ICRC, Germany denying access to Holocaust archive
SIXTY-ONE YEARS ago this spring, the Allies liberated the German concentration camps. Sixty-one years is a long time -- so long that few European leaders have personal experience of the war. Why, then, are the German government and the International Red Cross still conspiring to prevent historians from gaining access to the world's largest Holocaust survivors' archive?
There is no easy answer to this question, particularly since both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Germany flatly deny they are doing so. Officially known as the International Tracing Service, the archive contains comprehensive documentation from Dachau and Buchenwald, as well as prisoner lists and records from other concentration camps, slave labor camps, displaced-person camps and ghettos. These records, thought to contain more than 17 million names, were deposited in Bad Arolsen, Germany, by the Allied powers after the war and have been managed since 1955 by an international treaty with 11 signatories. The treaty gave the ICRC management of the archive on behalf of survivors and required the German government to fund its operations.
But in recent years it has become clear that this system no longer works. The backlog of victims waiting for information about their lives is now in the hundreds of thousands; evidence that archivists hold back documents is overwhelming; survivors' groups in Germany and elsewhere are protesting; and historians are demanding better access.
In theory, the 11 countries have now agreed to open the archives to historians. But in practice, the longtime director of the archive, Charles Biedermann -- a Swiss employee of the ICRC -- together with the German government has thwarted efforts by the United States, the Netherlands, France and others to make the documents more accessible. Mr. Biedermann, while claiming neutrality, has written letters to German officials in an effort to influence committee deliberations and has recently issued a statement calling wider distribution of the documents "neither morally nor legally justifiable." In conversation, he lists conditions -- his conditions -- that researchers would have to meet before the International Tracing Service could "agree" to open itself up to historians.
The German interior ministry, meanwhile, joins him in pointing out multiple legal issues that prevent them from making the archives more accessible, ranging from the privacy of relatives of camp collaborators to questions about archivists' liability -- despite the fact that similar archives in Belgium and Israel have posed no special problems. Germany, along with Italy, also opposed the creation of a scholarly group to assist the 11-nation commission, which meets once a year and is mostly composed of diplomats without special knowledge of the Holocaust or of archives in general. Perhaps, some suspect, the Germans and the Italians fear a flood of new compensation claims. Or perhaps archive employees simply fear for their jobs.
Both the Germans and the ICRC also claim that any change in the archives' regime requires unanimous approval of all the treaty signatories -- which is not clearly the case and is, of course, impossible, because the Germans object. Yet these are not, and were never intended to be, Germany's archives to control. Clearly it is time to raise this issue's significance, to involve diplomats at a higher level, and to reach a compromise. If possible, the archives should be made completely accessible, with no unusual restrictions, in Bad Arolsen. If legal issues make it impossible to open the archive in Germany, then yes, the documents should be copied and placed in appropriate archives abroad, where they could be managed under the rules of other countries. Sixty-one years later, survivors, historians and the rest of the world have a right to know what happened.
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