Published: Updated On – 12:55 AM, Sun – 19 June 22

By Pramod K Nayar

In 2017, the digital humanities research group, Fondazione Bruno Kessler at Trento, Italy, set up the Linked Open Data (LOD) Navigator to trace the Italian victims of the Shoah. Rachele Sprugnoli, Giovanni Moretti, Sara Tonelli mapped date and place of birth, death, dates and routes of deportation, place of detention, in Tracing Movements of Italian Shoah Victims. In cases where the inmates survived, this too is recorded. It culled data from the Contemporary Jewish Documentation Centre for this purpose.

In the Shoah, individuals, entire families and often localities were wiped out. In the pursuit of ethnic purity — a feature now of daily lives everywhere, since history repeats, as national registries are prepared of citizens and non-citizens, of those for the nation and those ostensibly against it — detailed surveys were made before the process of deportation was carried out.

And now, the restoration of the routes and names, people and places, in digital mapping projects give us an atlas of suffering.

Maps during war time produced geographies of suffering, and geography in the Nazi era, was destiny

War Years

Wars traditionally produced maps. In the 1940s — the war years — Allied nations printed over a billion maps: 50 maps for every soldier. Later, other kinds of maps were produced, especially in the digital era.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum had created maps of massacres too, placing the map with the Nazi’s special action group (the Einsatzgruppen) actions in Eastern Europe on its Holocaust Encyclopaedia page.  A similar initiative is the more recent Shoah Atrocities Mapping — Ukraine (SAMU) project from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This ‘Atlas of the Holocaust Killing Sites in Ukraine’ shows the regions across Ukraine wherein “each region (‘oblast’) is represented by a black monument marker”. Clicking on any of the markers opens up a “label presenting pre-war Jewish population and the number of Jews killed in the region”.

And yet, these online atlases of horror are not the only story, for at the close of the Second World War another undocumented mapping project was underway, in the heart of the collapsing Third Reich. The full and fascinating story of this operation was made public in an essay in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2019.

The American Major Floyd Hough, a Cornell-trained civil engineer, led a military intelligence team of 19 individuals — civil engineers, geographers, linguist and spies — into Aachen (the first German city to fall to the Allied forces, despite Hitler’s orders to defend it at all costs). Their target was an unusual place: the library, where Nazi documents of their war actions may be found. The result of the operation was stupendous: “the largest cache of geographic data the United States ever obtained from an enemy power in wartime”, writes Greg Miller in the Smithsonian Magazine. Miller writes:

“The abandoned documents [in Aachen’s Technische Hochschule library] included tables of exceptionally precise survey data covering German territory that the Allies had yet to reach—just what Hough was looking for. His team quickly microfilmed the material and sent it to the front, where Allied artillery units could immediately use it to improve their targeting.”

Later, Hough and his team would undertake similar efforts in Frankfurt, Cologne and other cities. In Saalfeld, they hit the jackpot: the central map and geodetic data of Nazi Germany for areas as far as the Soviet Union. This was the data the Nazis had compiled, and used, as they marched on their terrible journey across Europe. Hough’s team shipped 250 tonnes of geodetic and cartographic data from Saalfeld town alone to the Army Map Service in Washington. Miller reports that the haul contained “100,000 maps covering all of Europe, Asiatic Russia, parts of North Africa, and scattered coverage of other parts of the world”.

Maps and geodetic data captured from Nazi Germany showed their routes of action, and future intentions, as far as the Soviet Union. After the war, these could also serve the USA’s potential action against Soviet cities

It was geographic data that showed Nazi action and future plans, so that no territory would go untouched and unravaged. The maps and geodetic data, in Nazi hands, constituted the destiny of the inhabitants of those regions.

But the captured maps were not for the immediate knowledge alone: German geodetic data could also serve, as the Americans discovered, as accurate pictures of the Kremlin, if they wished to bomb it post-war. It comes as no surprise, then, that “Hough played an early role in developing the Army’s program of research for guided missile systems”, in Miller’s words.

In seizing Nazi maps, Hough had not only initiated a geography of the Third Reich’s horrors (both planned and executed in the war years) but also a map of potential use for future wars against the Soviet Union or any country behind what was then known as the Iron Curtain. One could, in short, take decisions about a distant land whose every detail was available in the maps: what to bomb, whom to bomb.

Stories and Maps

The philosopher Michel de Certeau said, “what a map cuts up, a story cuts across”, and the Tracing Movements of Italian Shoah Victims is an extraordinary atlas, a georeferencing of violence in ways that bring together data and stories.

The brief stories of the victims are recorded as:

• Elena Recanati, daughter of Luigi Recanati and Luigia Simon. She was born in Italy, in Turin, on March 12 1922. She was married with Guido Foa. She was arrested in Canischio (Turin). She was deported to the extermination camp of Auschwitz. She survived the Shoah.

• Regina Assael, daughter of Menahem Assael and Emilia Politi. She was born in Turkey, in Izmir, on June 14 1872. She was the widow of Isaac Ventura. She was arrested in Milan (Milan). She was deported to Bergen Belsen. She survived the Shoah.

• Erich Hirschl, son of Hinko Hirschl and Giulia Hirsch. He was born in Yugoslavia, in Zagreb, on March 21 1921. He was married with Zora Adler. He was arrested in Milan (Milan). He was deported to the extermination camp of Auschwitz. He did not survive the Shoah.

This is the digital and cartographic equivalent of the documentation compiled by various nations around the victims of the Holocaust, most notably, Liliana Graziella Picciotto Fargion’s The Book of Memory: Jews Deported from Italy (1943–1945), which contains information of about 9,000 Jews deported from Italy (available only in the Italian).

What the map cuts up, the story cuts across…

Where the Sentinel Project and others offer us a new geography of the world — mapped in terms of endemic violence, genocides and such — Tracing Movements of Italian Shoah Victims is a spatial entry into history. It visualises, in the process of georeferencing,  a history of wartime violence against civilians. In the process, it also offers us a history of specific regions, communities, families – all of which make this a project in historical memory-making.

Comparable in scope, scale and stories is The Atlas of Nazi–Fascist Repression. The Atlas maps the executions, massacres and deportations, both political and civilian, in various regions of Italy during the fascist years. The stated aim is “to paint a complete picture of the violence perpetrated against civilians by the German army and its allied Fascists in Italy between 1943 and 1945”. Retracing the history of the events,

“The database lists and analyses all the massacres and the individual murders of civilians and resistance fighters killed in Italy after September 8, 1943 both by German soldiers and soldiers of the Italian Social Republic outside of the armed fights. These range from the first murders in the South to the withdrawal massacres committed in the days after the Liberation in Piedmont, Lombardy and Trentino Alto Adige region.”

The database contains more than 5,000 episodes of oppression, detention, execution and in most cases the identities of victims and perpetrators have been confirmed. There is also a “Trial History” which documents the proceedings against Fascist/Nazi war criminals (available only in Italian). Newspaper records from the time are also available. There is a “Complete Massacre Map”.

Spatial Humanities

The historian Giovanni Pietro Vitali in a recent essay treats the Italian project as an exercise in the “spatial humanities”, writing: “the map shows the chronological progress of repressive events on the Italian territory”. Vitali argues that the map enables the interpretation of historical accounts in terms of victims and perpetrators, linked to specific places and time:

“massacres throughout Italy were mainly the work of the Nazis. At first, the German army concentrated its repression of civilians in southern Italy …and violence gradually escalated in the region around Naples beginning in September 1943. Behind the massacres lay a calculated policy, closely linked to the German retreat strategy…The reasons for the massacres therefore lie in a carefully pursued strategy, for which the civil populations were to be made responsible for the partisan actions — in short, a real strategy of terror which guaranteed the retreating German army absolute security on the Italian territory.”

Vitali also shows the collaboration of the Fascists with the Nazis during the war years, again in terms of the map, and concludes: “Fascism was therefore an important cog in Jewish deportation to extermination camps”.

Both Tracing Movements of Italian Shoah Victims  and The Atlas of Nazi–Fascist Repression exemplify the best of the Digital Humanities initiatives today. On the one hand, they bring back the past in visual ways, clickable ways, enabling the viewer/reader to choose her spot of historical time and place and explore the events therein. With names and identities, these also personalise the historical horror: the war was about people, individuals and their families, as the data set coming alive on your screen shows. On the other, the maps, especially the Nazi–Fascist one, show us how power operated, the channels of collaboration, social and political intrigues when neighbours turned against neighbours. Thus, in Vitali’s analysis,

“Their [Fascists’] acts were always carried out in the shadow of the German army, not as the main actors of a civil war but as collaborators of the Nazis who really ran the territory.”

From Mercator we have indeed come a long way, except for the nightmares that humans have writ upon fellow humans — that is a constant.

For the spatial humanities, maps are linked to questions of power and geographic subjectivities

For the spatial humanities, maps are linked to larger questions of power, subjectivity, the nation-state and, as always, the identity of the state-less, those, such as migrants, who cross geographical borders. Maps represent knowledge and its politics. In the Holocaust maps, a whole new world is drawn — a map which we wish didn’t exist, but does.

In his extraordinary work, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century (2016), the Yale historian of science, William Rankin, traces the changes in cartographic practices and what they mean. Rankin argues that changes in the tools and methods of mapping enable the making, at micropolitical level, “a new geographic subjectivity—a new way of seeing and interacting with the earth”. At the macropolitical level, “they are also about the reach of state rationality, the permeability of territorial boundaries”. They represent the sovereignty of the state over territory.

However, with digital and electronic technology, the story of spaces and maps has altered significantly. Rankin notes that the logic of mapping has moved “from the logic of representation to the logic of the grid”. With globalisation, aided by the technologies of communication, transport and connection,  the “new spatiality of knowledge and power … is an intensification and multiplication of territory beyond the cleanly delimited borders of the territorial state”.

The satellite maps enable distant intervention, for better or for worse, for wars as well as for humanitarian causes. The GPS is a global infrastructure and, despite its overwhelming military provenance, employment and threat, is a cultural phenomenon. For example, where once map-making was the domain of the state and state-organisations, in the age of the digital, anyone with a receiver can produce her own maps in the GPS mode. In other words, alternative maps to the ones produced by the state are also possible — and this marks a radical shift in the state control of and power over spatial knowledge. New geographic subjectivities, as Rankin calls it, emerge through handheld, GPS-enabled maps produced on the go by individuals. Maps are now a part of everyday life: the blue dot on the mobile phone screen, the shifting car-icon for an Uber, locational data.

We now inhabit space differently. Geography remains, to date, destiny.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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