Ego document

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From Friedrich Kellner's diary

Ego documents are sources in which the self-perception and representation of the historical subject in his environment are expressed. This can be done voluntarily or involuntarily, that is, in direct texts such as autobiographies , diaries and letters or statements that are not planned for transmission in an administrative context, such as in criminal case files.

Word origin

The term "ego documents" is made up of the terms ego and document . Ego comes from Latin or Greek (ἔγω) and means 'I'. Document comes from the Latin documentum for evidence - actually "by means of which one teaches something from which one can infer something". The current Duden gives the individual meanings of “document” and “evidence” or “certificate” for the keyword “document”.

History of the term

The term egodocumenten first appeared in Dutch social historiography in 1958, when the historian Jacques Presser referred to egodocumenten as texts in which the author is a "writing and descriptive subject". In the 1980s, Rudolf Dekker followed up Presser's definition and specified: The author of an egodocument formulates his actions and his feelings. Both scientists referred in particular to autobiographies, letters, memoirs , travel reports and diaries , that is, voluntary and deliberate reports from individuals. This definition is currently roughly equivalent to the German term “ Selbstzeugnis ”.

In the following decade, Winfried Schulze adopted the Dutch term in German history . Fundamentally new is his expansion of the "ego documents" to include involuntary, unintentional self-statements of the ego:

"The common criterion of all texts that can be described as ego-documents should be that statements or statements are available which - albeit in rudimentary and covert form - about the voluntary or forced self-perception of a person in his family, his community, Providing information to his country or his social class or reflecting on his relationship to these systems and their changes. They should justify individual-human behavior, reveal fears, present knowledge, illuminate values, reflect life experiences and expectations. " (Schulze, p. 28)

Accordingly, the source group of ego documents includes not only the classic personal testimonials such as autobiographies , letters , chronicles , memoirs , travel reports , diaries, but also statements in the written material of official, legal or economic processes such as cover books , petitions, attitude surveys, requests for clemency, inquisition protocols , account books , Tax levies, wills , subject interviews, interrogation protocols , visitations , witness interviews, etc.

The great benefit of defining a source group for ego documents is that it includes texts in which information from layers unfamiliar with the script or from groups that are not well represented can be recognized. These groups include women, farmers and workers who are otherwise rarely represented in written sources or are only part of the statistics.

Findings gained from ego documents are useful, among other things, for micro- historical and mentality-historical research into early modern man, his individual experience and imagination, his cultural values ​​and practices as well as his behavior and feelings, in short his everyday life.

Discourse in History

Schulze's definition of "ego documents" is criticized on two points: The undifferentiated nature of the term brings it close to the ego term in Freudian psychology, which leads to exaggerated associations and, especially with regard to insights into the historical psyche of the writer, to unrealizable expectations can lead to the source.

The mixing of self-written and administrative writings into a source group makes it difficult to attempt a comprehensive source listing. This is also more complicated by the continuously and rapidly increasing number of texts since modern times.

The term “ego documents” is limited to only having an associative function. It serves as a “loose bracket” for all categories of sources that disclose information about an “ I ” instead of arranging them precisely and in a differentiated manner to simplify the working basis and thus enable a general use of the definition.

Large parts of the historians therefore continue to work with the technical term " self-testimony ", as a result of which the facets of the involuntary, necessary or compulsory self-statements remain almost completely undiscovered.

Benigna von Krusenstjern took a first step towards a thorough subdivision of the "ego documents" in 1994. She classified the self-reports as a subset of the "ego documents". An essential characteristic of the self-testimonies is the "self-thematization by an explicit self", that is, that the utterance was made consciously and of its own accord (von Krusenstjern, p. 463).

Source criticism

As with other sources, an elementary component when working with ego documents is the source criticism , which checks the productivity and value of the source. The analysis of the context in which the documents were created is central to this: first of all, the socio- historical conditions that affect the self , such as age, gender, origin, level of education, experience, social position and current events, must be observed. Furthermore, the reasons for the emergence as well as the aspect of the communication from one's own or another's drive are of enormous importance. These are crucial to the author's intention to portray himself. This intention is tailored to the respective addressee and their possible horizon of expectations, as well as role models, rules and argumentation strategies.

Especially in retrospectively created writings such as autobiographies or memoirs , the ego is consciously or unconsciously embellished, veiled, falsified or relativized and events are individually re-weighted according to the present state and thus accentuated differently. Omissions, contradictions and glossing over are therefore also elements of the (self) presentation and provide meaningful information.

In general, ego constructions begin when the ego deals with its impressions, experiences, experiences and emotions and arranges them into a story. In summary, ego documents are in any case evidence of the history of mentality of their time, since the "ego constructions developed in them always run within the limits of what can be thought and perceived in an epoch" (Rutz, paragraph 64).


  • Art. “Document” / “ego” in: Günther Drosdowski (Ed.): Duden. The large dictionary of the German language . Vol. 2, 2. completely revised. and exp. Aufl. Mannheim (et al.) 1993, p. 745 and p. 815.
  • Art. "Document" / "ego" in: Friedrich Kluge: Etymological dictionary of the German language . 3. edit and exp. Edition Berlin, New York 1995, pp. 187-88 and p. 205.
  • Benigna von Krusenstjern: What are personal reports? Concept-critical and source-related considerations based on examples from the 17th century . In: Historical Anthropology. Culture, society, everyday life . Vol. 2 (1994), pp. 462-471.
  • Helmut Ottenjann, Günter (ed.): Old diaries and cover books. Sources on the everyday life of the rural population in northwestern Europe . 1982 ( full text as PDF )
  • Irina Renz: "The dead stay young". Ego documents in the collection of life documents in the Library for Contemporary History . 2015 (full text as PDF) In: Portal Military History , March 3, 2015
  • Andreas Rutz: Ego-Document or I-Construction? Self-testimonies as sources for research into early modern man . In: zeitblicke 1 (2002), No. 2 (December 20, 2002).
  • Winfried Schulze: Ego documents. Approaching the People in History? Preliminary considerations for the conference “Ego documents” . In: Winfried Schulze (Ed.): Ego documents. Approaching the People in History . (Testimonies of the modern age 2). Berlin 1996, pp. 11–30 ( full text as PDF; 2.8 MB)

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