Student Mines Cornelius Ryan Collection for New Research

Seth Givens, a history doctoral candidate, poses with files from the Cornelius Ryan Collection in the Mahn Center at Alden Library on Friday, September 27, 2013. (Photo by Tyler Stabile/University Libraries)
Seth Givens, a history doctoral candidate, poses with files from the Cornelius Ryan Collection in the Mahn Center at Alden Library on Friday, September 27, 2013. (Photo by Tyler Stabile/University Libraries)

When World War II history enthusiast Seth Givens first became acquainted with OHIO Libraries’ Cornelius Ryan Collection as an undergraduate student, he felt awestruck.

His excitement was understandable — he had just encountered about 21,000 primary sources that war correspondent-turned-author Cornelius Ryan had gathered while writing several books about World War II, including “The Longest Day,” a best-selling account of D-Day. The materials are part of a collection, housed in the Libraries’ Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, renowned for its raw, unpolished military and civilian personal accounts of the war. It’s estimated that just 10 percent of it has ever been published.

When the time came for Givens, now a history doctoral candidate, to write his master’s thesis, he mined the collection for accounts of wartime souvenir hunting and looting. The U.S. military condones the former and prohibits the latter, but prior research often grouped the acts together.

Givens, however, found the behaviors in World War II to be two very different things. Souvenir hunting occurred when GIs collected commonplace items from battlefields as tokens to take home. Looting — the pillage of civilian possessions — was decidedly more problematic. Givens discovered that looting by American GIs increased dramatically as they moved deeper into Germany in 1945. It became so ubiquitous that soldiers gave it a tongue-in-cheek pseudonym: “liberating.”

“The American serviceman who restrained himself from stealing in Allied countries saw looting in Germany as morally and legally justifiable,” Givens said.

Upon examining the collection, Givens discovered four recurring justifications for the behaviors: wartime necessity, opportunity for trade or profit, personal remembrance, and revenge. He deduced that the rise of looting in Germany was linked to desires for retribution. 

“This stealing for revenge was meant to convince die-hard Nazis they truly were defeated, and to mete out justice to those Germans who were associated with prison, labor, or extermination camps,” he said. 

Givens’ study made waves in the world of military history, as American GIs’ proclivity for looting in World War II was often glossed over or ignored. The peer-reviewed academic journal War in History published the research in their 2014 January issue, and adaptations of his thesis garnered Best Paper awards at the Northern Great Plains History Conference and the history-oriented James A. Barnes Club Conference at Temple University.

The relevance of his findings weren’t limited to academia — this past February, Slate magazine featured Givens in their story on “The Monuments Men” movie. 

Following the success of his master’s thesis, Givens plans to revisit the Cornelius Ryan Collection for his doctoral dissertation, currently titled “Cold War Capital: The United States and the Fight for Berlin, 1945-1994.” Ryan had a penchant for capturing fresh responses from soldiers, and the research value of that is not lost on Givens.

“What generally happens when soldiers remember things is that they have stock answers and stock stories to tell people,” Givens explained.

Realizing that respondents couldn’t give rote responses to questions they’d never been asked before, Ryan made inquiries like: “What was the funniest thing that happened on D-Day?”

The tactic worked well. According to Givens, the question caught respondents off guard, made them think, and yielded a large portion of the collection’s accounts of looting and souvenir hunting.

And what was the funniest thing that happened on D-Day?

“Not very many things,” Givens said, smiling, “but you’d be amazed.”