Tuesday, March 06, 2007

It’s time to open up the Holocaust archives

Sixty-two years following the conclusion of WWII, the largest archives of records of the concentration camps of the Third Reich are still under lock and key. Survivors may never know the truth and persecutors may escape justice as they slowly die off as long as these records are held from public view. Holocaust deniers ask for proof of the death camps and while the available evidence is more than ample there is no reason to feed the paranoid fantasies of these people that the real truth is kept from us. Finally, as Anne Applebaum explains below, not only is there much yet to learn about the systematic mass extermination entire groups of people during this period – most notably Jews – there is a whole new generation that need to learn the lessons of this terrible history.

Anne Applebaum has this piece about the archives in this morning’s Washington Post:
…the largest, most definitive and so far most inaccessible of Holocaust archives has yet to be opened to scholars or anyone else. Officially known as the International Tracing Service, this archive contains files on more than 17 million people who passed through the concentration camps and forced-labor camps of the Third Reich, including Dachau and Buchenwald, as well as the camps of displaced persons that sprang up across Europe after the war. In 1955, the Allied powers deposited these records in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Legally, they were held under the aegis of an 11-nation treaty. In practice, they were put under the day-to-day management of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

And there they remained, almost entirely under lock and key. Outside scholars were not permitted inside the Bad Arolsen archive. Victims who requested documents were put on a waiting list decades long. For many years the archive's director -- a Swiss employee of the ICRC whose motives remain mysterious -- successfully blocked all international efforts to open the archive further. He was aided by the German and Italian governments, probably because they feared that the documents could lead to a new wave of compensation claims. He was also aided by the fact that it's hard to get an 11-nation commission to do much of anything at all, especially an 11-nation commission that meets only once a year.

Last summer things changed: The commission finally decided to alter the treaty and to make digital copies of the documents available to member countries. Under a certain amount of international pressure, the ICRC fired the weirdly secretive archive director. Under quite a lot of international pressure, the German government had a change of heart. Some of the digitization is already underway. And yet -- although commission members are meeting in Holland this week, supposedly to make final arrangements, it's still far from clear that they will finish the process soon.

Sixty-two years after the end of the Second World War, how can this be? In whose interest can it possibly be to keep Holocaust archives closed? It's fair to say some of the problems are purely technical: Though the United States, Israel, Poland and Luxembourg have ratified the necessary treaty changes, France, for example, has trouble ratifying treaties in an election year. Other concerns may be more substantive: Some suspect the Italians are stalling because they fear the records will reveal just how many Nazis escaped through Italy after the war. Still others -- including possibly the Germans -- simply don't, in the words of Arthur Berger of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "understand the urgency" of the issue.

And "urgency" is the right word: Hundreds of thousands of people are still waiting to see documents, and more of them die every day. If discussions go the right way this week, digital copies of documents could be available for some of them to read, in their own countries, later this year. If not, they may never see them at all.

Unexpectedly, the urgency is now also political. We live in a world in which the president of Iran can attract a slew of prominent Holocaust deniers to a conference in Tehran-- and in which some of those Holocaust deniers point to the continued closure of the Bad Arolsen archive as evidence that the Allies want to conceal the "truth" about the Holocaust from the world. Though it is tempting, as I've written before, to treat the events of 62 years ago as well-known history that would be a mistake.
You can read her entire article here also posted at Slate.


The Jotter said...

I can't help but think that in a world of previously unimaginable access to information, some people have lost touch with reality.
I fell for an email that said that Mars would be moon-sized in last summer's sky. But I wonder, what on earth would be going on in my brain to say there was no holocaust? Fear? Ignorance? Shame? Hate? I agree with you. Open up the truth. Let it be seen. NOW.

Anonymous said...

All of the news reports so far have played up the angle that the Archives will reveal secrets that will show that the Holocaust and Nazi war crimes were worse than previously thought. The greatest danger is that the archives will show the opposite. The documents will not support the story of World War II as it is now taught. That's why the documents have been kept under lock and key all this time.

Tim said...

It's important to note that these records haven't been accessible by the public, which is not the same as being records that no one has ever seen. Having spent the last four months digging through documents that were presented at the Nuremberg trials as well as OSI files collected against Nazis who came to this country illegally, there's little chance that Bad Arolsen will do anything to change the way we look at the Holocaust.

The bulk of these records are rosters, ledgers, and Hollerith punch cards from KZ and transit camps. This is why Bad Arolsen has become controversial, because survivors (and their older family members) are dying without being able to finally know what happened to their relatives.