Holocaust-Era Assets

A Brief Chronology of the National Archives Captured Records Staff, by Robert Wolfe

Robert Wolfe

In late summer of 1961, when the American Historical Association (AHA) microfilm project at the World War II Records Center located at the old torpedo factory in Alexandria, Virginia was winding down, the State Department was transferring to the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) approximately 1,000 microfilm rolls of so-called non-biographic records prepared by the Berlin Document Center (BDC) staff (the eventual NA Microfilm T-580). On the recommendation of project supervisors Oron Hale and Fritz T. Epstein, NARS temporarily engaged Robert Wolfe of the AHA Alexandria team to review and describe that BDC microfilm.

It soon became clear that some 10,000 rolls already received from Alexandria (with over 10,000 additional rolls yet to come), containing records of the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces), the Nazi Party and its formations (such as the SS, SA, and NSKK), as well as of some Third Reich government agencies (such as the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda [Reich Ministry for Public Enlighten-ment and Propagan-da, 1936-1944, Reichswirtschaftsministerium [Records of the Reich Ministry of Economics]; and Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion [Records of the Reich Ministry for Armaments and War Produc-tion] was stimulating lively research attention. Recognizing its pressing need for subject-matter expertise on captured German records, NARS offered Wolfe a permanent position in early 1962.

Much of the microfilm of German Foreign Office and Reich Chancellery records, approaching 5,000 rolls (T-120), prepared by the Whaddon Hall Tripartite Project had already been accessioned from the Department of State by NARS Diplomatic Branch, and Wolfe (assisted for some months by Mario Fenyo) was soon providing reference for that microfilm as well. Included in this accession from the State Department were several hundred rolls (T-586) reproducing records of the Mussolini regime (Salo).

In April, 1963, Wolfe was transferred from the Exhibits and Publications Branch to the Diplomatic, Legal, and Fiscal Branch, and given the title of Specialist for European Records. During 1965, the captured records microfilm in the main building, held respectively by the Diplomatic and Military Branches, was consolidated in one location. In late 1965, Richard Bauer, who had been providing reference at Alexandria, moved to the main archives building to assist Wolfe. With Bauer came the captured German situation map collection, still pictures from the Heeresbildstelle (German army photographic agency), and the Heinrich Hoffman studios, as well as audio recordings--most notable of which were wax disc recordings of many of Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler's secret speeches candidly describing the so-called final solution of the Jewish question and other Nazi atrocities.

Meanwhile, at Alexandria, a project team supervised by Phillip P. Brower and Donald E. Spencer, consisting at one time or another of Anton F. Grassl, Charles Gordon, Ignaz Ernst, Cleveland Collier, Steven Pinter, John Strekel, and Petronilla Hawes, augmented in 1967-8 by the return of the invaluable George Wagner, between 1963 and 1968 produced approximately 10,000 microfilm rolls for deposit in the National Archives, including 506 rolls of Italian military records, 1935-43 (T-821). In 1966, Mrs. Johanna F. Wagner, a former member of the AHA Alexandria team, joined Wolfe in the main archives building. From this time on, the Wagners contributed an inestimable portion to the Guides to German Records Microfilmed at Alexandria, Va. and other finding aids to the captured records.

In 1968, after most of the capture German records had been microfilmed before shipment to the Federal Republic of Germany for deposit chiefly in the Bundesarchiv, the Alexandria World War II Records Branch was dissolved, the torpedo plant vacated, and along with huge amounts of US military records, most of the remaining captured records, on paper and microfilm, sent to the main archives building in downtown Washington. The remaining non-German captured records, largely North Korean, were sent to the new Washington National Records Center in nearby Suitland, Md. Spencer, Grassl, Gordon, and Mrs. Hawes, joined Wolfe, Bauer, and the Wagners in the main building; Ernst accompanied the remaining captured records to Suitland.

In two stages between 1967 and 1972, NARS accessioned from the Naval History Division over 4000 rolls of German naval records, the so-called Tambach Records filmed in London by US Navy microphotographers during 1945-6 (T-1022). The first stage, consisting of 1650 rolls of chiefly German Imperial Navy records dating from 1850 to 1922 ("TA" series), were accompanied by an extensive card index prepared by Harry Rilley, who concurrently joined NARS captured record staff. Finding aids for the TA and the post-1922-1945 "T" series were also microfilmed. During the 1980s, two well-received guides to the ever-popular U-Boat logs and related records for the Imperial and Third Reich navies were compiled by Harry Rilley and Timothy P. Mulligan, respectively.

Beginning in 1968, the captured records staff for the first time assumed project responsibility for records of American and Allied provenance closely related to the captured German records: the Nuremberg (Nuernberg) trial records. At that time, Wolfe developed a standard filming sequence--proceedings, prosecution and defense document series, plus administrative records--for the records of the twelve subsequent Nuernberg trials conducted by US military government prosecutors before judges recruited from American state courts. Initially carried out by Charles Gordon, this project was completed by John Mendelsohn with the assistance of diverse archivist trainees.

Besides the standard NARS microfilm pamphlets to accompany the Nuernberg trial series, Wolfe assigned Mendelsohn to experiment with Special Lists, beginning with the only trial of a single defendant, US v. Erhard Milch, as a pilot project, and going on to the most researched of these subsequent trials, US v. Ohlendorf et al., the Einsatzgruppen ("murder commandos") case. During the five years he served as Assistant Branch Chief for Projects in the Military Field Branch at Suitland, Mendelsohn spread the Nuernberg pamphlet pattern--again with the assistance of diverse archivist trainees--to the Dachau trials, mainly of SS concentration camp personnel, but also including trials of the Malmedy massacre of American troops, the Russelsheim lynching of downed American air crews, and the Hademar euthanasia asylum. (In late 1945 and early 1946, Wolfe had been assigned as an official Army witness to the hangings at Bruchsal prison of those condemned in the latter two cases.)

Other related US records accessioned during 1968-70 were the Foreign Military Studies, more than 2000 manuscripts in seven series prepared by German generals and other high ranking staff officers, initially as responses to POW interrogations (including generals Keitel and Jodl before their executions at Nuremberg), and later written on contract with the US Army History Division between 1945 and 1954. In order to assist the memories of the German authors, the German Military Documents Section (GMDS) had shipped tons of microfilm reproductions of thousands of captured German documents, as well as original German situation maps and manuals from Alexandria to Karlsruhe. These studies were designed to fill gaps and throw light from surviving wartime records on strategic, tactical, operational, and technical aspects of the Wehrmacht. Regrettably, with one lone exception, no one seems to have suggested that the German authors of these studies cite the documents they were furnished, although this would have considerably enhanced the historical value of the manuscripts. Until his retirement in 1986, George Wagner arranged these records for microfilming and prepared a finding aid, both tasks being completed by Robin Cookson.

Nineteen sixty-eight was a watershed year not only because of the transfer of the Alexandria staff to the main archives building in March, but because of the National Archives Conference on Captured German and Related Records in November. That conference assembled in the National Archives theater more than 200 participants in the various projects which captured, officially exploited, microfilmed or described such records, and/or who conducted research therein resulting in books and articles, many of which have become classics for the study of Germany in the 20th Century in general, and of the Third Reich in particular. Wolfe, who planned and directed the conference, edited the proceedings and recorded discussion for publication by the Ohio University Press in 1974 (Captured German and Related Records: A National Archives Conference).

Shortly after this conference, Wolfe was asked by the State Department to serve as its archival consultant for the Berlin Document Center, a function which continued through inspection visits in 1969, 1970, 1975, 1988, and 1989. He also served as a member of the State Department delegations which negotiated with a German Foreign Office delegation in Bonn and in Berlin in 1979, and in Washington in 1980, tentative terms for the transfer (ultimately in June 1994) of the BDC to the Federal Republic of Germany after its so-called biographic records had been microfilmed for deposit in the National Archives. After Wolfe's retirement in April 1995, the transfer and description of BDC biographic microfilm has been carried out by Timothy Mulligan.

The captured records staff assembled in the main archives building in downtown Washington continued to work on producing Alexandria Guides (which by 1994 reached 99 in number) as well as finding aids to German navy, Nuernberg trial records, and Foreign Military Studies. In 1971 that staff (now augmented by Mendelsohn) was constituted a separate Captured Records Branch with Wolfe as branch chief. Besides projects, the branch was busy with a burgeoning reference service, by mail and on the premises, resulting from the enduring public fascination with the Third Reich.

Undaunted by this growing work load, in the early 1970s Wolfe undertook reviving the then moribund interest in two aspects of the aftermath of the Third Reich: war crimes trials and postwar military government of Germany. Having assigned the archival projects on the subsequent Nuernberg trials to the eager and diligent Mendelsohn, Wolfe assumed a promotional role. Preceded in October 1972 by an inaugural lecture, which included a documentary motion picture he assembled with the assistance of Mendelsohn and Spencer, he taught a four-week short course on the Nuernberg trials at Wesleyan (Connecticut) University during March 1973. In 1975, he directed a symposium in the National Archives building on "The Nuernberg Trials as History, Law, and Morality," on behalf of the Conference Group on German Politics (which he also served as a member of its Board of Directors). Among the speakers were Telford Taylor, Avery Fisher, Martin Broszat, Hans Mommsen, and Mendelsohn and Wolfe.

Also in 1975. the Captured Records Branch was absorbed as a distinctive staff into the newly-created Modern Military Branch, with Wolfe as branch chief. This reorganization gave new scope to the talents of the captured records staff, and new talent to apply to the captured German and related records. In particular, archives technician Timothy P. Mulligan, whose fascination with and copious knowledge of the history and records of the Third Reich caught Wolfe's attention, was recruited as an archivist for the captured records staff.

The Modern Military Branch benefitted from the special skills of the captured record staff applied to those American record groups or series interspersed with captured enemy and related records, among these the records of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), and intercepts of enemy coded wireless communications released in paraphrase by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Wolfe's recruitment of Mendelsohn and Mulligan was with an eye to an orderly succession, because he knew from his own experience that it took years on the job to develop subject matter expertise in a large, complex body of records. The premature death in 1986 of Mendelsohn, eight years Wolfe's junior, disrupted this plan, but the considerably younger Mulligan has proven more than prepared to assume the task of specialist for captured German and related records.

Other records, not part of the Modern Military Branch but part of Wolfe's personal history, also drew his attention. Having served from April 1945 to late 1948 in the Office of Military Government for Germany (OMGUS), in 1975 he instigated and negotiated a joint venture of the National Archives with the Bundesarchiv and the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, as well as other German archives and institutions, which described and microfilmed OMGUS and related State and War Department records for the use of researchers in both countries. Mendelsohn later served as liaison for most of the three years that more than 25 German archivists and historians worked on the OMGUS records at NARS Washington National Records Center in nearby Suitland, MD.

Three years later, Wolfe directed a conference on postwar military government co-sponsored by the Eisenhower Institute and the American Committee for the History of the Second World War held at the Smithsonian Institution on May 20-22, 1977, the proceedings of which he edited for publication under the title: Americans as Proconsuls: U.S. Military Government in Germany and Japan, 1944-52 (SIU Press, Carbondale, Illinois, 1984).

Since the 1978 Martin Green television docudrama revived and mushroomed public interest in the Holocaust, captured records personnel at the National Archives were overwhelmed by researcher inquiries--scholarly, media, and private. In television interviews, papers, articles, and documentary publications, Wolfe and Mendelsohn endeavored to bring to these various categories of researchers, and to the general public, knowledge of captured German and related American records in their custody which substantiate the incredible--and therefore disputed by so-called Holocaust deniers--facts of the "final solution of the Jewish question."

As far back as 1961, while serving on the AHA Alexandria staff, Wolfe became involved in assisting so-called "Nazi hunters," both the Israeli prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, and West German investigators for the prosecution of Nazi criminals. Since then, whether providing records to the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) of the U.S. Department of Justice investigating alleged Nazi collaborators who found boltholes in this country, or for Canadian, and recently Australian and British, prosecution of such collaborators who entered those countries, the National Archives captured records staff has sought to serve the ends of justice.

Beginning with the Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan case, New York and other Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) investigators from Ohio and Florida separately sought from the National Archives what amounted mainly to duplicate background information and documentation in order to deport alleged war criminals from several INS jurisdictions. Wolfe suggested that a central operation and cumulative document repository be established, similar to that set up in Ludwigsburg, Germany, to minimize dissipation of INS and NARA efforts. Presumably, as a consequence of that advice and his subsequent assistance to its lawyers and historians, some have dubbed Wolfe the "godfather" of the OSI.

Wolfe was asked to give evidence for the prosecution in a pretrial hearing to establish the chain of control of documents certified by the Bundesarchiv for a war crimes trial in Adelaide, Australia in 1993. Defense counsel had objected that the proffered documents had been out of German control for some 25 years, roughly from 1945 to 1970. It required much research to produce contemporaneous documentation demonstrating the where and when of the capture of the bodies of records in which the documents had been filed by Nazi agencies, the itinerary by which they had reached the United States, where they had been microfilmed, and the receipts signed by German archivists at Bremerhaven certifying their return. Whether the case be a criminal prosecution as in Adelaide, or a deportation case in Cleveland, a broken chain of control (or Roman or Cyrillic graffiti on original documents) taints the evidence.

On October 5, 1992, Wolfe testified as an expert archival witness in a Nazi crimes case tried before the County Court of Duisberg, Germany. When Allied Military Government was replaced by the Allied High Commission in 1949, a provision of the Occupation Statute reserved Allied control over war criminals already convicted and imprisoned by Allied military govern-ment courts, but not over cases not yet tried, as a prerequisite to Allied approval of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In general, the trials conducted by the U.S. War Crimes Branch at Dachau applied precedents derived from the Nürnberg Interna-tional and subsequent American military tribunals established by the London Charter. But Dachau legal and procedural bases were laid out and developed in a 1945 loose-leaf Manual for Trial of War Crimes and Related Cases, to which additions, changes and deletions were applied from preceding cases. In all Allied prosecutions of war crimes both inves-tigation and judicial inquiry could follow as well as precede service of charges, even during the trial itself; but trial could not legally begin before service of charges. On the basis of this archival research, Wolfe recommended that the United States Ambassador to Germany certify that the U.S. Government had no objec-tion to the trial of the accused by a German court for World War II war crimes.

During the 1970s, budgetary constraints affected the National Archives like most other Federal agencies. It was therefore no surprise that NARA senior managers suggested curtailing, if not discontinuing, projects work on captured German records in order to augment staff positions processing American records being accessioned in a steadily increasing flow. As chief of the Military Records Branch, Wolfe conceded such priority was justified, but protests from the Conference Group for Central European History, coupled with the revival of interest in the Holocaust as of 1977-8, averted premature shutdown of a distinct captured German records staff in that Branch, and ensured completion of the Alexandria Guide series.

The beginning of the end of the staff's separate existence came, however, with the re-assignment of Wolfe as assistant director, Military Archives Division. A truncated staff was temporarily revived by his assignment as assistant director of his long sought--but short-lived--Center for Captured German and Related Records, under a supervisor lacking proficiency in German language or records. On Wolfe's retirement in 1995, the few remaining captured German records specialists were dissipated among several functional units, and their responsibilities broadened, thereby to some extent diluting their specialized competencies.

Archivists are enjoined to avoid proffering personal interpretations of records they furnish to researchers, lest their opinions be taken for officially approved. This is most difficult when such documentation is cited in front page stories or prime time news. During the 1980s, Wolfe and his staff enjoyed the excitement and accepted the risks of meeting media demands for a quick fix, while avoiding misquotation, on such headline stories as the extradition of Klaus Barbie, the search for Josef Mengele, the controversy over President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg cemetery, and the Kurt Waldheim affair and its British commando aftermath. Wolfe probably dodged a professional bullet when the U.S. Department of Justice ruled on Constitutional grounds (Article I, Sect. 8, clause 9) that he could not accept a formal invitation to serve on the Austrian-financed International Historians Commission to ascertain the facts of the Waldheim case.

Archivists, however, are not constrained from speaking and publishing their views on professional archival and historical matters, derived from their own records or other sources, provided this is preceded by the prescribed bureaucratic disclaimer that such views do not represent official agency or government policy. The captured records personnel of the National Archives have presented conference papers and published articles and books, over and above hundreds of acknowledgements of the assistance provided by various members of the staff printed in hundreds of scholarly and other works published in the United States and abroad.

Seizure and exploitation of the official records of a vanquished foe, although authorized by the Hague and subsequent international conventions, can be presumed to engender ill will, but it attests to the fair and professional operation of the National Archives captured records staff that Wolfe was awarded the Merit Cross, First Class, of the Federal Republic of Germany on March 15, 1979, and its Grand Cross in 1996, and that Mulligan was presented the "German Friendship Award" at a joint ceremony sponsored by the German Embassy and the German Historical Institute on December 10, 1999, on the premises of the latter institution.

That this chronology is in large part a personal history may seem self-promotion; it happens to be demonstrable fact. For a broader background, consult "Current and Future National Archives Programs for Captured Records" in Robert Wolfe, ed., Captured German and Related Records: A National Archives Conference (Ohio University Press, 1974); Robert Wolfe, "Sharing Records of Mutual Archival Concern to the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America," Special Plenary Session of the Interna-tional Congress on Archives, Bonn, September 21, 1984, in Archivum, XXXII, 292-302 (K.G. Saur, München, 1986); and pertinent records in National Archives Record Group 64.

RWolfe: January/2000