The Return of Captured Records from World War II

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

Returns 1
Summary of recommendations for the disposition of document collections held by the Berlin Document Center. (National Archives Identifier 7431812)

Following World War II, German documents captured during the war were kept in the custody of the United States and Great Britain.

For more than five years after the war, Germany had no central government to receive the documents, and they therefore remained under the care, for the most part, of the U.S. Army.

The Allies created depositories to house the records and make them available to the military for intelligence gathering. The U.S. Army ran these document centers in Germany as late as 1948.

Soon after the war ended, the complicated process of returning German documents to their original owners began.

When the U.S. Army found materials among the seized German records, they would generally return them to their home countries. But in some more complicated instances, returning documents to the land of origin was not always done.

Returns 2
A document concerning the release of a collection of captured records to West Germany, 1952. (National Archives Identifier 7431812)

For example, there was an issue with some documents the Nazis had seized in eastern Germany and brought to western Germany, where they were in turn were seized by Allied troops.

In the postwar period, much of eastern Germany became the new western border of the Polish state, and many of the German people who had lived on the land migrated to what became West Germany. The Allies decided the contents of eastern German archives should be returned to West Germany, where many of those forced out now lived.

The U.S. began returning records to Germany as early as 1945, when documents that the Germans had hidden merely for safekeeping were given back to local archives. Documents on the Third Reich or those that could be used in the process of denazification or demilitarization were maintained by the United States for a longer period of time.

Perhaps the most interesting set of returns were those records that had been shipped to London and Washington to be processed for intelligence purposes.

Returns 3
Letter requesting disposition instructions for a set of captured documents that had previously been microfilmed, March 3, 1953. (National Archives Identifier 578389)

In 1949 the Department of the Army recognized the need to return documents to West Germany, reasoning that the Federal Republic of Germany and United States would be unable to accomplish the NATO objectives of restoring a diplomatic relationship without the transfer of records to their original owners.

It took some time, but by 1955 a joint British and American plan to return the captured records in military custody was put into motion.

The actual process of returning records to Germany was to take place in three phases: First, declassify the records. Then microfilm records of particular interest for future use. Finally, ship the original records back to West Germany.

The Army had identified documents to be microfilmed for their continued use in intelligence or for future historical research. They had plans to microfilm documents in the late 1940s, but with the cutbacks in personnel following the war, they simply did not have the resources.

By the early 1950s, after prominent voices in the historical community expressed worry that the records would be returned without a copy being maintained for historical research, the Department of the Army partnered with the American Historical Association to microfilm the seized German records

Photograph of  the Departmental Records Branch in the Military Records Center in Alexandria, VA, ca. 1957. (National Archives Identifier 23855327)

Many of these microfilmed copies were eventually transferred to the National Archives. The bulk of items, from the Department of State and Department of the Army, arrived at the Archives between 1957 and 1960.

The Archives continued to receive records captured during World War II well into the 1960s.

Meanwhile, after documents had been declassified and microfilmed, the originals were shipped back to Germany by strict procedure outlined by the U.S. Army to ensure that no harm came to the files during transport.

By March 1968, the Army had returned 35 shipments of records captured during the war.

It has been well over half a century since most of the microfilmed copies of records seized during the World War II found a second home at the National Archives.

The records themselves have their own stories, which I’ll explore in next Wednesday’s post.

Photograph of America Historical Association Project Staff for the Selection and Description of Captured German Records, World War II Records Division, Alexandria, VA, ca. 1960. (National Archives Identifier 12169791)

2 thoughts on “The Return of Captured Records from World War II

  1. I worked there as a German Interpreter from May 1953 after being transferred from the 101st Airborne until October 1954. There were about 25, half Wehrmacht veterans and half German/Americans. Many of us were Jewish. The Bundeswehr was established in 1955 staffed with officers whose files we had examined to weed out Nazis, one of whom was Rommel’s chief of staff General Hans Speidel, later NATO commander! Harry L. Stern, US 55321463, pfc., retired. Yale College Class of 1952

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *