I&G Thomas Goldstrasz and Henrik Pantle

Computers During World War Two

War as a Problem of Information Processing

"The salvation of Europe",

      Konrad says, "depends on communication, right? We face this anarchy of jealous German princes, hundreds of them scheming, counter-scheming, infighting, dissipating all of the Empire's strength in their useless bickering. But whoever could control the lines of communication, among all these princes, would control them. That network someday could unify the Continent. So I propose that we merge with our old enemy Thurn and Taxis - [...] "Together," Konrad is saying, "our two systems could be invincible. We could refuse service on any but an Imperial basis. Nobody could move troops, farm produce, anything, without us. Any prince tries to start his own courier system, we suppress it." (CL49: 113)"

A power fantasy from the famous Thirty Years War,

      adapted by the famous Thomas Pynchon, probably the most perfidious as well as the most paranoid of all the writers ever to have dealt with the subject or war. The man named Konrad who speaks in the passage quoted above, whoever he may be, says some interesting things. He outlines the criteria by which communication systems are measured, even today, i.e. the speed of information transmission and the intelligibility of that information. The nature of what he is saying leads him to omit a further important factor, i.e. the degree to which it can be ensured that the information in question (in this case a letter) is delivered undamaged, unfalsified, unread and uncopied. In other words, the storage and transmission medium must be secure and durable. Or at least, and this is what Konrad's belligerent mind tells him, the user should believe that the communication system is safe. The stronger this belief is, the less the security of the system is called into question and the better it can be implemented against those who use it. Secrecy and disinformation demand strategies which turn warfare into, among other things, a problem of information processing.

If the Princes involved in postal quarrels

      really were to be effectively duped (e.g. by a module in the postal network capable of carefully rewriting information, coordinating plans, transforming insults into compliments and defusing jealous disputes) then, according to Konrad's version of the salvation of Europe, their squabbling could quite simply be inverted by a piece of secret service trickery during delivery. But as Bernard Siegert rightly points out, "they didn't save the Empire from destruction. Just as Konrad's associates, from Locke to Habermas, haven't been able to save the Realm of Language from meaningless arguments. Eternal Peace, the Realm of Angels, always proves unattainable in the end." (R: 7) Konrad's idea is too dreamlike. A personal meeting between Princes or the establishment of a new inter-prince dispute mechanism is all it would take for Konrad to lose his power over the Princes, who, with their new communication system as a secret weapon, could also become formidable enemies as a direct result of his actions. That this always happens - that no one has ever managed to maintain control of a global, international or even national flow of information in a form which could be freely exploited for either military or diplomatic purposes - can be amply illustrated with examples from history. The information commandos of the enemy never sleep!

The basic structure of this story

      should make it clear that war is a particularly fertile substrate for the development of new media, as well as new systems of encryption and decoding. A constant succession of new systems must be introduced in order to ensure secrecy. Each one in turn is discovered, cracked and ceases to be of advantage.
      The stories used by Kittler in GFT to demonstrate the necessary part played by war in the development of new media are of this type.

There is no conclusive proof

      that Peacetime - a realm, lest one forget, (sometimes) inhabited by (some) humans - necessarily brings forth no New Media.
      However, the story of a non-military parallel development of the computer during WWII strongly suggests the opposite to be the case.

Abstract | Alan Turing | Konrad Zuse | Kittler's Theory | Literature
War as a Problem of Information Processing | Simultaneous Independent Development of the Computer

© for the translation by Thomas Goldstrasz and Nicholas Grindell 1997