For years, the United States, France, Poland and a number of other countries have been trying to convince Germany to consent to the opening of the so-called "Holocaust Archives" stored in the north-central German town of Bad Arolsen. Citing privacy concerns and fears of lawsuits, however, the German government had consistently refused. The 30 to 50 million documents -- compiled by the Nazis during World War II and outlining the personal fates of 17 million Holocaust and forced labor victims -- remained off limits to scholars and historians.
But on Tuesday, Germany changed its mind. At a press conference at the US Holocaust Museum, German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said that Berlin would work with Washington to make the archives public. A number of details remain to be worked out, but Zypries said the process should not take more than six months.
"We still have negotiations to do," US special envoy for Holocaust issues Edward B. O'Donnell told the Associated Press. "Our goal is to reach an agreement as soon as possible."
Meticulous Nazi records
An initial hurdle is approaching in mid-May. The archive is overseen by an 11-nation group (Germany, the US, Italy, Poland, France, Belgium, Britain, Greece, Israel, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) that meets annually to discuss issues related to the administration of the archive, and all decisions made about the vast trove of documents must be unanimous. In 1998, the group decided in principle to open the archive, but it has made little progress toward that goal. Germany, says Udo Jost, a press spokesman for the International Tracing Service which is charged with administering the archive, has often been the country putting its foot on the brakes. In the past, the files were made available for use by the International Tracing Service, an arm of the International Red Cross to help people trace displaced relatives whom the Nazis sent to concentration camps or used as slave laborers. But that work has been completed and some members, including the US, contend that access should be opened up for researchers and private citizens.
By making the vast records public, many Holocaust survivors and families of victims will be able to obtain a much clearer picture of what happened to their relatives. The Nazis were meticulous record keepers and documented the fates of a huge number of their victims. Historians hope that by learning more about individual fates, a more sharply focused image of how the Holocaust worked will emerge.
"We will definitely be able to learn more about individual cases," Jost told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Whether it will lead to a completely different view of the Holocaust, I don't know about that. History will definitely not have to be rewritten."
In fact, many are hoping it does just the opposite. Citing rising anti-Semitism, US Holocaust Museum Director Sarah Bloomfield said the possible opening of the archive couldn't be more timely. Historian Frederick Taylor, the British author of "Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945" who is currently working on a new book on the Berlin Wall, says the material held in the archive will not only make it possible for "the millions of individual tragedies that made up the Holocaust to be properly and respectfully recorded," but may also put a damper on the widespread virus of Holocaust denial.
Nail in the coffin of Holocaust denial
Opening the archives "will help genuine researchers and act to the disadvantage of the deniers, who treat the Holocaust as if it were a vast, undocumented fantasy created after 1945," Taylor wrote in an e-mail to SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Every true and personal story, every fate solidly documented, represents a small nail in the coffin of Holocaust denial."
Pressure to open the archive had been mounting in recent years and a number of media reports, including a February story in the New York Times which accused the German government of blocking the opening of the archives and cast Germany in the bad guy role. Berlin vigorously denied the Times allegations and again cited concerns for the privacy of the individuals whose fates are filed away in the 25 kilometers of documents. Berlin also noted that the "Bonn Agreements," which were signed in 1955 and provide the legal framework for the administration of the archive, would have to be amended before anything could be done.
The German turn-around on the issue is of particular interest to historians who have long been doing battle with Germany's restrictive privacy laws. The opening of the archive, said Taylor, provides "refreshing evidence of a new pragmatism in Germany's attitude towards its past. The privacy laws in Germany are at best a little over-fastidious, at worst, downright obstructive."