Theft of Nazi records ends West German footdragging on files

The removal of some 30,000 Nazi records from the Berlin Document Center has finally embarrassed the Bonn government into funding completion of photographing the Center's 30 million Nazi Party files, according to an American diplomat. The United States has held these records at its Berlin Document Center since GIs seized this material at the end of World War II near Munich, where Nazi officials had sent it to be destroyed.

This means that the American cache of Nazi Party membership and other records, the largest in existence, can be turned over to the West Germans in another two or three years, once the microfilming is finished.

The documents lifted from the Center over the past five years were sold surreptitiously to antiquarian dealers in West Germany and Britain for prices said to range as high as $3,000 each.

Earlier suspicion of theft was confirmed recently, and last month West German prosecutors ordered investigation of an unnamed suspended West German deputy director of the Center and half a dozen antiquarian dealers.

Only 1,500 files have been recovered.

There are unsubstantiated fears some of the records might have been used to blackmail prominent West Germans whose past Nazi activities had been hidden.

The furor over the theft is drawing attention to one of the anomalies from World War II - and is causing some friction between American and West German officials.

The Americans have intended since the late '60s to turn over the original documents to the Bonn government, once they have microfilmed all the material and deposited the copies in the US National Archives.

No Bonn government has been eager to accept this gift, out of fear of potentially embarrassing revelations about leading West Germans - but no government has been willing to admit its reluctance publicly.

Behind the scenes, each Bonn government therefore has sought to blame the US for the by now decades-long delay in the return of the records to German hands.

The present center-right government is no exception.

Senior officials suggest to American journalists that the problem might be that the US wants to keep the original files and give Bonn only the microfilms - a hypothesis that one American diplomat terms ``a lie - let's just call it a misunderstanding.'' And last week the newsmagazine Der Spiegel speculated that Washington wants to hoard the documents to practice its own blackmail against West Germans, an aspersion the American rejects categorically.

The decades of limbo have suited Bonn. The US has retained possession of the documents in the closely guarded underground cellars of what was once the Gestapo bunker for telephone wiretaps, maintaining a policy of restricted access. So far as is known, there have been no public leaks of information compromising leading West Germans.

Records have been made available to the West German Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes for documentation of specific war crimes, and also to the Simon Wiesenthal Center for tracking down war criminals.

Otherwise, only approved academics working on clearly defined projects have been allowed to look at the material.

Once the records are turned over to the West Germans and microfilms are stored in the US archives, however, the documents will be broadly available to the public, especially through the American Freedom of Information Act.

In the '50s and '60s, the US was willing to shield the records from public scrutiny, to help avoid any scandals that might rock the young West German democracy.

The post-war spurt of de-Nazification by the occupation powers petered out as the Cold War intensified. Many old Nazis continued to occupy important posts in West Germany, especially in the judiciary, education, business, and to some extent even in politics.

The Americans are less willing to continue in this protective role now that cold war has given way to d'etente, however, and most of those who names appear in the files have either retired or died.

What the US insists on, though, is that it have a duplicate of every piece of paper in the cache.

For this, West German funding is essential. Bonn pays for all occupation costs in West Berlin and for the American, British, and French troops that protect the city.

Bilateral negotiations on transfer of the documents were actually completed a few years ago, when the Americans were under the impression that everything had already been microfilmed.

A closer check two years ago revealed that only the main files had in fact been photographed, however.

The Americans applied then for funding to complete the microfilming, but the Bonn government said it could not afford the costs.

Once the remainder of the photographing is completed, there will be one more complication: claims by the other occupying powers in Berlin - the Soviet Union, France, and Britain - to a say in disposal of the documents as part of the formal four-power administration of Berlin.

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