Germany agreed Tuesday to support opening a massive trove of World War II records on 17.5 million victims of the Nazi regime, after six decades of highly restricted access.
Military documents as well as personal accounts from the Holocaust will be accessible
German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries announced the decision in Washington after meeting with Sara Bloomfield, the director of the US Holocaust Museum.
"I am happy to be able to announce to you today that Germany has changed its viewpoint and will agree to a fast revision of the (1955) Bonn Agreements" which govern the handling of the vast archive of 30 million records, Zypries said.
Under the supervision of 11 nations since the war, access to the archive, based in Bad Arolsen, Germany, has been restricted mainly to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has used it to help people trace their relatives.
But historians and the general public have been barred from access, with Germany reportedly the main force in recent years blocking the archive's opening on privacy grounds.
A final decision on opening the archive will be made at the annual meeting of the 11 countries overseeing it on May 17 in Luxembourg.
The decision could see the release of digital copies of the documents to repositories managed by the 11 countries.
"This archive will have immense historical significance and will be a terrific boon for scholars for several generations," Bloomfield said.
Meticulous Nazi documentation to be revealed
The archive includes files on death camp inmates
The archive, known formally as the International Tracing Service (ITS), comprises meticulous Nazi documentation of death camp inmates, conscription workers and others. The records were seized by the Allied forces after the German regime fell in 1945; they also include postwar records the Allies kept on resettling refugees.
They have been central to people searching for loved ones after World War II, especially for Jews whose relatives were sent to Nazi concentration camps, where many millions died.
They have also been used to help people who were victims of Nazi forced labor programs seek indemnification under international agreements made after the war.
The ITS still receives hundreds of thousands of inquiries each year about people possibly mentioned in the records.
Researchers and historians of the Holocaust have been especially critical of the policy to restrict access to the ITS, arguing the documents would help complete a picture of the Nazi slaughter of millions of Jews.
German opposition based on possible misuse of information
In 1998 the ITS commission declared itself unanimously in favor of opening up the records, and began scanning the documents into digital form the next year.
According to Holocaust Museum historian Paul Shapiro, about half of the ITS collection has been digitized.
But Germany and some others had continued to resist the opening, holding that the records involve private information about individuals that could be misused.
The 1955 Bonn agreement requires the ITS to ensure that no data is published that could harm the former Nazi victims or their families.
According to the ITS website, the documents contain "information about hereditary diseases, pseudo-medical experiments, categories of reasons for arrest ... illegitimate children, etc."
Personal testimonies important for understanding and learning
Zypries: Germany is confident information won't be abused
Zypries said Tuesday that Germany had now changed its position after gaining confidence that personal records would not be abused. "Our point of view is that the protection of privacy rights has reached by now a standard high enough to ensure ... the protection of privacy of those concerned," Zypries said.
Gideon Taylor of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany lauded the decision.
"These records have been awaited for years by Holocaust survivors and scholars of this terrible period. Their release while survivors are still alive will enable these documents to be enhanced and explained through personal testimony of those who lived through the Nazi era," Taylor said.