Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. It is part six of a series on the history behind some of the seized foreign records housed at the National Archives.
During and immediately following World War II, Allied governments aggressively sought Nazi diplomatic papers. The Allies would use these documents not only to better understand and explain German war aims but also as proof of German infiltration into foreign countries, which was later prosecuted as a war crime.
When British and American troops captured nearly the entire German Foreign Ministry Archives in April 1945, they had reason to celebrate.
The good news was tempered with the discovery that the documents mostly covered the years 1867-1940. There were few post-1940 records, which was a disappointment, particularly for intelligence reasons. In time, though, the Allies found some of the more contemporary documents.
In mid-1943 German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had made copies of some of the most essential records of the Reich Foreign Minister’s Secretariat. The duplicates included correspondence between Hitler and Mussolini as well as notes that had been taken during meetings between Hitler, Ribbentrop, and foreign diplomats.
While the duplicated records were being moved, an aide to the Nazi in charge of microfilming secretly buried several boxes of microfilmed records against orders. In May of 1945, the aide disclosed the location of the documents to a British team.
Like many of the other collections seized from the Nazis, the German Foreign Ministry Archives were used first and foremost for intelligence.
Unlike some of the others collections, however, the British and American governments were eager to publish certain records pulled from the collection soon after intelligence needs had been met.
They thought the publication of these documents would serve as evidence of the Third Reich’s role in the outbreak of the Second World War. Thus began the joint American, British, and later French collaboration on the German War Documents Project, which sought to select, translate, prepare, and edit for publication the most important documents pertaining to German foreign policy for the period 1918-1945.
While the project got under way, a new crisis began.
In 1948, following the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the ensuing Allied airlift of food and supplies into the capital city, the records and the project were moved out of Berlin. With tensions high, the Western Allies feared the Soviets might attempt to seize the records.
British officials wanted to see the documents moved to safety in West Germany, but Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the U.S. Military Governor, insisted that nowhere on the continent was safe from a possible Soviet seizure.
For Clay, Britain was the only location where the safety of the documents could be assured.
Clay prevailed, and the documents secretly left Berlin on several of the return trips of the very same cargo planes that had delivered supplies to Berlin during the airlift.
From Berlin the records traveled to Hamburg, where they boarded a ship to England. Their final destination was Whaddon Hall, a country estate just north of London, where they remained until filming was completed in 1958.
Though many documents in the collection had previously been filmed by intelligence personnel, there was still plenty left for the staff at Whaddon Hall.
German War Documents Project editors were given a foreign policy topic for a volume, such as disarmament, or German relations with Poland, and the editors scoured the files to decide what was worth filming.
Documents then went through another round of examination during which the most important records were chosen for publication. The completed topic would be given to a fellow editor of one of the two other nationalities for a second look.
The corroboration of a second editor of a different nationality helped to negate any national bias one editor might have in their document selection process.
Following the publication of a volume of the German War Documents Project, the staff ceded copies of all the microfilmed records involved, including those that the editor chose not to publish, to the National Archives as well its British counterpart, the Public Record Office.
Because the documentation process focused on records from the interwar period through World War II, records from before that time did not go through the same editorial process on their way to publication. Instead, these documents were filmed on a much smaller scale by private sponsors, including western universities and the American Historical Association.
The documents dating from before the interwar period were returned to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1956. Their 1918-1945 counterparts would follow after filming finally terminated at Whaddon Hall in 1958.
Stay tuned next Wednesday for the final post in the series.