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6 September 2018

A memo­ri­al made of pa­per: pre­serv­ing the past, for the sake of the fu­ture

The Federal Ministry of Finance has launched an initiative that aims to improve the links between the vast quantity of documents relating to the German government’s Wiedergutmachung (compensation and restitution) for crimes committed by the National Socialist regime and to make these records more accessible to victims, family members and researchers.

Participants at the round table
Source:  Federal Ministry of Finance

On 28 August 2018, the Federal Ministry of Finance launched an initiative that aims to improve the visibility and accessibility of records that reflect the historical legacy of the German government’s Wiedergutmachung for crimes committed by the National Socialist regime. This initiative is meant to serve as both an admonition and a reminder not to repeat the darkest chapter of German history. There is no other collection of documents like this in the world. They provide glimpses into the manifold biographies of the Nazi regime’s victims and reveal the horrifying trajectories of persecution that millions of victims were forced to endure. They also serve as a documentation of Nazi crimes, described in haunting abundance and detail from the perspective of the victims and survivors themselves. At the same time, they show how the Federal Republic of Germany – both as a young country and as it matured – assumed responsibility for these injustices and dealt with the tragic fates of the Nazi regime’s victims in both political and social terms. In many cases, the records provide evidence of the difficult early stages of the compensation process, with all of its encumbrances and deficiencies. Overall, however, they reveal a historical process that is always intertwined with a financial and moral commitment to taking responsibility for the fates of victims.

Bringing this unique collection of documents out of the archives and into the public realm can serve to create a “memorial made of paper” that bears witness to the horrific deeds of an inhumane dictatorship while simultaneously providing evidence of how German government and society attempted to process and atone for these crimes. With an eye towards the future, the German government now intends to make the historical legacy of these records visible and accessible. This is a major challenge, however: not only is there an immense quantity of documents, but their dispersal across various locations poses a particular quandary as well. Currently, they are broadly dispersed throughout Germany’s federal archives and 12 Land (state) archives. Some are still held by public authorities, and some are even located in other countries. Thematically speaking, however, these documents definitely belong together, because they embody the administrative component of one of the most important political and social projects ever undertaken in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany – a project with far-reaching national and international implications. The records constitute important source material for historians and other researchers. For family members of individuals who were persecuted by the Nazi regime all around the world, the records often provide important – sometimes even the only – clues about the lives their relatives led before, during and after the National Socialist period. Naturally, the federal and Land archives always forward all queries from Germany, Israel, the United States and eastern Europe to the proper recipient; but there is still no single, centralised, comprehensive and informative “reference service” that makes the records – and the history of Germany’s compensation measures – visible and accessible.

To remedy this, the Federal Ministry of Finance organised and hosted the August meeting, where key stakeholders – including representatives from federal and Land public administrations and from national and international organisations and institutions such as the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute of Contemporary History), the International Tracing Service, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the Stiftung Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft (Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future”), the FriEnt Working Group on Peace and Development, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Germany’s federal and Land archives – agreed to get started on this important work.