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Digital research uncovers the role of emotions in political debates about World War II

What role did emotions play in political debates about the consequences of World War II in the period 1945 – 1989?

Milan van Lange investigated this question using computer-assisted text mining in his PhD-thesis 'Ingeprente Emoties: Een computer-ondersteunde analyse van oorlogsgerelateerde emoties in Nederlandse parlementaire debatten, 1945–1989' (`Imprinted Emotions: a computer-assisted analysis of war-related emotions in Dutch parliamentary debates, 1945-1989’). By using digitized historical sources and the computer to analyse post-war parliamentary debates, Van Lange nuances the existing view that these debates became more and more emotional from the seventies onwards. His research shows how the use of digital sources in historical research can lead to new insights. He conducted his research at the NIOD and will be awarded a PhD by Utrecht University on 10 December 2021 at 10.15 am GMT.

Emotions of all times

Milan van Lange's research shows that emotions played a major role in the debates in the Senate and House of Representatives from as early as the early fifties, and that much was said about victims of World War II and their suffering. These emotions were often expressed and played an important role in these debates. "Emotions in war-related debates are of all times, although the ways in which they were expressed and used changed," says Van Lange. For example, parliamentarians in the late forties and fifties often spoke about the war from their own experiences. "They often bring up emotional examples from their own network to emphasise the gravity of the matter. This changes in the sixties and seventies. Personal descriptions of suffering give way to more generalised appraisals or assessments of emotions. To give an example, a parliamentarian in the fifties spoke about the poignant conditions in which a cousin from Zandvoort lived, whereas twenty years later, MPs spoke of the sadness that was still present in society."

Innovative methods to enrich historical research

By using computer-assisted text mining to identify emotional expressions in thousands of digitized historical sources, Van Lange analysed not only whether emotions played a part, but also how they were expressed in parliamentary debates about people who experienced the long-term effects of the war first-hand: former collaborators and war criminals, the former resistance, and various groups of war victims.

'Imprinted Emotions' shows how historical research can be enriched by sources, methods, and ideas from different disciplines: from social psychology to computational linguistics and the digital humanities. 'Imprinted Emotions' is an original contribution to methodological innovation in historical research – which is increasingly relevant in the context of increased digitisation of historical archives and the growing availability of digital-born data.

Read more about Milan van Lange's research and PhD at the NIOD and Utrecht University here.

Research in the field of Digital Humanities at NIOD

As of 1 October 2021, Milan van Lange has been appointed as post-doctoral researcher in the field of Digital Humanities at the NIOD. This position should contribute to building a greater and in-depth expertise with regards the formation and use of digital and digitised resources. The Research Department aims to stimulate innovative research by using digital collections, which are managed by the Collections and Services Department and other digital collections in the research field, and by applying new methods for research.

Milan van Lange is currently working on NIOD’s digital project 'First-Hand Accounts of War: War Letters (1935-1950) from NIOD digitised. This project revolves around the digitisation of a valuable collection of war letters from the period just before, during and after the German occupation of the Netherlands. In addition, a structured, scientific dataset is created that can be used in research for the application of, for example, quantitative text analysis.

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