Research on the First World War draws on a large variety of historical sources including textual documents, visual sources, artefacts, objects, and even audio recordings. After the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877, audio documents were systematically produced, collected, and stored. Special phonogram archives first emerged in Vienna in 1899, and the following year in Berlin.

A unique collection of audio documents was produced in German prisoner-of-war camps by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, which was set up by the Prussian Ministry of Culture in 1915. Between its founding and the end of the war in 1918, more than 30 scholars and experts, mostly linguists and musicologists, carried out recordings in about 70 German prisoner-of-war camps. The results of their activities were later stored in the Phonogrammarchiv am Ethnologischen Museum (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) and in the Lautarchiv at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. The Lautarchiv's collection is a systematic sound archive, which contains about 1,650 shellac discs documenting European, Asian, and African languages and dialects. Among these are a great number of recordings by colonial prisoners of war.

During the war, prisoners from the enemy armies, including colonial soldiers, became 'objects' of linguistic and anthropological research for German scholars. The camps were easily accessible laboratories in which academics, with the permission of military and political authorities, were able to undertake linguistic research and ethnographic observations. Prisoner-of-war camps provided social spaces where encounters, and disputes, took place and identities were negotiated. A major aim of the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission was to collect the voices of endangered peoples, as part of a greater plan to explore the history of mankind. They were interested, for the most part, in the sounds of the voices and issues of pure linguistic, but the recordings do also contain personal accounts on the war and captivity. Prisoners offered their perceptions of Europe, Germany, and other fellow prisoners; they expressed their emotions and expectations, such as a longing for their homes and families, a loss of friends, fear, anger, and hope.

While there do exist methodologies on how to interpret visual documents of the First World War, such a systematic approach of how to study audio sources is still under way. Using these sound recordings as historical sources on the social history of the First World War can provide new insights into the experiences of ordinary soldiers, in particular those of colonial combatants who left few written documents. Sound recordings should be seen as 'sensitive collections' and, as such, be analysed as the result of complex historical processes of knowledge production. They reflect not only on the conditions of war and captivity, but also on an often highly problematic, racist, and colonial past. Working with these sources generates a whole set of new questions, which ultimately challenge previous historiography on the First World War. They cannot be used in isolation, but should always positioned in relation to sources varying in type and character. Sound recordings should also be treated as the result of various translation processes: from their creation in a camp, through cataloguing in the archive, and right up to present-day research that often requires collaborative efforts in translating and interpreting the material.

Heike Liebau