Digital Spatial Methods for Soviet-German History: An Investigation of German Prisoners of War in the Soviet Union, 1941–1956




This article explores the methodology of creating a geographic information system (GIS) in order to reach new historical conclusions that can otherwise not be reached due to the nature of Soviet archival sources. The article uses the case of German prisoners of war (POWs) of World War II in the Soviet Union to illustrate how digital methods can lead to new research findings. It shows the exact methods the author used to build and refine the GIS as well as the iterative process of developing new maps and research questions. The results are historical conclusions that could only partially be answered solely using archival documents, memoirs, and interviews. The case of the POWs thus serves as a call for similar studies to continue to be undertaken for history in general. By exploring the steps taken to create the maps, the author hopes to be transparent about the amount of time a project like this can require, while also showing how rewarding it can be. Initial results for the POW study have been substantial and many other scholars can benefit from the methods used. Finally, the article concludes with the introduction of a collaborative historical spatial-historical project known as the “World Historical Gazetteer,” which provides mapping services and serves as a data store for digital, data-driven historical scholarship. The author shows how her small subset of spatial historical data can be contributed to this larger system, which will help scholars not only to further their own research, but also to engage with other scholars around the world who are interested in similar historical periods and geographic locations.

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