How were the files created and how can they be used as historical sources ?
by Wolfgang Hans Stein, Koblenz
The archive portal provides access to sources from various provenances, including public administrative authorities, commercial enterprises, churches and missionary societies and orders as well as private papers. The most formalised is the file keeping of the public authorities. But their basic principles are also applied in a simplified form by the other creators of records.
(1.1) The public administrative authorities of the German colonial period follow the tradition of Prussian administration in their administrative techniques. It was not only applied by the authorities in Germany itself, but was also observed in the colonies right down to the smallest administrative offices.
This administrative technique is reflected in various elements that should be known in order to interpret the files correctly. The record management is determined by instructions for business processes (Geschäftsordnungen↓), which regulates the business process (Geschäftsgang↓). The application of the business process leads to the fact that the files arise specifically for each case. A separate file is created for each administrative action (action file), which contains all the documents relating to this process and also determines the later filing↓. The business process (Geschäftsgang↓) also prescribes the manner in which files are to be treated (Aktenführung↓), and it determines the role of the registry for controlling and monitoring the process of business. Finally, it also results from this in which form the filing of records (Aktenablage↓) is to be done, with which the researcher is then confronted in his archival work.
Especially the German Diplomatic deals with these questions. In addition to the creation of files (genetic D.), it also examines their form (analytical D.) and the genera occurring in the files (systematic D.).
Berwinkel, Holger / Kretzschmar, Robert / Uhde, Karsten (Ed.): Moderne Aktenkunde (Modern Diplomatic), Marburg , 2016. DNB
Schmid, Gerhard: Akten (Records), in: Beck, Friedrich / Henning, Eckart: Die archivalischen Quellen (Archival sources), Cologne 5th edition 2012, pp. 89-124, esp. pp. 105 ff DNB
Hochedlinger, Michael: Aktenkunde. Urkunden- und Aktenlehre der Neuzeit (Diplomatic of modern times), Vienna 2009 DNB
Menne-Haritz, Angelika: Business processes. An archival science approach to collaborative decision making, records, and knowledge management, Dordrecht 2004. DNB
Enders, Gerhart: Archivverwaltungslehre (Archive Management), Berlin 3rd edition 1968, ND Leipzig 2004, pp. 32-40. DNBDNB
(1.2) Commercial enterprises primarily keep correspondence files. In the course of time, the initially more personal letters have developed more and more into formalised business letters. In addition, there are special types of commercial documents such as business contracts and different books for the processing of goods and financial transactions as well as for bookkeeping and balance sheets.
Schmid: Akten, p. 122 ff;
Neuss, Erich: Aktenkunde der Wirtschaft (Diplomatic of commercial enterprises), vol. 1-2, Berlin 1954-1956. DNB
(1.3) Churches, missionary societies and orders largely follow in their record management the forms which also apply to the public administration, even if in a form adapted to the respective degree of organisation. In addition there is the keeping of church registers, especially of the church books. A peculiarity are the chronicles, which are kept by almost all ecclesiastical institutions. In the mission stations, copybooks are often used for outgoing correspondence, while separate files are created for incoming letters.
(1.4) Private individuals are of course completely free to arrange the filing of their private papers. Nevertheless, a fairly uniform classification according to the fields of activity of the respective testators has prevailed in the archival arrangement of private papers.
Schreyer, Hermann: Die Gliederung von Nachlässen (The Arrangement of private papers), in: Archivmitteilungen 12, 1962, p. 14-20.ZDB
(2.1) Instructions for the business process (Geschäftsordnungen) are internal guidelines for the operation of the agency, i.e. the business process (Geschäftsgang). They regulate the internal treatment of administrative procedures, both in the processing of external applications and in the preparation of prescriptions initiated by the agency itself (ex officio). They are closely linked to the business distribution plan (Geschäftsverteilungsplan), which determines the assignment of matters to the appropriate officials within the agency.
When dealing with the records of an authority for a longer period of time, it is therefore always worthwhile to first determine whether there are instructions for the business process and a business distribution plan in the existing body of the agency.
(2.2) Action file and filing
Files are kept in German administrations on an the basis of the administrative procedures. All the documents used for a case are grouped in a single file, the action file. The file therefore begins with an application or an instruction, and contains any previous files and precedents to be observed, as well as any comments from other administrative bodies involved in the process. It shall end with the administrative decision thus taken and its notification to the applicant or to the person concerned.
In the case of smaller transactions, action files of the same type are usually merged to form a concerning file (Betreffakte), while transactions that have assumed a certain scope are formed to form an action file (Sachakte). Thus the files on land transactions necessary for a colonial railway construction can be combined into a file concerning land acquisitions for the XYZ Railway, but the files on a particularly lengthy case can also form an action file on the acquisition of land for the ABC area of the XYZ Railway. However, the administrative action on an individual case is always the smallest structuring unit of the files, so that often also action files and concerning files are called altogether concerning files in the more general sense, so also in the database of the German Federal Archives.
A distinction is made between serial files in which certain types of files, such as the daily correspondence of an administrative office, are merged without being linked to a case. A distinction must also be made between pure document filing by subject without an administrative connection. These file formations are however rare with German administrations.
(2.3) Business Process and Registry
The central instrument for the control and monitoring of administrative processes in the German administrations of the colonial period is the registry, an authority function peculiar to the German administrations. Nothing gets into the business process of an authority that has not passed through the registry. And the same also applies to the internal administrative communication of the authority in the time of interest here. A new entry in an authority first receives an entry stamp with the name of the sender authority and the current date. On the other hand an internal note or disposal is often already dated by the instructing official, but can also be given an additional entry stamp.
Both types of documents will then first be submitted to the head of the authority or to an official appointed by him to do so, which will determine the unity of the agency which is to carry out the processing in accordance with the business distribution plan. Then the entry or disposal is submitted again to the registry, which enters the pieces in the business journal of the authority (example: Enders: Archivverwaltungslehre, after p. 40).
The registry takes over the registration information visible from the piece and enters the pieces with sender, date of dispatch, date of receipt and then with subject and processing assignment. In addition, a diary number is assigned to the piece, or the piece receives an activity number, which is usually derived from the sequence number of the business journal. This shall also be indicated on the document itself in connection with the entry stamp. In any case, registration in the registry ensures that all relevant registration information is available both on the document itself and in the business journal. Only when this has been done, the document thus processed will be handed over to the responsible agent for further action.
In larger authorities, the processing was carried out using a hierarchical procedure in which a distinction was made between the decision-making level by a referee and the executive level by an expedient or secretary. The head of department and the referee determined what had to be done in a case and noted this in a disposal on the file. On the basis of this information, the secretary then drew up a draft of an answer, a decree, etc., which then had to be submitted to the referee or even higher for approval before the chancellery could be entrusted with the engrossed copy. Finally, the case had to be submitted for a third time to the head of department for the signature and a final check of the decision, before the corresponding document could be sent to the respective addressee and the internal files of the case could be transferred to the old registry (to the files). In the case of important transactions, this process of business could also be extended if, for example, previous files had to be consulted and/or other units oft the agency or even other authorities had to be involved to clarify the case. But each transmission of the action file took always place via the intermediary of the registry, which noted the respective processing step and the location of the file in the business journal (confer to the movement scheme of example 1). In principle, the separation of the processing of cases and the keeping of files was applied, which enabled a high level of control over the administrative procedures. The registry was always not only in control of where an action file was in the process of business, it was also always informed about the status of the processing of a case through all intermediate steps up to the elaboration of the outgoing letter. In this respect, the business journal was a faithful reflection of the way files were kept. In many cases, however, the business journals are no longer preserved, e.g. not even in the record group of the Colonial Office (Reichskolonialamt) in the German Federal Archives. Therefore, you can only work with the action files here.
However, the slowness and sluggishness of the classic process of business led to simplifications as early as the 19th century. The increasing standardization of administrative processes as well as the possibilities of the beginning communication technology (shorthand, typewriter, telegram, telephone etc.) created means for the direct completion of processes by skipping hierarchy levels. Thus, not all levels of a particular authority need to be realised in the process of its business.
(2.4) Keeping of files
Files are the written record of legal acts (lat. acta = acts). Originally, legal acts and their recording existed side by side, as is still the case today, for example, with marriages, but in the meantime legal acts have largely taken on a written form, such as a marriage contract before a notary. The files of the German colonial administrations do not simply consist of a series of documents which the researcher can use as sources. Rather, they are the written record of administrative processes. This is also shown by the classic formulation of the file titles in this period: Acta concerning XYZ.
Everything that drives the administrative process must be noted in the files themselves and then executed, so that a self-controlling administrative process arises. Nothing may be done in the case which has not been ordered by the competent official concerned, and the progress of the action must be apparent from the files at all times.
For this purpose, the process is peppered with processing notes, each with the date and paraphe of the respective processor. These are not always easy to understand. In many cases, abbreviations are used that are no longer familiar today. Often one is obliged first to bring the processing notes into the chronological order, in order to be able to dissolve them from the context and to understand the processing procedure (see in addition good guidance with Schmid: Akten, S. 107 ff; Hochedlinger: Aktenkunde, S. 64ff). A concrete example of a file process in the image and in the transcription is attached as example 1.
However, the effort is worthwhile, because only in this way can the genesis, which is no longer recognizable in the final decision, be reconstructed with all administrative steps and all arguments put forward. Also it is exactly this logging of the process of business in the files, which makes the files only to documents for appropriate administrative action and thus to historical sources for the historian.
In the era of German colonialism, file plans that already provided a foresighted classification scheme for the files produced were still scarcely widespread. However, by allocating the handling of matters according to the business distribution plans, combined with the keeping of action files, the authorities were able to systematically break down the completed files according to the competences of the respective authorities. For this purpose, the registries usually had registry plans that specified the main groups for the structuring of the completed files. Almost always, however, a directory was kept of the actually existing old files. Where these file directories are preserved, they still provide useful information even if the later, archival structure of the authorities' holdings did not base the classification of the files on them.
Files are used today as sources of history. However, they were by no means created for this purpose, such as chronicles, but they are "remnants" of administrative processes and that is precisely where their evidence lies. Files are therefore created only where an authority acts and an authority acts only where it has an administrative mandate within the framework of the powers assigned to it. If this is given however, the acting of an authority is directly reconstructible from its files and business journals.
However in the search for sources, the historian has to take the opposite approach. He will often not find the matter that interests him, at least at first glance, in the inventories. Rather, he must first search for the authority whose competence includes dealing with the matter in which he has an interest. So it is always a question to ask: which authority has dealt with the matter that is the subject of my research, and under which aspects?
Correspondence of the Provincial of the German Pallottine Province with the Colonial Office (Reichskolonialamt) concerning reports of Pallottine missionaries in Cameroon from war and imprisonment, 1916
BArch R 1001 Nr. 3929, fol. 91-92
The file is available as a scan in the Invenio database on the homepage of the German Federal Archives.
The business treatment is governed by the Instructions for the business process ["Geschäftsordnung" following abbreviated GO] (R 1001/9703) and the business distribution plan ["Geschäftsverteilungsplan" hereinafter abbreviated to GV] (R 1001/9702; edited by Michael Hollmann: Reichskolonialamt, Koblenz 2003, p. XXXV-LII. DNB ), and it is also logged in the process itself.
The formal control of the business in the Colonial Office (Reichskolonialamt) is carried out successively by three units, namely (I) the Central Office, (II) the Registry and (III) the Chancellery (Kanzlei), each of which may consist of several offices.
(I) The entry first reaches the entrance office, here called the central office, which controls the assignment of the entry to the competent office (GO § 19: "All entries destined for the Reichskolonialamt [...] reach the central office") and receives there the entrance stamp (GO § 20: "The entries arrived to the central office [...] are opened there, with an entry stamp provided, marked up and sorted according to the departments"). It follows the submission to the regionally responsible referee (GO § 21: "[...] the incoming letters in their entirety are initially assigned to the referees of the relevant colonies (Schutzgebiete) in Department A [...] § 21: The gentlemen referees of the respective colonies (Schutzgebiete) check the entries immediately [...]. ") as well as to the responsible department head (GO § 9, p. 21:" Then the entries are submitted to the head of the department, in whose area of business the entry falls. "), Thereby the competence of the authority is checked and a task-list for the handling of the case is given. This completes the part of the business process that runs through the central office.
(II) The entry now enters the area of the registry which controls the preparation of the reply or decision to be made on receipt. It has already been clarified in the course of business, which registry is responsible, namely in our case, in conformity with the business distribution plan (Geschäftsverteilungsplan) the registry competent for Cameroon and Togo (Registry KA IV).
Here, the receipt is now entered - beyond the entry stamp - in the business journal (GO § 15, p. 36: "The entries reaching the Secret Registries are to be entered as late as the same day if possible ."). Thereby the entry is transformed into an action to be treated by the agency in question. For this purpose, the registry has already added to the action file all the documents necessary for the processing of the case, which is now given into the hands of the responsible referee (GO § 9, p. 26: "After having been submitted to the head of department, the entries get directly into the respective secret Registries, of which they must be submitted without delay to the responsible referee, enclosing the relevant [...] files. "). In the present case, for a matter concerning Cameroon this is the office A.2, which is headed by the Secret Councillor Dr. Meyer-Gerhard.
In response to the communications of the Provincial of the Pallottines is now drafted the response of the office A.2. It is drafted by a expedient of the unit and written down on the right-hand side of the page, while the left-hand side is reserved for corrections. In our case, corrections are been made, the instructions for the business process stipulating that corrections should keep the original text readable. The draft concludes with the approval paraphrase of the responsible referee Meyer-Gerhard.
A peculiarity is that the case is sent to the military office MA 1 and specially its its sub-office Ka, whereby it is ordered that that the reports are also sent to this unit and to the Ministry of War.
(III) With the approval of the draft reply to the communication of the Provincial of the Pallottines, business in the area of registries has been completed. Now follows the production and dispatch of the answer under the control of the writing service (Chancellery). However, the concept is not given from the office in charge of the matter directly to the chancellery, which is to produce the engrossed copy, but the GO § 28 (8), p. 70 expressly states: "In order to [...] always control the whereabouts of the documents it is necessary that the drafts reach the writing service via the secret registries and not directly from the referees etc. ".
After the production of the engrossed copy by the writing service (Chancellery), the outgoing letters in our time are usually signed by the heads of department (GO § 31 (4), p. 83). Finally, the answer is still to be sent out by the post service.
The process illustrated here shows the process of business in a simple case, which is limited by a pair of correspondence between incoming and outgoing letters. In addition, an internal co-signing took place. The processing of a case can, however, easily continue to expand if more offices are involved and, if necessary, the decision to be given on the entry is discussed controversially between them. Then very complex structures can arise, which on the other hand are often very informative for the genesis of the decisions made.
(1.2) Scheme of the movement of the action file
Example 2: Excerpt from the business journal of the Colonial Office (Reichskolonialamt) from 1885
In the record group of the Reichskolonialamt only one business journal has survived, namely that of 1885 (R 1001 / 9342). It shows that continuous logging took place only in part of the planned headings. Carefully the entry with the running number, date, sender and subject (content) is logged. Fields for the submission of the receipt in the authority are then provided, but not completed. The same applies to the drafting of the concepts for the answer. Only the answer is logged again with the date and file number of the file.
It would, however, be necessary to examine whether the registry of the Reichskolonialamt, in addition to the business journal, used index cards for the pieces in the current course of business, as is often the case in authorities of the time.
Example 3 **: Excerpt from the business journal of the catholic chaplain general (Feldprobst) of the colonial army (Schutztruppen) Dr. Vollmar 1, 1911
(Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv: BArch PH 32 Nr. 56, fol 4), 25 entries, 15 Dec 1910 - 2 June 1913
Business journals were also kept by smaller authorities, as here in a rather extreme example with only 25 business transactions in two and a half years. Nevertheless, the journal is based on the same scheme as the far more detailed example of the business journal of the Colonial Office (Reichskolonialamt) (Example 2). Here, too, the journal is kept on both sides, so that the incoming letters are documented on the left-hand side and the transaction processing on the right-hand side. On the other hand, the columns for submission of the entry at the different unities of the agency and for the single steps of the handling of the matter have been omitted. At least in the journal of the Reichskolonialamt of 1885 they also had not been completed and they were al the more dispensable in an authority that only had one office room. Similar simplified business journals have been kept by many smaller authorities, such as schools.
On the left side for incoming letters, the entries are noted with consecutive numbers. This is followed by information on the name of the sender with the name of his agency (by whom?) and on the letter received with the reference number assigned by the sender and the date of dispatch (date of the letter with N°), to which the date of receipt is added (date of receipt). Also new is the indication of the subject of the entrance (content of the same).
In the case of entry no. 18, this is a letter issued by the command of the colonial army (Schutztruppen) in the Colonial Office (Reichskolonialamt) on 2 December 1911 with the file number M 1611/11 and the additional number 467392 2 from office MA.1, which was received in the office of the chaplain general (Feldprobst) on 23 December  and concerned the compensation of 5000 M(ark) for the military pastoral care in South West Africa.
On the editing page, you can see what has been done with the entry by the agency in charge of the matter. If an answer will be given, it will be filled in with addressee, date and subject, as in No. 16. The same applies to letters initiated by the authority itself, where only the entries on the editing page appear, as in No 17. In many cases, as in No 18, however, there was no immediate reply to the receipt, so that the letter was given directly to the finished files (z(u) d(en) A(kten)) and only the filing location, namely South-West Africa (S(üd-)W(est) A(frika)), was noted.
On the action file itself (Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv: PH 32 / 61, p. 1 with Annex p. 2ff, of which only the first part is reproduced), the only business entry is the file number assigned by the recipient, which consists of the date of receipt 23/12  and the diary number 18. A receipt stamp was apparently not used in the office.
The evidential value of business journals is nevertheless very high, even in the case of simplified management, i.e. when the journal hardly indicates anything about the business process, since they prove the totality of the business transactions. They therefore often contain information which is not to be found in the files, because these are always selective.
Corresponding document PH 32/61 S.1-3 "Entschädigung für die Militärseelsorge in Südwestafrika"
**For kind information I thank Stephanie Joswiak, Federal Archives Military Archive Freiburg.
1Born May 1, 1839, died July 8, 1915, since 1904 chaplain general (Feldprobst) of the Prussian Army, since 1906 at the same time Probst of the Imperial Navy, since 1907 at the same time Feldprobst of the German colonial army (Kaiserliche Schutztruppen), 1913 retired.
GATZ, Erwin (Hg.), Die Bischöfe der deutschsprachigen Länder 1785/1803 bis 1945. Ein biographisches Lexikon, Berlin 1983, S. 780-781 DNB
BRANDT, Hans Jürgen / HÄGER, Peter (Hg.), Biographisches Lexikon der Katholischen Militärseelsorge Deutschlands 1848 bis 1945, Paderborn 2002, S. 860-863. DNB
2The reference of the number is not clear from the process. Since the complementary records of the command of the colonial army (Schutztruppe) with the business journal in the Colonial Office are lost, no further indication can be made.