U.S. Transfers Control of Nazi Files; Questions of Access Still Plague Move

Questions of access still remain following last week’s controversial transfer to the German government of the Berlin Document Center, the world’s largest collection of materials documenting activities of Nazi officials during World War II.

The files, which were assembled by American occupation forces after the war, comprise some 75 million documents and include more than 10 million Nazi Party membership cards and over half-a-million personal documents of Nazi storm troopers.

Since 1945, the files, overseen by the United States, have been a crucial source of information for historians, Nazi-hunters and prosecutors.

On Friday, amid assurances from German officials that access to the files would remain unchanged, the United States officially handed control of the center to German authorities.

The handover took place after the entire collection of files had been copied to microfilm, with the copies to be housed in the U.S. National Archives in Washington.

Although the agreement to return the documents to German control was signed in Berlin in October 1993, discussions of the subject began as early as March 1967.

The talks became deadlocked in 1968 as a result of American concern over private scholars’ access to the documents. Negotiations resumed in June 1979.

The ceremony marking the handover took place three months before the last American soldiers are scheduled to leave Berlin.

Despite the microfilm copies, however, Jewish organizations and members of Congress have expressed concern about access to the files.

At issue is continued access to the center in Germany while the National Archives completes the preparations necessary to make the microfilm copies available in Washington.

In Washington, Bill Cunliffe, director of the Center for Captured German and Related Records at the National Archives, confirmed that it will take up to two years to have all the documents available to the public, although some of the files will be available as early as December.

Cunliffe disputed reports that not all of the documents were copied before the handover of the center to the Germans.

He said that the “front and back of every file was meticulously” copied and that the copies are of “very good quality.”

SOME POTENTIALLY CONTROVERSIAL CHANGES

Aware of protests in the United States over the decision to give the German government control of the center, the new directors in Berlin insisted that nothing will change under German control.

But they did outline some potentially controversial procedural changes for those wishing to access the center’s files.

The German authorities said they plan to extend the center’s operating schedule by two hours, adding that they will try to speed up requests for information.

But they also will make it difficult for researchers to obtain information on suspected Nazis if the person has not been dead for at least 30 years.

Siegfried Buttner, vice president of the German Federal Archives, said it will be possible to obtain information on living persons, but that the person will first be notified and asked for his or her permission to release the documents.

If permission to release the documents.

If permission is denied, the information could still be given, but an applicant will have to supply good reasons for requesting the information, he said.

Buttner also said that certain details of a person’s file might be withheld.

For example, he said, information on a woman still living who was not involved with Nazi war crimes, but who is mentioned in connection with a leading Nazi official such as Joseph Mengele would be removed from Mengele’s file before it is handed over to researchers.

Two days before the documents were transferred to German control, Chancellor Helmut Kohl assured the World Jewish Congress of continued access to the files.

“On behalf of Federal Chancellor Kohl, I wish to confirm to you and (WJC President) Edgar Bronfman the assurances which the chancellor provided to you when you met in Bonn on May 2 regarding access to the documents,” German Ambassador Immo Stabreit stated in a letter hand-delivered last week to WJC Secretary-General Israel Singer.

On May 2, Singer met with Kohl and German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, both of whom assured him that the same rules of access in effect under the Americans would apply after the document center fell under German control.

Last week, Bronfman expressed satisfaction with the manner in which the handover took place.

“The controversy over the transfer of the Berlin Document Center has ended in a manner which preserves the integrity of scholarly access to these valuable papers, which the demands of history place upon us,” Bronfman said.

CALL FOR A MONITORING GROUP

Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director, also voiced satisfaction with the German assurances.

But he said his organization would nonetheless support a decision by U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to establish a group to monitor the accessibility of the documents in the German facility.

Concerned over the possible two-year period before all the copied files will be available for inspection at the U.S. National Archives, Schumer has called for the formation of a monitoring group that will include members of Congress, Jewish organizations and non-Jewish historical groups.

“Is the search for Nazis to stop for two years because the U.S. rushed to give back control of these files to the Germans before we have copies?” Schumer asked in a statement.

“I am outraged and frustrated over the way this transfer is being handled. Surviors and scholars must get to these files,” the congressman said.

The monitoring group will request documentation from an American liaison in Germany regarding the accessibility of files at the Berlin Document Center.

The group will also seek information regarding overall operations at the facility to make sure that Germany does not move documents from the Berlin center to other areas of the country.

“The monitoring group is a must,” Schumer said. “An understanding of the past is crucial to comprehending its consequences in the present. If we do not learn from the past then ‘never again’ is an empty promise.”

(JTA staff intern in Washington Michael Shapiro contributed to this report.)

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