Continuing our celebration of American Archives Month, today’s post comes from Christina James, an intern in the National Archives History Office.
As the inscription on the west side of the National Archives Building reads, the National Archives is home to “the chronicles of those who conceived and builded the structure of our nation.” Primarily thought of as a place where history is preserved, one can easily overlook the ways in which historical events have directly affected the National Archives.
During World War II, the National Archives found itself under attack by the Senate Subcommittee on Independent Agencies regarding ties between the National Archives and German archivist, Ernst Posner. A short chapter in National Archives history, this incident is recorded in the Personal Files of Solon J. Buck as “The Posner Affair.”
Born in Berlin in 1892, Ernst Posner was a German citizen who had served in World War I and later became an archivist at the Prussian State Privy Archives. Prior to the start of World War II, Posner eagerly sought to leave Germany and hoped to relocate and secure an archival position in the U.S. He first met Solon J. Buck in 1938 while visiting and lecturing in the United States. Shortly after his return from this trip, Posner was arrested and imprisoned following the Nazi Kristallnacht attacks on Jews in Germany. A Christian of Jewish descent, Posner spent six weeks in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
After being released, Posner managed to return to America where he secured a position teaching archival administration at American University. Through his friendship with Archivist of the United States Solon J. Buck, Posner alerted the National Archives of the importance of safeguarding records for defense purposes shortly before the United States entered World War II. The issue caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who requested that necessary actions be taken to ensure records were protected.
Posner’s ideas inspired and influenced the American Council of Learned Societies’ Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas and led the National Archives to prepare a comprehensive directory of the archival facilities in war-torn Europe.
On his way to becoming a naturalized American citizen, Posner’s German heritage raised suspicions of many government officials. On February 16, 1944, Archivist of the United States Solon Buck appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Independent Agencies for a hearing regarding funding for the National Archives. Solon Buck described the hearing as “devoted entirely to an attack upon Dr. Posner and [himself].”
Senator Kenneth McKellar questioned Posner’s relationship to the National Archives and demanded to know why Posner had been given a desk in the offices of the National Archives Building. Buck held that the attack was “utterly unjustified.” Nevertheless, McKellar saw Posner as a threat to the United States and suspected that he was involved in plots which would make the United States and the Archives more susceptible to bombing. These alleged plots included the switch to cardboard records boxes from steel ones.
Buck appeared before the Subcommittee again the next week and was later visited by an investigator of the Civil Service Commission. The suspicions deeply troubled Buck, leading him to resign from the Subcommittee on Archives and Libraries of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. Posner also resigned from his recently appointed position as secretary to the Commission’s Committee on Books and Manuscripts, pending a thorough investigation of his “activities and loyalty.”
Throughout this attack and investigation, Solon J. Buck stood by and defended Ernst Posner. The suspicions surrounding Posner and Senator McKellar’s attack on Posner as an “alien from Germany” constituted what was arguably the worst attack by a Senate committee in the history of the National Archives. Despite the personal attack on Buck and Posner, Ernst Posner’s contributions to the National Archives led the government to ultimately recognize the importance of archival institutions both at home and abroad.