A History of the International Tracing Service


A review of From the ‘Archive of Horrors’ to the ‘Shop Window of Democracy’: The International Tracing Service, 1942-2013, by Jennifer L. Rodgers

Jennifer Rodgers’ dissertation fills a tremendous gap in our knowledge about the creation and history of one of the single largest troves of Holocaust-era documentation: the International Tracing Service (ITS) archives, stored in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Rodgers has provided a thorough investigation of the formation of the often misunderstood ITS, embedding its genesis within the complex web of post-war political and diplomatic tensions through to its operation in the present.

The ITS digital collections were only relatively recently opened to academic researchers (in 2008) after a protracted diplomatic struggle led by the United States, one of eleven nations that sits on the International Commission overseeing the ITS. Academia is still in the early stages of incorporating ITS documentation into historical narratives about World War II, the Holocaust and their aftermath, and likewise few authors have treated the history of the institution itself. Ultimately, Rodgers demonstrates how the ITS served various political expediencies in the immediate post-war and nascent Cold War periods as well as aided the reconstruction of European society, including within the context of increased articulation of Holocaust memory. Her dissertation thus ably answers, “What makes these documents so important besides their historical value?,” first posed in an article in The New York Post in April 1954 and cited by the author as her central driving question (p. 2).

After first describing the history of tracing, Chapter 1: “Origins” examines the establishment of a centralized tracing service by the Allies in the immediate post-war period, analysing how tracing to reunite families that were separated and displaced by war evolved alongside Allied plans for relief efforts, even before the war had ended. Rodgers discusses how civilian agencies worked with governments and militaries to establish a central tracing service based on repurposed captured German documents. However, control and responsibility for tracing was continuously contested and difficult, particularly with regard to the involvement of the Red Cross and its relationship to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), which successively took over tracing from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF). Rodgers analyses the transfer of tracing from UNRRA to the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) in 1948 and the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from tracing affairs. In addition to the role of the tracing service in relation to relief and rehabilitation, this chapter also examines the increasing politicization of the tracing service’s activities, which foreshadowed the political value of the ITS in successive decades, even while the prolongation of its activities was under dispute. In so doing, her work engages with scholarship on relief and rehabilitation including, among others, work by Ben Shepard and Daniel G. Cohen.

In Chapter 2: “The Politics of Humanitarianism”, Rodgers examines in further depth the context of tracing and the control and use of the ITS and its valuable information by various governments and agencies as the Cold War set in, continuing her conversation with the work of Cohen, along with Anna Holian, John Lewis Gaddis, Fred Halliday and other scholars of the period. This chapter shows that while the publicity surrounding tracing by the ITS focused on the concept of its role as a “humanitarian” service, rhetoric about humanitarianism and universalism generally cloaked the actual operations of the ITS, which increasingly served the Western Allies in their attempts to contain the spread of communism in Europe. Control over ITS and who had access to the information contained therein reflected the Western Allies’ understanding of the potential value of the records for intelligence purposes, particularly on refugees and displaced persons applying for entry into the United States. The case of John Demjanjuk, who had successfully refused repatriation, avoided punishment in the Soviet Union for collaboration, and who was cleared for immigration to the US based on information provided by the ITS and its predecessors, highlights the ways in which the records of the ITS were used by the Allies against Cold War enemies. In the eyes of the West, the documents were also considered a testament to the abundance of humanitarian aid and relief that democracies had provided in the immediate aftermath of the war, a tool in the arsenal of ideological warfare against totalitarianism in the East.

The chronology of the ITS and its shifting role are further chronicled in Chapter 3: “Grey Zones”. As the geopolitical situation changed in Europe, so did the operation and use of ITS by various interested parties. The Red Cross took over the administration of the ITS after the 1955 Bonn Accords and carried on in this role until 2012. Within this discussion, Rodgers elucidates the power and authority of the ITS directorship, since it controlled information about vast portions of Europe’s population which would be employed to various ends in the coming decades. She discusses the ways in which the International Commission governing body of ITS interpreted the legal foundations of the Bonn Accords to exclude smaller countries and non-governmental organisations in order to keep “the number of competing national interests to a minimum” (p. 136). This period also marked the involvement of the ITS in providing documents to support the prosecution of accused Nazi perpetrators while at the same time, served to exculpate West German politicians of their activities during the war. It was also a time of intense certification of indemnification claims, which according to the author, constituted up to 95 per cent of its work by the late 1950s. This chapter engages particularly with the work of Henning Borggräfe, Hans Günter Hockerts and Constantin Goeschler, as it analyses the ways the ITS was repurposed to serve West German interests.

In Chapter 4: “The Politics of Humanitarianism, Part II”, Rodgers examines how the ITS’s operations changed yet again in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the wake of eased diplomatic relations between the East and West. Whereas access to records had previously been restricted, in the early 1970s scholars were able to conduct historical research in the ITS archives for the first time, albeit only briefly. The ITS also ingested new records from the East into its collection at this time and expanded its mandate to respond to requests for information from Eastern Europe, which it had previously excluded. These developments, argues Rodgers, were directly correlated to geopolitical trends to abandon conservatism but also occurred within the context of Ostpolitik, which saw improved relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Eastern Europe. Rodgers has also noted that the role of the Red Cross in these changes cannot be discounted, since the Red Cross was re-evaluating its global position and image in the wake of decolonization in Africa. However, this change in operations, which had briefly opened a “hopeful” window into the possibilities for research and further claims for indemnification, was not without consequences. In light of the Federal Republic of Germany’s allegations that the Red Cross had mismanaged funds in the late 1970s, the Red Cross reinterpreted the Bonn Accords in a much stricter and orthodox fashion, ceasing document processing and access to outside research to focus once again on its narrowly re-defined “humanitarian” mandate.

Rodgers closes her dissertation with an Epilogue in Chapter 5, attempting to describe with available sources perhaps the most difficult era of ITS history to research: the 1985-2006 period, when the archive was generally closed to outside researchers and suffered a severe backlog in processing requests for information under the directorship of Charles Biedermann. Increasingly recognized as the “Bermuda triangle of the archival world” (p. 227), the ITS weathered intensifying criticism and eventually considerable public and diplomatic pressure through the International Commission to change its practices and to open to the public. Despite the proximity of this period, Rodgers ably demonstrates how the opening of the archive in 2006 showed the re-engagement of the International Commission with the affairs of the ITS to positive ends as well the facilitation of the withdrawal of the Red Cross from the administration of the ITS. Moreover, the fight to open the archives shows that the records have enduring historical and symbolic significance for Holocaust memory beyond political expediency, which culminated in the inscribing of the collections in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2013.

Ultimately, Rodgers’ dissertation—and hopefully, published monograph—will build upon and expand the work of Bernd Joachim Zimmer by examining the role of the ITS at the “intersection of politics and history” and how its changing existence reinforced the role of the archive in “promoting and legitimizing the political and cultural agendas of the postwar era” (p. 248). By analysing ITS’s own administrative records alongside diplomatic correspondence and other relevant sources in the archives of the major forces that have shaped the ITS over the last decades, Rodgers’ dissertation has skilfully navigated the fraught history of the ITS. She shows how the years of “contested access to and ownership of the archives propelled its operation since the 1940s”, and arguably, through today (p. 14).

Dr. Christine Schmidt
International Tracing Service Archive Researcher
The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide

Primary Sources

Institutional archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS) (including but not limited to Subunit Administration and Organization – Predecessor Organizations)
US National Archives and Records Administration RG 466 HICOG
Bonn Classified General Records and RG 59 Central Records of the Department of State
UK National Archives Foreign and Commonwealth correspondence and Records FO 371

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2014. 274 pp. Primary advisor: Thomas Childers.

Image: ITS Bad Arolsen Central Name Files, image by Author.

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