If you haven’t read the first Berlin Document Center post, it probably makes sense to start there. This post, like the last, is based in large part on “Secrets of the Files,” a New Yorker article from 1994 by Gerald Posner. At the time that the article was written, the U.S. was about to cede control of the Berlin Document Center (and the approximately 75 million documents contained there) to the German government.
Concern about this transfer centered around access to the files and the effort made by the U.S. to transfer all of the files to microfilm. The hand-over was made during the early years of the united Germany and was a manifestation of Germany moving forward as a unified country and away from foreign supervision and was also a response to the theft of between 10,000 and 40,000 documents, blamed on lax American security.
The Americans had a policy restricting access to the files to “serious researchers and sch0lars,” but seemed to interpret this fairly loosely. Germany’s laws on privacy at the time were more restrictive, generally limiting access to files until 30 years after the subject’s death or, if the date of death was indeterminate, 110 years after the subject’s birth. Even eligible files were subject to the archivists’ judgement on the purpose of the research and files could be withheld if the use, among other things: “‘jeapordizes’ the welfare of Germany, is at odds with the ‘legitimate concerns of third person,’ or causes administrative work ‘which can not be justified.’”
Because of these concerns and to ensure access to this information by American researchers, the U.S. undertook the most extensive microfilming project ever attempted at that time. Posner observed thirteen women sitting “at camera stations, each routinely reaching for a sheet of paper stacked on her right, adjusting it on a surface in front of her, waiting for the camera’s click, removing the paper to the left, and reaching for the next one.” Researchers found the microfilm project to be an inadequate substitute for the actual documents, stressing the importance of what we would now call the meta-data that the physical objects revealed. For instance, the colors of ink used in comments on the margins of Third Reich documents are useful in identifying the writer. Microfilm images are in black and white and thus lose this information. Further, files were not always stored in order and a researcher could use the actual pages to line up staple holes or perforations to determine the correct sequence. Obviously, this was not possible with microfilm images. Finally, the microfilm process lost all of the data for certain types of files, such as early Nazi Party cards that use dark blue ink on a blue background and are unreadable in microfilm form.
You necessarily lose something when you are given a facsimile or image instead of the actual thing itself. The concerns of researchers and historians were not enough to prevent the transfer of control. The documents from the German Document Center are currently supervised by the German government while the National Archives has the microfilm copies.
Originally posted on June 9, 2010