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Researcher Spotlight: Simona Tobia

This past spring, the Veterans History Project (VHP) has had the pleasure of hosting Kluge Fellow Simona Tobia of Reading University in the UK. Simona’s interest in the human experience of war fits beautifully with VHP’s mission and collections. Her research on interrogation during World War II is fascinating, and in order to share it more widely, and illustrate an example of VHP collections in action, I asked her to answer a few questions about her work and her experience as a Kluge Fellow. Below, she discusses her exploration of interrogation during World War II.

MH: Hi Simona! Can you provide some background information on the research you are doing at the Library of Congress?

ST: The research I am doing at the Library is for a project called “Face to face with the enemy: interrogation, interviewing and questioning in WWII,” the outcome of which will hopefully be a book and a couple of articles.

The idea is to focus the project on the Allied forces (mainly American and British) in the various stages of the conflict and its aftermath, and in the different war theaters. The methodological approach is to compare and contrast the methods used by American and British forces between 1939 and 1949, the techniques used in the Mediterranean, European and Pacific theaters, and in the conflict’s aftermath, and evaluate the Allied methods against those used by the Axis powers (examined through American and British material as well as secondary sources). I am studying interrogation, interviewing and questioning as a military event to collect human intelligence, as a key process in investigations to collect forensic evidence, and as a fundamental step in the management of displaced persons and asylum seekers. I view this issue as a cultural phenomenon, in which the lived experiences of participants on the ground, both as interrogators/interviewers and interviewees and prisoners of war, are of primary importance.

At the end of the project, I am hoping to draw conclusions on the way different institutions (intelligence, security, military, national and international justice and relief organizations) conceived of interrogation, interviewing and questioning; on the difference in the way liberal states and dictatorial regimes conceived of interrogation and questioning and for which purposes; on the experiences of participants in the different stages and theaters of the conflict and its aftermath; on the extent to which harsh methods were used and on the limits between what we consider acceptable in war, and ill-treatment and brutality.

MH: What led you to this particular research question?

ST: I am very interested in the human experience of war, the stories that come from below to tell us what it was like to be there, and in the history of war and culture as a history of encountering others. The stories and the history we read and write about war are usually about killing others. In this case the purpose of the encounter is not to kill the enemy, but to convince them to give up some valuable information. And the Second World War was a very peculiar situation, which is still seen by many as the “just war,” because it was fought against very heinous enemies. I am interested in discovering some of the dynamics that have remained unsaid in this context.

MH: How do you hope to add to the existing scholarship on the topic?

ST: The truth is that there really is not any scholarship in this context, so one could say that I am hoping to bring together various fields of research, and to add to all of those. In particular, I am thinking of the history of intelligence in the Second World War, both Allied intelligence and Axis intelligence (for example, what was the role of interrogation? From my sources it seems that the importance of signals intelligence has been a bit overemphasized), and the history of imprisonment in WWII. Hundreds of books and articles have been published on POWs, internment camps and concentration camps, and the experiences of inmates in all of those facilities. My research will add to that, trying to reflect on issues of gender, for example. Memory studies and oral history are other fields I am hoping to contribute to.

MH: What has been most interesting about the source material that you’ve encountered so far? What has been most unexpected? Any favorite collections?

ST: The one fact that struck me since I started working with material from the VHP collections, is that there really is a wealth of material. The collections are so rich that they are stimulating research in many more different directions than I originally thought, and my project has become more ambitious. There are many collections in which the veterans relate their experiences of interrogation, either from the point of view of the person who asked questions or from the one who had to answer, and it is quite striking that they remember so vividly even 60-70 years after having experienced it. In terms of favorite collections, how could I not mention the John W. Kluge Collection, which includes an oral history interview performed by the current Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington. Kluge became an intelligence officer because he was a native German speaker, and he spent many months interrogating German prisoners at a prison near Alexandria, Virginia.

MH: What advice would you give for researchers who are planning on coming to the Library of Congress or to the Veterans History Project specifically?

ST: The Library of Congress is still, I think, the biggest library in the world, and therefore researching here can be quite daunting. My advice is to come prepared, to spend time researching the website before coming and then to be humble and proactive at the same time: look for help. There are so many specialists and every single one of them is so incredibly helpful that it would really be a waste not to ask for their help. This is true for all the sections, but especially for VHP, and I am really grateful for the invaluable help I received here.

MH: What has been your favorite part about being in residence at the Library of Congress as a Kluge Fellow?

ST: Apart from being able to conduct research in one of the biggest and most prestigious institutions in the world, which has obvious benefits, being a Kluge Fellow enabled me to relate to many people from so many different backgrounds, disciplines and specialisms. This is very rare, but it is also a very enriching experience.

Thanks, Simona! More about Simona’s work can be found on her website: http://closeencountersinwar.com/.


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