Today's Washington Post brings an update on the spat over the records housed at the International Tracing Service in Arolsen, Germany. The story first broke just over a month ago, when it was revealed that more than 20 countries were calling on Germany to open up access to the Arolsen archive to both historians and relatives.
The archive, administered since 1955 by the Federal Republic of Germany, contains records created by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after 1945 through their efforts to trace and locate the countless displaced persons, refugees and concentration camps. Reputedly, over 17 million names are contained in these records.
So why are the Arolsen archives of interest to both historians of the Holocaust as well as to Holocaust deniers? For more, see below the fold.
The reason, it appears, for the obstinacy of both the ICRC and the German government lies in the strict privacy laws which govern access to German archives. If you've ever wondered why Christopher Browning and other leading historians have to write of Hans K. or invent pseudonyms for eyewitnesses, then it's because of German data protection law. This applies both to victims as well as perpetrators, with the result that unconvicted or acquitted SS men accused of war crimes in German courts cannot be named by historians, even though their identities can be freely established by resort to the SS personnel files available in the US National Archives.
From today's WaPo story, it would appear that the ITS is also lagging behind in its primary function, with an alleged backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases requiring identification. This hurts not only those seeking to establish the fate of missing relatives, but also might undermine the compensation cases brought by survivors under existing schemes. Yet it appears that the German government might fear an avalanche of new claims should the archives be opened.
But compensation is a second-order issue to the main controversy surrounding access to ITS files. This concerns access for historians. As historians already labour under incredibly tight restrictions on privacy in other German archives such as the former Zentrale Stelle für Landesjustizverwaltung in Ludwigsburg, which houses the records of West German war crimes investigations, there are already precedents for how privacy concerns can be managed. So far, because of German opposition, no agreement has been reached among the 11-nation oversight committee in charge of Arolsen concerning establishing even a working group of scholars to assess the value of the records for historians.
Among the research centres that have protested the lack of access to Arolsen include the University of Amsterdam and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The irony of the entire controversy is that many files from Arolsen have long been copied to other archives, including the US National Archives, and through then, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
So what do these existing collections contain? The 189 reels of microfilm at NARA alone contain records of some but not all German concentration camps, but more interestingly also an incomplete set of deportation lists from Berlin and several other German cities. They therefore help document the number of Jews transported to Auschwitz, including thousands of Berliners deported during the so-called Fabrikaktion of early 1943, about which Wolf Gruner has recently written at length.
Moreover, other Arolsen files have been copied to Yad Vashem Archives. It was in these files, for example, that Christian Gerlach found a copy of a 1945 report indicating the numbers of arrivals at Auschwitz during 1944 who were selected for work, thereby clarifying the fate of Jews deported during the Hungarian Action.
Thus, the ITS files offer cold comfort for Holocaust Deniers such as Ernst Zundel, who claims that the Arolsen materials prove a far lower death toll inside German concentration camps.
The value of the Arolsen archive to researchers does not lie in the opening-up of files relating to the main concentration camps, since most of these are already available for public access at NARA. Moreover, the detailed records for many camps like Majdanek and Neuengamme were destroyed, never to be recovered. Nor does Arolsen contain materials relating to the Aktion Reinhard camps. It cannot be ruled out that the Arolsen archive may also contain more documents related to the fate of Jewish deportees like the Glaser report mentioned above. But this is not the only material that Arolsen holds.
Rather, the ITS archives could also help to clarify the fates of literally millions of other deportees, especially non-Jewish forced labourers from Western and Eastern Europe, but also the victims of ethnic expulsions in Central and Eastern Europe after 1945. Arolsen is therefore of concern not just to historians of the Holocaust, but to historians of the Second World War and its aftermath as a whole. Research into the deportation of well over 7 million foreign workers to Germany, the postwar movements of Displaced Persons, repatriaton programs and the ethnic expulsions will all be immeasurably enriched by access to the ITS files.
In this sense, Holocaust deniers expose their lack of imagination and lack of humanity when they concentrate solely on the fate of European Jews, ignoring the fate of millions of non-Jews who also suffered because of Nazi policies of deportation. Nor do they seem as concerned with the fate of ethnic Germans expelled from east of the Iron Curtain. Perhaps, in this last case, because it is easier to spout superficially sourced figures than to do proper research.
Update: see a reply to AAARGH here.