The Red Cross announced today that for the first time one of the largest storehouses of Nazi documents in the world would be opened to the public, ending more than six decades of secrecy.
Sixty years after World War II ended, families of Holocaust victims and history researchers will now have direct access to the millions of files that contain the most detailed information of Nazi atrocities committed during the war.
The huge archive of Nazi records, administered by the Red Cross Tracing Service, has details on millions of concentration camp inmates and slave laborers. Most of the estimated 50 million files were seized by Allied troops at the end of World War II.
"Today we see the conclusion of a long and difficult process," International Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement issued in Geneva. "The sensitive information stored at the International Tracing Service is now available to researchers and the broader public. This dark chapter in German history must never be forgotten."
Thousands of Requests Every Year
The archive will continue to serve the purpose for which it was originally created -- tracing missing persons, reuniting families and providing documentation to victims of Nazi persecution to support compensation claims.
Until now the Holocaust archive, housed in a former SS barracks in the small town of Bad Arolsen in central Germany, has been used exclusively by the Tracing Service, which has helped people trace loved ones who went missing during World War II. Holocaust survivors and family members had to request access to the files stored in Bad Arolsen though the International tracing service, an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross. They often had to wait years for a response.
Last year, there were about 150,000 requests for information about lost relatives who went missing during the war.
"The sheer dimensions of the collection and its unique nature both enable these documents to make plain the horrors inflicted systematically and on an enormous scale by the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945," Reto Meister, director of the Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, told ABCNEWS.com. "It will now be possible to carry out detailed research on, for example, the transport of prisoners, the camp populations and the health of forced laborers."
Countries Agreed to Open Documents
The tracing service is run by an 11-country commission that includes Germany, the U.S., Belgium, Britain, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland. All the countries needed to agree before the archive could be opened to the public, and some even had to have parliamentary approval before they could endorse the plan to make access to the files available.
Greece was the last country to formally file its ratification of an accord to open the archive's doors to the public, and though most archivists say the information in the files will not dramatically revise what is already known about the Holocaust, it will provide a rich additional source of detail.
The United States had been pushing for years to have the archives opened, but Germany and Italy resisted, citing concerns that their governments could be sued if the privacy rights of the individuals named in the documents were not protected.
And indeed, there is very personal information hidden in the files. The Nazis recorded everything from the number of lice found on a prisoner's head to the exact times of their executions. They logged the names of collaborators, homosexuals and prostitutes, as well as the most intimate details of people persecuted during the Holocaust.
"It's a step in the right direction," Wolfgang Wippermann, a professor at Freie Universität Berlin and co-author of "The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945," told ABCNEWS.com. "In my mind it's a little too late, and they should have done that years ago. I don't think we will need to rewrite history, but I expect that we will find many new aspects, and maybe we'll be able to uncover even some scandalous aspects not only from those dark days of German history but also from the time right after the war."