the local collections have been lost to fire and there are a lot of myths and legends surrounding that era,” Leiserowitz says. She hopes this work will lead to a balanced focus on the Western and Eastern Fronts. There are plans to publish the articles in Polish later on for students to use; the full encyclopedia will be published in English initially. Work on the encyclopedia has already driven a sharp surge in interest in this topic in Poland, even before the final result is available.

The sheer scope of the digital reference work is still a challenge to everyone involved. “Enriching more than 1,500 texts with materials and links is a big challenge,” says Nicolas Apostolopoulos. Pictures, videos, and cross-links to museums and archives need to be researched and inserted into the system. Additional links between the encyclopedia and the library catalog system are being created by the Bavarian State Library, in Munich. Once this process is complete, users will be able to navigate directly from an article to the cited source, for example, provided that the source exists in digital form

The participants plan to officially unveil the encyclopedia in Brussels in October 2014. Until then, each text will be reviewed twice by specialists and then prepared for the publication process by the editorial team, explains historian Ivonne Meybohm, who is coordinating the project at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute. The editorial processes are in line with the standards used by academic and scientific journals, so all of the articles can be cited. These tasks are being organized using a special software program that CeDiS has developed based on years of experience with online publications.

The team in Dahlem is also hard at work tweaking the technical requirements for reading the encyclopedia with e-readers and tablet computers, explains Apostolopoulos. That means interested users from all over the world will be able to access the new work from anywhere, even on the go, next year. Semantic network technologies that show the contextual connections between articles will encourage users to browse“At first, the project will appeal primarily to scholars and university students,” Apostolopoulos says. There are plans for it to be aimed at a broader audience in the future, however, including groups such as museum attendees and younger students. In any event, Apostolopoulos urges that the project be continued beyond 2014: “The online encyclopedia of World War I should be understood as an ongoing process that, unlike in a printed lexicon, is not finished at a certain time.”

Further Information

  • Univ.-Prof. Dr. Oliver Janz, Freie Universität Berlin, Friedrich Meinecke Institute (FMI), Tel.: +49 30 838-56765, Email: