Access to Archival Documents

The German Federal Archives provides access to documents about cultural assets stolen during the Nazi era.  In principle, every person has the right to use the federal archives upon request.  The federal archives are digitizing a steadily growing portion of their archive holdings and, to the extent legally permissible, making them available online.

The Federal Finance Ministry (BMF) launched a project in August 2018 to create a central interconnected digital portal to find documents from state archives throughout Germany specifically related to Holocaust compensation and restitution.  The BMF is also working to create a new database that combines all data concerning individual compensation proceedings and makes it accessible to scientific researchers, as well as to Holocaust survivors and heirs.

The International Archival Programs Division of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has been active in Germany for more than 25 years.  It has enjoyed excellent cooperation with the German Federal Archives and the political archive of the German Foreign Office, from which the USHMM recently acquired several million pages of Holocaust-relevant archival documentation on microfilm and as digital scans.  The Arolsen Archives in Bad Arolsen (formerly called the International Tracing Service) is a separate archive that contains about 30 million documents from concentration and extermination camps, details of forced labor, and files on displaced persons.  The Arolsen Archives, which is governed by an international committee and has been fully funded by the German government since 2011, is digitizing its archives to improve accessibility.

At the state level, the USHMM has signed archival access agreements with North Rhine-Westphalia, Brandenburg, and Bavaria.  Cooperation with the state of Hamburg has also been excellent, despite the lack of an official access agreement.  Access to the State Archive in Berlin yielded the records of more than 150,000 individual trials against Jews and other victims prosecuted by Nazi courts in the Berlin area.  The Berlin State Archive recently suspended its cooperation with the USHMM, however, citing data privacy concerns with regard to the reproduction of records.  As of mid-2019, the archive was preparing the digitalization of its data, and discussions about access were ongoing.  Other states are similarly concerned about data protection, and this has slowed progress.  Cooperation with Saxony is underway, while discussions with Bremen and Saarland are pending.  The U.S. Embassy in Berlin and U.S. consulates have advocated with local authorities throughout Germany in support of USHMM requests for access to state archives.

Some advocates for Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims have pointed out that Property (Asset) Declaration forms completed by Jews in Nazi Germany in April 1938 remain scattered among archives in the different German states and have not been digitized.  They add that other files relating to post-war claims for Holocaust-era compensation and restitution are located in more than a dozen archives in the country and are generally not publicly accessible.  The German government and relevant NGOs and historians are working to develop a plan for the preservation and collection of these documents for use by historians and others.  The sheer volume of these archives and the privacy issues involved complicate their task.

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