The "Wehrmacht" Information Office for lost soldiers and prisoners of war was founded in 1939. Its legal successor, the "Deutsche Dienststelle," still works to come to terms with World War II's consequences.
World War II still keeps German archivists busy
The Information Office is a World War II relict. Founded just days before the war started, on Aug. 26, 1939, the Wehrmacht agency's tasks were ostensibly humanitarian: The Geneva Convention in 1929 required the signatories to keep an account of prisoners in the event of war and to inform the Red Cross.
The German Army in Prague, 1939
First of all though, the Information Office helped the Wehrmacht to keep tabs on its own soldiers. The agency documented every instance of German soldiers falling ill, suffering injuries or going missing. When soldiers died, it notified the relatives. Besides these humanitarian aspects, the office was responsible, above all, for keeping track of troop numbers.
After World War II, the US Army wanted to destroy the Wehrmacht archive out of fear that Germany could use it to rebuild its army. But the French blocked the move, arguing that the archive could help them free Frenchmen conscripted by the Wehrmacht from Russian prisoner-of-war camps. The Allies agreed in 1946 that the French should be in charge of the Information Office, and it moved to the French sector if Berlin.
Responding to history
In 1949, Britain transferred its files on German prisoners of war to West Germany. France handed over its files in 1952, and the United States did so in 1962. After German unification in 1990, the Information Office verified claims pensions for former Wehrmacht members from East Germany.
The Geneva Convention required signatories to inform the Red Cross of prisoners
Sixty years after the end of the war, the office continues to deal with its consequences. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, former Soviet archives that can shed light on the fate of missing soldiers have become accessible. For years in eastern Europe individual soldiers' graves have been dug up and shifted to collective graves. The Information Office notifies relatives of the changes and updates its index of war graves.
All told, the Information Office has over 45 tons of files that fill rooms and rooms of shelves with more than 10 million individual notes. Still, the fates of innumerable soldiers are still waiting to be unravelled.
"We are possibly the only agency that has worked constantly since its establishment in 1939 until today," Peter Gerhardt, deputy director of the Deutsche Dienststelle, also called the Information Office, said during a recent conversation in his office in a former ammunition factory in northern Berlin. Oil paintings showing German navy warships hang on the walls. Gerhardt has been working for the enquiry office for more than 40 years. He got his start as an intern in the Navy's archive.
"The archives are alive," Gerhardt said. "We're sitting in the so-called central card index, in which 18 million soldiers are filed alphabetically, one card per soldier.
"The central card index is the heart of the Information Office," he said. Each tracing request starts here and refers to other cards. Office employees keep the cards up to date by making handwritten notes on them when authorities or relatives request traces.
The collapse of the Eastern Bloc led to new cases for the Information Office
Over the past four years, the number of inquiries from abroad has grown as the children of occupation soldiers hunt for their fathers.
"Often they don't know more about their fathers than the forename, sometimes the rank, possibly his hometown," Gerhardt said. "In such a case, the investigation is downright criminological. Processing time can take between six and 12 months."
The Information Office gets 10-15 tracing requests each month, Gerhardt said. They come from Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, countries formerly occupied by Germany.
But tracing requests have never come from Italy or eastern Europe.
"I spoke to an Italian camera team recently," he said. "They said that the civil war-like situation in Italy after the war had obscured memory of the occupation. But Catholicism could also be a reason: families covered for the mothers and their occupation children."
But Gerhardt said he suspects the reasons are different in eastern Europe. Until 1990, it was politically undesirable there to look into one's ancestry, he said. But if that were to change, it would be a question of time. The children of the occupying soldiers are now over 60 years old and many of their fathers have already died.