Obscuring the Past: Intelligence Agency Destroyed Files on Former SS Members

By Klaus Wiegrefe

Historians conducting an internal study of ties between employees of the German foreign intelligence agency and the Third Reich have made a shocking discovery. In 2007, the BND destroyed personnel files of employees who had once been members of the SS and the Gestapo.

Photo Gallery: The BND's Murky Past Photos

Preparations have already been made for Ernst Uhrlau's retirement party next Wednesday when he steps down from his post as the head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, on his 65th birthday. The office of the chancellor has selected a posh location in Berlin for his farewell party and Angela Merkel herself is expected to attend. Uhrlau, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), will be turning over his post to Gerhard Schindler, a member of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party.

At events like this, the successes of the person retiring are usually celebrated. In Uhrlau's case, topping the list are his efforts to review the problematic history of the BND's creation after World War II. It has long been known that around 10 percent of the employees at the BND and its predecessor organization once served under SS chief Heinrich Himmler in Nazi Germany. In 2011, Uhrlau appointed an independent commission of historians to research the agency's Nazi roots.

Now, only one week before Uhrlau's retirement, the commission has uncovered what is a true historical scandal. The researchers have found that the BND destroyed the personnel files of around 250 BND officials in 2007. The agency has confirmed that this happened.

The commission claims that the destroyed documents include papers on people who were "in significant intelligence positions in the SS, the SD (the intelligence agency of the SS and the Nazi Party) or the Gestapo." They added that some of the individuals had even been investigated after 1945 for possible war crimes. Historian Klaus-Dietmar Henke, spokesman for the commission, told SPIEGEL ONLINE he was "somewhat stunned" by the occurrence.

Did Agency Employees Seek to Sabotage Investigation?

The incident inevitably raises suspicions that agency employees have deliberately tried to obstruct Uhrlau's efforts to investigate the organization's history. The historical commission had not yet been appointed at the time of the documents' destruction, but Uhrlau had already announced that he planned to look into his agency's Nazi past.

It is no secret that some people within the BND are unhappy about Uhrlau's project. Some employees are fundamentally opposed to the agency shedding light on its own past. Others are worried about the reputations of their own families -- for many years, the BND deliberately recruited new staff from among the relatives of existing BND employees.

Within the BND, a working group headed by Bodo Hechelhammer is responsible for cooperation with the historical commission. The group is currently trying to shed light on the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the documents. Hechelhammer told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he regretted the loss of the documents.

There have already been several curious incidents involving the BND archives in the past. SPIEGEL recently requested access to BND documents relating to the former SS Captain Alois Brunner, who was once a close associate of Adolf Eichmann, the chief logistics organizer of the Holocaust. The agency informed SPIEGEL that the 581-page files on Brunner had been disposed of in the 1990s. That incident also appears to have been carried out behind the backs of the BND leadership.

The historical commission is now demanding that the BND consult it before any more "potentially valuable historical records" are destroyed. The historians are also insisting that the 2007 incident be thoroughly investigated. Commission spokesman Henke says the agency's reaction will be "a test of how seriously the BND is really taking the investigation into its past."

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1. Prevent more destruction
pmoseley 11/30/2011
It is well known that the German security services have been riddled with ex-Nazis or their sympathisers since 1945. Those files are so important that the German government should immdeiately take control of the archives and seal them until the perpetrators of this crime are removed from the organisation and punished. However, I have my doubts as to whether some politicians really want to stir up the security services - there may be a backlash.
2. You don't say
thebritboy 11/30/2011
So, members of the German intelligence establishment were also members in the intelligence group of the previous regime which was in power almost 15 years. What an amazing revelation, what next - that the Pope is Catholic.
3. Of paperclips and secret policemen
tagphoto 11/30/2011
Klaus, you describe this revelation as "shocking"? Have you never heard of Project Paperclip or the Gehlen Org? The BND and the CIA loved the SS and the Abwehr and eagerly recruited (and shielded) former members. Discovering that the BND is covering its tracks as regards its hiring practices, etc., is about as shocking as finding gambling in Casablanca.
johann84 11/30/2011
---Quote (Originally by pmoseley)--- It is well known that the German security services have been riddled with ex-Nazis or their sympathisers since 1945. Those files are so important that the German government should immdeiately take control of the archives and seal them until the perpetrators of this crime are removed from the organisation and punished. ---End Quote--- Of course the security services have been riddled with ex-Nazis since our grandfathers fought in the Wehrmacht or SS. They went in war for their/my country. It is easy to judge thinks from now. Remember WW2 happened 20 years before the African Americans got civil rights in the USA. What are you saying? We should punish our grandfathers because they fought for us? Will the Americans and British punish their ex-soldiers, those who killed civilians? Those from the Bomber Command? Will be Henry Morgenthau and Colonel Bernard Bernstein condemned posthumously for those 2.5 million German civilian deaths between 1945-1947? The Red Cross was forbidden to help German civilians in those times. What kind of History books are you reading? Or is this just hypocrisy ? ?
5. Obscuring the past
Joe Finger 12/01/2011
This latest revelation does tell a lot about this country and it's two-facedness. It fits in well with that news item in July 2009 when late one evening one of the main TV channels,ARD or ZDF, reported on the 30 000 murders committed durng the Nazi period by Germans on Germans, a fact that had not been reported before, it was pointed out. It has not been reported or commented on since either, to my knowledge. 20 000 were committed by soldiers and the rest by cilvilians. These days a few murders committed by Neo-nazis make the headlines but 30 000 victims are forgotten. It is time to hold up the mirror to the German Media. Well Spiegel?
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