West Berlin — From a distance, No. 1 Wasserkaefersteig appears to be a typical suburban villa in an affluent district of West Berlin. Its location, the last house on a secluded dead-end street near the Grunewald forest and shielded by birches and firs, encourages this impression. On closer view, however, a sentry hut and chain-link fence, crowned by a half a dozen strands of angled barbed wire, quickly distinguishes No. 1 from its neighbors.
Two signs are visible beyond the padlocked gate: "Halt, Show identification," and "US Mission Berlin, Berlin Document Center." At night, armed guards and police dogs patrol the three-acre compound.
The security is necessary, for beneath this piece of Brandenburg earth are stored millions of confidential Nazi files that the masters of Hitler's Third Reich kept on themselves and other Germans. Most of the documents were captured by American soldiers in Bavaria in the spring of 1945. They were brought here, to this quiet suburban setting 110 miles inside East Germany, in 1946.
The biggest archival prize of all, the master file of Nazi Party members (nearly 11 million index cards), was discovered by the American First Army in boxcars on a railway siding of a pulp mill near Munich, party headquarters, where they had been sent to be destroyed. This archive is where Nazi-hunters usually begin their search.
"If they ever bomb this town," said Daniel Paul Simon, director of the center , "you could be in no safer place." A civilian from Louisiana Cajun country under contract to the US State Department, Mr. Simon was descending the stone steps to the vast bunker the Gestapo once used as a clandestine monitoring post to tap Berlin telephones.
"They could monitor any telephone in Berlin at any time," Mr. Simon explained , marveling at German technology of the 1930s, as he led the way into the vault that contained 260,000 files on the Storm Troopers. "They had their own little Watergate operation going on right here."
Today, as it has for the last 34 years, the bunker is the depository for about 30 million files. The archives house the records of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), the Protective Guard (SS), Storm Troops (SA), and other state and semi-state organizations of the Third Reich, including those of the infamous People's Court, the Reich Chamber of Culture, and the Central Immigration Office. The task of putting the records on microfilm has recently been completed.
Pausing before the archive containing records of the People's Court, Mr. Simon noted: "This is the only place in the center where one could be proud to find one's name listed; these people were accused of 'crimes' against the state."
Underground vaults lead off the central passageway; each with its own files stored on floor-to-ceiling steel shelving or in steel cabinets. The walls, painted white over brick and plaster, the fluorescent tube-lighting, the whir of humidity-control machinery, and the names and photographs in the files produce an eerie effect.
It is understandable that the center not only attracts queries from governments trying to uncover the crimes and secrets of former Nazis, but also from historians, scholars, and thriller writers. Author Len Deighton mentions the archives in "Funeral in Berlin." Frederick Forsyth visited the center when researching "The Odessa File," as did Michael Mooney, who wrote "The Hindenburg." The center receives 3,000 to 4,000 requests for information a month.
Daniel Simon is precise about who has access to the files. "Except in cases where persons have been convicted by postwar tribunals arising out of pre-1945 events, such records cannot be made generally available. We are authorized to provide biographical information only to official agencies of the United States, Federal Republic of Germany, Great Britain, France, and other friendly governments," he explained. Israel and Yugoslavia are considered "friendly," but Soviet bloc countries are denied access to the center.
"As long as the individual is alive, we can't make information available to the general public, the press, or to a private individual," the director continued. "In the case of a governmental request we would want to know why the information is required, and perhaps buck it a little further up the line to determine whether it is a bona fide request. Nobody has carte blanche to get in here and get any information they want."
Periodically, the United States government has offered to turn over the center to the West Germans, retaining the right of access to the files. The government in Bonn, however, has been unwilling to accept such an explosive present.
German newspapers have called the center "a hot potato" and at the present time Mr. Simon says he does not know of any negotiations between Washington and Bonn to alter the status of the center.
Privately, one is told that the Bonn government is reluctant to take over the files because it could stand accused of protecting its own citizens or because certain individuals might use the files for personal revenge.
The volatile nature of the material in the archives is apparent when one considers that today there are nearly 4 1/2 million West Germans alive who were members of the Nazi Party. Their names, addresses, and records of their involvement in party affairs and organizations are buried in a bunker that many people would prefer to see stay buried.
"There were 11 million people who were members of the Nazi Party," director Simon explained. "The majority of them were nominal party members. Many of the requests we get are for information about the ones who were in the SS, running this business now called the holocaust, the final solution."
The center's deputy director, Egon Burchartz, who has spent a quarter century taking care of the records, produced the file of one SS major, Otto Skorzeny, the officer who, on Hitler's orders, rescued the deposed Mussolini from his imprisonment on the topmost range of the Abruzzi Appennines.
There, too, are the records of Herman Otto Fegelein, the SS general who was married to Eva Braun's sister. The general had the misfortune to be labeled "traitor" by Hitler, even as Russian forces stormed the Potsdamerplatz, a block from the Chancellery. On the Fuhrer's orders, Fegelein was taken into the Chancellery garden and shot.
The SS officers file contains a two-inch-thick dossier of Karl Wolff, adjutant of Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief. Wolff's promotion to special adviser on Polish matters, dated Oct. 11, 1943, carries the signature of Adolf Hitler, a tiny scrawl with the initial "A" prefixed to the Hitler.
A 1939 photograph of Hermann Goering clipped to his SA (storm trooper) record shows him sleek of jowl and clear of eye, confident-looking in his Luftwaffe chief's uniform.
The correspondence between Wilhelm Furtwangler, the renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic; the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, and the Fuhrer concerning the musicianship of Jews provides an insight into the official Nazi mind set of the mid-1930s.
Furtwangler argued that there weren't any bad Jewish musicians or bad Aryan musicians or bad German musicians, only bad musicians. His argument fell on deaf ears. He further displeased his masters by defending blacklisted composer Paul Hindemith. Predictably, Goebbels and Hitler won that "discussion" and Furtwangler's baton was temporarily silenced.
It was Furtwangler, however, who took the podium on the afternoon of April 12 , 1945, to conduct what was to be the last concert of the Third Reich. Albert Speer, minister of armament and war production who doubled as cultural adviser, deliberately had chosen the finale from Gotterdammerung for the program.
Emerging from the bunker, one has the unpleasant feeling of having eavesdropped on a particularly nasty era of human history. The principal players are all there in the rogue's gallery of Nazidom: Kaltenbrunner, the Gestapo chief; the eccentric Hess; the notorious Jew-baiter Streicher; the brilliant and misguided Speer; the shrewd and cynical propagandist Goebbels; the lackluster Himmler, and Goering.
Above all, the presence of Adolf Hitler permeates the bunker.
Outside, snow hastens the twilight of a winter's afternoon. But the trench-coated ghosts of the bunker with their swagger sticks, spit-and-polish uniforms, and heel-clicking "Sieg Heils" disturb the peaceful suburban landscape.
Such are not easily dismissed.They will exist as long as the microfilm and its secrets survive in the bunker at No. 1 Wasserkaefersteig, in the American sector of this divided city in Soviet-dominated East Germany.