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Identifying the ‘right’ widow in WW1 newspapers

After an analysis of the press coverage of the largest civil catastrophe during the First World War in Austria, NewsEye team member Barbara Klaus takes a closer look at the coverage of war widows in World War One looking at two different Austrian newspapers: The Neue Freie Presse and the Arbeiter-Zeitung. In this blog post, she presents some interesting results of her research and explains the central difficulties and challenges regarding the research for this topic in ANNO (AustriaN Newspapers Online). 

Widows as war victims

The previously unknown might of destruction of the First World War led to an extremely high number of casualties. These included a large number of invalids, war widows and war orphans. Different figures exist for these groups of victims. For example, Martina Winkelhofer assumes that half of all fallen Austrian soldiers were married and left behind between 90.000 and 95.000 war widows and about 270.000 war orphans. In addition, Christa Hämmerle cites post-war figures which indicate that more than 100.000 invalids and about 350.000 war widows and orphans needed state support during and after the war. These high numbers (partly) outline the destructive dimension of the conflict. The following article (figure 1), published in the Arbeiter-Zeitung in July 1918, describes the case of a woman whose husband, a teacher in civil life, was reported missing at the front in 1915, and her struggle to still receive the (much higher) salary of her husband and not the war widows pension. In the end, the higher administrative court (‘Verwaltungsgerichtshof’) granted her the full salary until the (official) declaration of death.    

Figure 1: Article about state support for the wife of a soldier reported ‘missing’ (Arbeiter-Zeitung, 02/07/1918, p. 5).

During the conflict, war widows received pensions. These were already, in many cases, too low to secure a living. Later on, inflation caused a rapid devaluation of this already small income and other assets. Therefore, especially war widows and orphans were exposed to the risk of falling into poverty, as many articles in the investigated newspapers indicate. Because of this, shortly after the outbreak of the war, the association ‘Witwen- und Waisenhilfsfonds der gesamten gewaffneten Macht’ (widows’ and orphans’ support fund of the entire armed forces) was founded at a conference attended by military and civil social circles in August 1914 under the protectorate of archduke Leopold Salvator and others to (financially) support war widows and orphans. This fund plays a dominant role in the press coverage of war widows in the newspapers. The following, very critical article, published in the Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1918, underlines the already mentioned risk of poverty for war widows. It tells the story of a fictional war widow who lost all her money in the course of the war years due to the low pensions as well as the price increases and profiteers, to illustrate the disastrous economic and social situation of war widows and their children in the First World War in general.

Figure 2: Part of an article about a fictional case of an impoverished war widow (Arbeiter-Zeitung, 13/09/1918, p. 4).

Have you ever read up on war widows?

The nature of warfare condemned an unknown number of women to a life as war widows already in the first days, weeks and months of the conflict. Accordingly, it can be assumed that newspapers reported intensively on the fate as well as the needs of the surviving dependents of fallen soldiers already during the years of war (1914-1918).

In order to be able to prove this assumption, it was decided to investigate two time periods – one at the beginning (01/08–31/12/1914) and one at the end (01/07­–30/11/1918) of the conflict – in two Austrian newspapers, the Neue Freie Presse and the Arbeiter-Zeitung. This approach was chosen to limit the relevant articles and to determine possible shifts in the press coverage about war widows in the course of the First World War. This step was necessary due to some challenging and time-consuming aspects regarding the search for fitting articles in historical newspapers.


Figure 3: Article about the so-called ‘Kriegsfürsorgestempel’ (Neue Freie Presse, 10/11/14, p. 16).


An initial investigation, a combination of some search queries (advanced search, ‘Kriegerwitwen’ and ‘Witwen’, 1914-1918) and ‘browsing’ in the chosen newspapers, led to the clear conclusion that war widows, in the sense of women who lost their husbands to the conflict, were rarely addressed as ‘war widows’ in newspaper articles. Instead, they were only called ‘widows’. No valid scientific justification exists for this phenomenon. However, it can be assumed that the information about the sort of widows addressed in these articles was unambiguously apparent from the context. Due to this, it was tested whether the so-called distance search could help deal with this problem. It enables users of the ANNO platform (Austrian Newspapers Online) to search for two terms that are not placed exactly beside each other, but in close vicinity of one another. Thus, it is possible to define the maximum distance (number of words) between two terms. Therefore, the term ‘widow’ was combined with several other keywords which can be expected to be mentioned in the context of war widows, like ‘war’, ‘front’, ‘soldier’, ‘death’, ‘orphan’ and ‘wounds’. However, this approach was also not successful, because it lead to a relatively small amount of results in contrast to previous assumptions. The failure of the distance search was maybe partly also caused by the sometimes rather low OCR quality: It is easier to find one than two correctly spelled terms.  

Consequently, the only chance to gather – as far as possible – all relevant articles about war widows in the predefined time spans and newspapers was the use of the single term ‘widow*’ in the advanced search. In contrast to the simple search, the advanced search allows a more refined search in the digitized historical newspapers by, for example, date of publication and newspaper. As previously expected, this search query lead to a challenging number of results. Because of the broad approach, it returned also a high number of false positives, including all kinds of widows, which had to be checked manually. Some ideas for technical developments that could solve this problem will be discussed at the end of the blog posts. First, some results:

Widows & orphans – in unity

Even though this blog post focuses on the press coverage of war widows, it can be determined that both groups of war victims – war widows and war orphans – were regularly mentioned within the same sentence in the investigated articles. This is true for both time periods (1914/1918) and newspapers (Neue Freie Presse and Arbeiter-Zeitung). This circumstance is underlined by the fact that the already mentioned fund (‘Witwen- und Waisenhilfsfonds der gesamten gewaffneten Macht’) as well as other charity associations dealt with both war widows and orphans. Consequently, they were regularly presented as one unity. As one of the main results of this research, this fact had to be highlighted in this blog post. Due to the significant overlapping between the press coverage about war widows and war orphans, they also form an interesting topic for a subsequent comparative research. However, the following statements will focus on the reporting about war widows.

Figure 4: Number of articles about war widows in the Neue Freie Presse and the Arbeiter-Zeitung (1914/1918).

To start with some figures, the number of articles regarding war widows published in 1914 and 1918 diverge rather substantially. In the Neue Freie Presse, 439 (1914: 315, 1918: 124) and in the Arbeiter-Zeitung, 101 (1914: 72, 1918: 29) articles with some connection to war widows were published. Obviously, the number of articles decreased significantly between 1914 and 1918. In particular, these figures collapsed from September onwards (see figure 4). However, the number of articles do not indicate anything about the importance of war widows in these reports. An in-depth analysis, using the summarizing qualitative content analysis by Philipp Mayring, has shown that – in most cases – war widows were regularly only mentioned in passing in the investigated articles, which often focus on other related issues, such as other war victims (e.g. invalids). This especially concerns the press coverage in the Neue Freie Presse. Therefore, the first impression that war widows were omnipresent in this newspaper during the First World War is misleading. As already mentioned, the OCR quality always has to be taken into account. It is possible that not only the number of articles published about war widows decreased, but also that the OCR quality dropped and therefore it was impossible to find more relevant articles via the advanced search in ANNO. It would be interesting to investigate whether the shortage of material in the course of the First World War, which captured almost all parts of life, had an influence on the paper quality and consequently the scan and OCR quality of the newspapers.   


It’s all about the money…

Referring to the prior statement, it has to be noted that the editorial concept as well as the political orientation of the investigated newspapers differ from each other. The Neue Freie Presse (1864-1939) was one of the most important newspapers in the Habsburg Monarchy and was mainly read by the liberal educated classes. In contrast, the Arbeiter-Zeitung (1889–1938/1945–1991) was a social-democratic publication, which returned to an anti-war attitude in the course of the First World War. Unsurprisingly, there are some major differences in the newspaper coverage about war widows, such as the reporting about grievances regarding the support of war widows. This will be discussed in more detail later on. However, both make one issue a subject of discussion in highly different ways: money (see figure 5, ‘Kronen’ was the official currency in the monarchy at that time).

The Neue Freie Presse extensively supported the ongoing patriotic efforts to financially help war widows. These included, for example, visible patriotic efforts, such as the so-called ‘Kriegsfürsorgestempel’ (war welfare seal, see figure 3), ‘Kriegskokarden’ (war cockades) as well as others (e.g. medals and postcards). Also, a huge range of events were held in support of war widows, such as concerts, readings and theatre performances. However, in all of these cases war widows are usually nothing more than a marginal note and (sometimes) seem to function as a selling argument, e.g. for tickets for concerts and other events as well as for books. Furthermore, the newspaper had its own collection of donations for the official ‘Witwen- und Waisenfonds der gesamten bewaffneten Macht’, which appears in almost all issues of the war years.

Figure 5: Most frequently used words in the press coverage in the Arbeiter-Zeitung 1914 and 1918 (created with Wordle (http://www.wordle.net/).


However, especially the number of reports about donations and charity events for war widows, which were also very popular in the Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1914, dropped drastically in the Neue Freie Presse and were no longer part of the press coverage in the Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1918 at all. It can be assumed that the immense generosity shortly after the outbreak of the conflict, which has to be seen as a manifestation of patriotism, declined in the following years – probably due to several reasons: the long duration of the conflict, the difficult economic situation (e.g. inflation and food shortages), and selfish tendencies which occurred in the course of the war among the population.

In contrast to the Neue Freie Presse, the Arbeiter-Zeitung also published several reports about the economic and social situation of war widows. For example, in some of these extremely tragic and critical articles, two public holidays were called ‘Blutallerseelen’ (blood All Souls’ Day) and ‘Blutweihnachten’ (blood Christmas, see figure 6), because of the high death toll already in 1914.

Figure 6: Part of an article about the so-called ‘Blutweihnachten’ (Arbeiter-Zeitung, 27/12/14, p. 6).

Furthermore, the Arbeiter-Zeitung published several reports about grievances regarding the supply of and the social interaction with war widows and orphans. In 1914, the behavior of landlords and priests towards war widows and their children and the lacking financial support by the state were especially criticized in newspaper articles. Four years later, a high number of reports focused on suggestions for improvement regarding the situation war widows as well as other social groups (see figure 1), mainly brought forward by the Social Democratic Party, as well as the price increase, usurers and profiteers which forced war widows to unimaginable acts, such as living in the woods with their children under inhuman conditions.


Conclusion – what needs to be done

With regards to war widows, both newspapers created their own media reality, and – following their own interests and editorial concepts – concentrated on different aspects in their press coverage. On the one hand, the Neue Freie Presse concentrated on reports about patriotic efforts, such as ‘patriotic collections’ (‘patriotische Sammlungen’), charity events and products (e.g. books and picture postcards) that were collected, held or published in favor of war widows in 1914 and 1918. On the other hand, the Arbeiter-Zeitung also published such articles in 1914, as well as critical reports about the often difficult economic and social situation of war widows. This trend increased over the years of war. The way to this finding was full of obstacles and was too time-consuming in relation to the generated knowledge. The main question is: what needs to be done to change these circumstances and make the research in online portals for digitized historical newspapers more effective?

First, the unfortunate aspect that war widows were regularly only addressed as widows can’t be changed. However, the way to identify the ‘right’ widow and compile a corpus could be much easier. For example, a high number of useless hits involved ads of widows who were looking for a job. Therefore, a function to exclude unnecessary hits in specific sections of a newspaper or newspaper contents would be an advantage. This requires the implementation of a document layout analysis to identify the regions of interest in the already scanned newspaper pages. Also, the providing and embedding of some contextual information could be helpful in this case. Furthermore, a personal working space to create corpora online could help to not lose track in a high number of returned hits. This was another main challenge during the research. Last but not least, the research would also benefit from better OCR quality to improve the reliance on automatically generated results. Currently, an extremely time-consuming manual research is needed to validate results, which can’t be conducted in many cases due to a lack of time as well as other reasons.

The NewsEye Team is working on some promising tools to facilitate the research in digitized historical newspapers, including the aspects mentioned above.  




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