Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Holocaust archive begins opening its files

Maybe now the Holocaust deniers will shut up.

The Bad Arolsen documents — transportation lists, Gestapo orders, camp registers, slave labor booklets, death books — contain references to about 17.5 million people, Jews and non-Jews. It is the largest registry of Holocaust victims ever.

Why is this only coming out now? The transcript (pdf) of a Congressional hearing back in March explains:

The information at Bad Arolsen was originally collected and maintained to help reunite non-German families separated during the war and trace missing family members. Countless files and documentation from across Germany were relocated to Bad Arolsen by allied forces after World War II. Shortly after the end of the war, the Bonn Accord treaty was signed by 11 nations, including the United States, forming an international commission to govern the International Tracing Service (ITS), which was charged with maintaining the massive Nazi archives.

And thus became a captive of international politics, with both East and West having incentive to keep the records shrouded. Both countries employed people who might have been exposed as Nazi collaborators had the archive been open. As well, the archive likely records the involvement of many nationalities, which would be embarassing to the countries involved. And finally, there was always the risk that revelations might expose countries, companies and individuals to demands for restitution.

Cynically understandable as that may be, it's shameful, and yet another example of how excessive secrecy is harmful. By keeping the archive away from public view, the commission robbed survivors of closure and provided space for Holocaust deniers to operate. There may be times when short-term healing takes priority over truth, but I can't think of a good example right now. In general, openness speeds healing by removing doubt.

I hope we remember that principle the next time someone proposes sealing public records to protect the public good.

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