Federal Archives at Berlin-Lichterfelde

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A review of the Federal Archives – Berlin-Lichterfelde (Bundesarchiv, Berlin-Lichterfelde), Berlin, Germany.

The Federal Archives are the largest public archives in Germany and are made up of nine different branches. Two branches, the Federal Film Archives (see review by Kristen Ehrenberger) and the Federal Archives Berlin-Lichterfelde, are located in Berlin. During a longer research trip to Berlin in June and July 2013 I spent two weeks at the Federal Archives Berlin-Lichterfelde. These archives are the biggest of the several branches of the Federal Archives and hold files that go back as far as the year 1495. However, the main collections held in Berlin-Lichterfelde cover the time period from 1867–1945 and files relating to the history of the former German Democratic Republic.

The Federal Archives Berlin-Lichterfelde are located at Finckensteinallee 63. The easiest way to get there is to take tramway line S 25 to Lichterfelde Ost station. From there you take bus no. X11 towards U Krumme Lanke and get off at the Bundesarchiv bus stop, which is just in front of the main gate of the Archives. It is not necessary to register before visiting the Archives, but I recommend sending an email to the archivists at least one week in advance in order to reserve a seat in the reading room and possibly pre-order files. Also, the archivists are normally quite helpful and happy to make suggestions for interesting documents if you tell them about your visit in advance.

The Archives are housed in a large former American army barracks. When you arrive at the main gate you first have to announce yourself at the little guard house on the right side of the gate. You will be handed a key for the lockers in the locker room of the Archives. However, in order to get there you first have to walk across the grounds to building no. 901 at the other side of the barracks. There you will find the visitors’ entrance to the Archives.  The Archives are open 8am to 7pm from Monday to Thursday and 8am to 4pm on Fridays. Once you enter the visitors’ entrance you should first turn right and walk along the corridor until you get to the locker room, where you can lock away your bag. As the locker room has a few vending machines for snacks and drinks and also a few tables, some visitors also spend their lunch breaks there. However, most researchers go to the cafeteria in the “Casino” building at the left side of the main gate, where you can get cheap and quite decent food during breakfast (before 8.30am) and lunch times (until 2:30pm).

Once you have locked away your bag you should go back along the corridor past the visitors’ entrance and enter the reading room. There you first need to go to the registration desk, show your passport or photo ID and fill in an application form (Benutzungsantrag) with your basic information and research topic. It is also possible to download and send the form to the archive in advance by email, fax or post (click here for the form). Apart from a passport or photo ID, no letter of introduction or other document is necessary for registration. Once you have filled in the form, you will be handed a user card (Benutzerkarte). This card is valid for as long as you work on the research project you filled in on the form and you simply have to show it at the entrance of the reading room each time you visit the Archives.

The reading room itself is a big room that can accommodate around seventy researchers.  Moreover, there are two smaller rooms that are each equipped with around ten microfilm readers. Readers can also make use of the library of the Archives that holds a large number of historical monographs, biographies and other works relating to recent German history (details about the library) . The work spaces in the reading room all have power sockets, but there is no free internet access available. Visitors can pay to use the internet hotspot the archive runs in cooperation with T-Mobile, but the prices are quite expensive so I did not try it myself.  In the reading room there are also several computers, where you can browse the online catalog and order files. The online catalog of the Federal Archives can be found on the official website of the Archives.  The catalog is very convenient to use and the entries often include quite detailed descriptions, which makes it is easy to do keyword searches for relevant files.

Once you find the right serial numbers in the catalog you can simply use the computer to order the files you want. The software will allow you to order up to twenty documents at once. If you order files before 10am, they will be available at 2pm on the same day. If you order any later than 10am, the files will be ready for you to collect the next morning.  While the ordering of files is very easy, I would not recommend ordering too many files at once if you want to read your files in a particular order or want to examine a particular series of documents first. As the archivists are normally very busy they will sometimes just hand you whatever five files (the maximum number of files you are allowed to read at once) are on top of the pile of files you ordered, so that you might not end up with the files you want to read first.

None of the files I read during my visit were digitized and the only documents that seem to have been digitized so far are a small group of files from the GDR collections and around 200,000 pictures from the Archives that can be browsed on the online picture database of the Archives. You are not allowed to photocopy or photograph any of the original documents you read yourself and it is only possible to order copies of these documents through an external company. If you wish to order copies, you have to fill in an order form with the serial number and sheet numbers of the documents that you want copied. Then you need to hand the form back to the archivists together with the file. The price for copies is quite high with 0.43€ per A4 page (0.39€ per A4 page for students). Around two to three weeks after you ordered your copies the company will post you the bill with the copying and shipping costs, which you have to pay in advance before the copies are sent to you. The only exception to this rule are microfilms, as you can print copies of microfilmed documents directly from the microfilm readers at a cost of 0.15€ per page.

In general, the Federal Archives Berlin-Lichterfelde are a very pleasant place to work. The Archives are run very efficiently and it is very easy to identify and order relevant materials. Moreover, because of the large and important collections that are held in the Archives, they will be of interest to anyone researching recent German history. However, due to the high number of visitors that use the Archives every day, the archivists are normally very busy and often do not have the time to answer questions about the Archives’ collections or offer help to visitors. This makes it even more important than with other archives to prepare your visit using the website and the online catalog and to email the archivists in advance about any specific questions you might have.

Ghassan Moazzin
Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge
gm393@cam.ac.uk

Image: Storage of archival material in Building 906 in Berlin-Lichterfelde. The New Building of the Federal Archives in Berlin Exhibition Website.

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