Turnover of Nazi files to Germany stirs fear


BERLIN -- Buried in a vast underground chamber on the edge of a tranquil forest are the old bones of Nazi bureaucracy.

They exist as a mass of paperwork that would stack eight miles high, a collection known simply as the Berlin Document Center. Its contents were among the Allied spoils of World War II. (The Russians kept the documents they captured.)

Beginning with the Nuremberg trials of prominent Nazis after the war to the search for war criminals that continues to this day, former Nazis have often found themselves ensnared by the orderly documentation at the Document Center.

For 49 years, the United States has controlled and tended this archive, adding and destroying material along the way. Friday, with little ceremony, control will be turned back over to the Germans.

Not everyone is pleased.

"We are transferring away a piece of history that we paid for with the blood of our brave young American boys and Allied soldiers who defeated the Nazi menace," Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said in a telephone interview.

Behind his lament, and deep within the worries of some scholars and historians, is an accusation that makes German officials touchy -- namely, that even now the Germans shouldn't be trusted with these records, because they still can't deal honestly and openly with their past.

"There is an attitude that still lingers among some older officials, that this whole [Nazi] period was an embarrassment and we should move on to something else," says Geoffrey Giles, a history professor at the University of Florida and head of the archives committee of the German Studies Association.

'Embarrassing material'

"These are officials who only want to use history as a morale booster, because this kind of research continues to uncover very embarrassing material."

Just ask Dr. Hans-Joachim Sewering, who last year stepped down after being elected president of the World Medical Association, after it was learned he had been a member of the Nazi SS.

His file showed that in 1943 he signed an order to send a retarded girl to a Nazi euthanasia center, and the incriminating information came straight from the files of the Berlin Document Center.

Worries that such information might now be harder to come by grew loud enough to stir the interest of a U.S. congressional subcommittee headed by Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat. As a teen-ager in the Hungarian resistance movement in World War II, Mr. Lantos witnessed firsthand the brutal results of Nazi policies.

Two months ago, his Foreign Affairs subcommittee held hearings on the changeover, and Mr. Lantos warned he'd oppose the transfer if the German Bundesarchiv didn't offer certain assurances about continued access.

David Marwell, the American director of the document center, who will hand over his office keys to his Bundesarchiv successor Friday, has some advice for Mr. Lantos and the other worry warts: Calm down.

"All of the people who were supposed to be represented by Lantos and his hearings -- Jews, Nazi hunters, scholars -- I fit into all those categories, and I don't have any concern," Mr. Marwell says. "Now they [at the Bundesarchiv] could change. They could decide thatthe Americans are gone and we don't have to worry anymore. But that's not their track record."

Since September 1990, the Bundesarchiv has controlled access for Germans who want to take a look. During that time more than 2,500 requests from German individuals have crossed Mr. Marwell's desk on the way to the Bundesarchiv.

The results?

Siegfried Buettner, Bundesarchiv's vice president and chairman of the department for Nazi information, says only about 1 percent of the requests have been denied.

'Fascinated by swastikas'

"It has only happened in very, very few cases," Mr. Marwell affirms, "cases that I think any reasonable person might agree with. Sometimes people have a notion that anyone who wants access has a very serious purpose. But there is a certain group of individuals who want access to these files only because they're fascinated by swastikas."

All parties agree on at least one thing -- the historical importance of the collection.

"It is irreplaceable," says Mr. Steinberg, of the World Jewish Congress. "There are items there which are not available anywhere else. Every single investigation [about Nazis] that the Justice Department begins, as a matter of routine it always starts with the BDC."

The collection's centerpiece is the Nazi Party's personnel archives, containing the files of 7 million party members, probably about 90 percent of the total membership.

There are also detailed racial records that the Nazis compiled on millions of Germans who were being screened for eventual resettlement in conquered territories.

And there are choice historical relics, such as the sign-up sheet for an early Nazi meeting attended by a young Austrian-born man, who signed in simply as "Hitler."

Even if the Germans do become more restrictive with these records, the Americans are departing with a microfilmed copy of the entire collection.

But researchers point out that the copy won't be cataloged and ready for viewing for another two years. What happens in the meantime, they ask, especially if another case comes up like that of Dr. Sewering, the ex-SS man who almost became president of the the World Medical Association?

Such a case might run up against Germany's archives law, which stresses the right to privacy far more for than U.S. law. An American's right to privacy generally ends with his death. In Germany it extends for another 30 years.

"And even then you're not always in the clear," says Mr. Giles. "They sometimes ask you to check with the person's children, or even his grandchildren before you can use a record."

These requirements can be shoved aside, Mr. Buettner says, "if the interest in question is more important. But we have to balance between the public interest and the legitimate concerns of private persons."

When scholars began to openly announce their worries about this balancing act, German officials tried to allay their fears.

Kohl met Jewish leaders

Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel met in May with a delegation from the World Jewish Congress and promised that U.S. access standards would be practiced until the microfilm was available.

Mr. Giles received similar assurances in a recent meeting with Dieter Krueger, who becomes director of the document center Friday.

"My fears have been somewhat calmed," says Mr. Giles. But after a few minutes more he adds, "The fears are still somewhat there. The public assurances given by the director of the archives are all very well, but there are always examples of individual archivists who think differently."

He cites a personal example from 1988, when he was invited to Germany to give a lecture on Nazi history at the University of Freiburg. He took the opportunity to request some records from the university's archives, only to be turned down.

"It turned out that the archivist was an elderly, rather crotchety lady who happened to be the daughter of the Nazi who had been director of the university library," Mr. Giles says.

He decided to mention his difficulties in his lecture, and it set off an uproar that didn't subside until the education minister for the state pledged reform. "So it took a public scandal before I could see the records I wanted."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad