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The History of the ITS as an International Institute

During World War II it was becoming increasingly clear that Nazi terror and war were leading to a refugee crisis of enormous dimension throughout Europe. Early on it was apparent that innumerous families had been torn apart and that people all over Europe would be searching for each other. For this reason, the Allied Forces as well as the non-military organizations, such as the British Red Cross Society and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) were discussing as early as in 1942/1943 the need to search for missing people.

When the power of National Socialist Germany began crumbling in early 1943, the Allies, acting on the initiative of the Headquarters of the Allied Forces of the British Red Cross in London, changed the Department for International Affairs into a central tracing office. This office immediately began the task of tracing and registering missing persons.

One of the first endeavors of the Allies was to gather detailed information on the situation of the prisoners, forced laborers and refugees in Central Europe. This task was coordinated by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), which also assumed the work of the central tracing office on 15 February 1944. The location of this office moved with the Western Allied troops, which were gradually nearing the Reich borders, and then established its temporary headquarters in occupied Germany in Frankfurt am Main.

  • The Development of the ITS after the Liberation

    With the liberation and the total surrender of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945, the Allies began planning for more than 13 million people, who, because of the persecution and war in Europe, found themselves outside of their home countries, to return to their home lands or to organize their emigration to other countries to make a new home there. At first, these Displaced Persons (DPs) were sheltered and cared for in centers, from where they should then be quickly repatriated or allowed to emigrate. Until 30 June 1947 the UNRRA had an interim mandate of responsibility for this.

    In the meantime the search and registration of those persons lost and found continued. In January 1946 the Central Tracing Office was moved to Arolsen in northern Hessen.

    After the UNRRA mandate expired in 1947, it was at first unclear whether and how the work of the tracing office should continue. There were numerous people still searching - many fates were still not clarified, many parents, siblings, and children were still missing. The Allies recognized the need for a central institute and was able to convince the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) to take on the task of managing the Central Tracing Office starting 1 July 1947. In 1948 the IRO centralized the local, national, and international search efforts, which at that time were widely fragmented; on 1 January 1948 the Office in Bad Arolsen was given the name still in use today: “International Tracing Service” (ITS).

  • Challenges and New Tasks

    One of the biggest challenges for the continuation of the ITS was the increasingly tense conflict between the western allies and the Soviet Union. A re-organizing of the ITS was not without difficulties: In April 1951 the Allied High Commission for Germany (HICOG) took on the task of running the ITS. It was then becoming clear that providing both certification needed for claiming legal rights and death certificates required by charities for restitution programs for the victims of Nazi persecution and their families was becoming the primary task. At this point in time, however, there had not yet been a decision to establish the ITS as a permanent facility. Moreover, it was assumed that the work of the ITS would soon be completed.

    With the suspension of the occupation status in 1955, the course for the future of the ITS was formally set. The institute would continue its work under the direction of a neutral, a-political institute and supervised by an international commission, with financial support from the Federal Republic of Germany. On the request of the then German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva agreed to assume the leadership of the ITS.

  • Under the Leadership of the International Committee of the Red Cross

    This restructuring was regulated with the Bonn Agreements from June 1955, which remained in effect until 2012. At first, however, the International Community considered the ITS to be an interim organization: The Bonn Agreements planned for a reassessment of the ITS activities every 5 years as well as re-examining the possibility of ending the work of the ITS.

    In 1960 the government representatives on the International Commission decided to extend the Bonn Agreements without any changes or addendums, as it had become obvious that access to the documents in the archive continued to be necessary for the restitution programs of Western Germany. That year, however, the International Commission predicted that the activities of the ITS would be completed in 1968 – a projection which included the West German prognosis for the termination of the restitution payments to the victims of National Socialism. 

    It became clear, however, that the search for missing people, the clarification of fates, and the documentation of persecution to enable restitution claims would continue to be, even today, necessary tasks of the ITS. Time and again the number of inquiries has risen. In addition to the work of the Humanitarian Branch and that of acquiring documents, new tasks evolved: For one, the ITS provided documents for ongoing legal proceedings against Nazi perpetrators. However, over long periods of time the archives of the ITS remained inaccessible both to the public and to research – a policy that repeatedly drew strong criticism of the institution.

  • The Berlin Agreement and the ITS to this Day

    In November 2007, after many years of pressure from both the public and from researchers, the International Commission decided to open the ITS-Archive to research. In 2011 the Commission signed two new agreements on the future of the ITS: the Berlin Agreement and a partnership declaration with the Federal Archives as new institutional partner. The new agreements went into effect on 1 January 2013, thereby annulling all previous agreements. The ICRC announced its resignation from its management role for the end of 2012.

    The opening of the archives and the new agreements set in motion a wide-reaching transformation: restructuring, the professionalization of the Archive, transparency in processing inquiries, and a self-establishing Branch for Research and Education mark this change. It remains a central task of the ITS to clarify the fates of the former victims of Nazi persecution and to provide information for their family members – increasingly, however, the responsibility and potential of the ITS for education, research and commemoration is coming to the fore.

The Location

Between 3 and 6 January 1946 the offices of the Central Tracing Service moved from Frankfurt am Main to Arolsen.

The small town of Arolsen, in northern Hesse, was chosen because of its central location between the four occupation zones and because it had large, undamaged buildings and good telephone and telegraph connections.

At first, the ITS  archives  were housed in an office building (today the town hall) and from 1949 until 1952 in the former SS barracks because the barracks offered sufficient infrastructure necessary  for holding the huge number of documents and for accommodating the staff.

In the early 1950s, Arolsen was finally chosen as the location for the ITS which put an end to the discussions concerning the right place. In 1952, the Federal Assets Management Office (Bundesvermögensamt) had the main building in Grosse Allee erected.

Today, the ITS is housed in three other buildings in addition to the main office: the Haus am Park, the Kurhaus and a building in the Schlossstraße.