The Seizure of European Records during World War II

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. It is part two of a series on the history behind some of the seized foreign records housed at the National Archives.

The first U.S. Army men and equipment pour across the Remagen Bridge in Germany. In the foreground are two knocked-out Jeeps, 3/11/1945. (National Archives Identifier 531252)

The story of what would become the original documents to compose Record Group 242, Foreign Records Seized, begins in 1943 as war raged in Europe and across the Pacific.

Despite facing war on three separate continents, the War Department of the United States still found time to concern itself with records.

The War Department wanted to protect the many ancient and irreplaceable documents, monuments, and works of art that were located in the war zone.

With this in mind, the War Department adopted a policy of protecting culturally important landmarks and records—foreign archives included—as best they could without compromising military operations.


Rediscovery identifier 27779
Letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower, General, U.S. Army, Commander-in-Chief to All Commanders, December 29, 1943. (Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, National Archives)

In a December 29, 1943, letter from Allied Force Headquarters,  General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower emphasized the War Department’s policy with regard to protecting cultural heritage centers and asked all commanders to comply with the spirit of his letter.

To execute its plan, the War Department partnered with the National Archives and other civilian groups. National Archives personnel were dispatched to war areas where they served as archives officers, helping to construct lists of important records that fell behind enemy lines.

Archives staff also wrote guides detailing conservation and protection techniques that the War Department published and disseminated to U.S. military commanders who might have vital archives and monuments under their authority.

Though the War Department’s purpose in protecting records was somewhat philanthropic, U.S. officials wanted to maintain Axis documents for other, more pressing reasons—as invaluable sources of intelligence material.

In addition, the United States saw protecting records as an essential step in helping countries recover after the war In Germany especially, the records would be useful to not only prosecute war criminals but also aid in denazification and demilitarization efforts.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, accompanied by Gen.Omar N. Bradley, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., inspects art treasures stolen by Germans and hidden in a salt mine in Germany, 4/12/1945. (National Archives Identifier 531272)

To help with the collection and care of records, military officers received handbooks containing instructions on what to look for and how to care for German records were distributed. They were directed to:

  • “Consider all archives valuable, important and in part vital for intelligence and other military purposes, whether located in ancient archives, large depositories, the most modern archives, or in current office papers.”
  • “Examine ruins and debris carefully, for it could not be assumed that records stored in partially or completely destroyed buildings would themselves be necessarily ruined.”

Soldiers attempted to protect the records by keeping them in the best possible conditions. Buildings in which archives were stored were exempted from secondary functions as billets wherever possible, and where infrastructure was deemed unacceptable for the records, they were moved to another area of the same building or to a new location entirely.

However, while a remarkable effort was made to protect the records, too often they were mishandled in the chaos of war and daily life.

One account remarks that Allied soldiers lit old Italian documents to keep warm in the winter. Another details how records from the Bavarian War Archives were hastily moved to a stable, which itself was an unsuitable place to store records, and were carelessly tossed down chutes into trucks.

Soldiers of the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion and tank of the 22nd Tank Battalion move through a smoke-filled street in Wernberg, Germany, 4/22/1945. (National Archives Identifier 531278)

Despite the fact that many records were lost in the process, those that were saved often came into military use.

In 1943, the War Department and the British War Office made a joint effort to absorb and dispense information from captured records in a timely fashion. They agreed to joint custody, use, and control of the captured documents, and  Military Intelligence Research Sections (MIRS), located in each nation’s respective capital, were created.

Captured German records first found their way to the London MIRS, where they were used for short-range intelligence, before the baton was passed to the Washington, DC, MIRS, which analyzed the records for a more long-range intelligence study.

Together the joint forces of MIRS used the captured enemy documents to create studies that could then be used to the Allies’ advantage in planning tactical operations.

Stayed tuned next Wednesday for part three of the series—the Return of Captured Records from World War II.

To learn more read the Prologue article about Fred Shipman who was sent by President Roosevelt to Italy during World War II to survey and preserve archives.


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