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“The Archive is our Conscience”

Paul Dostert, historian and longstanding director of the Documentation and Research Center on the Resistance in Luxembourg (Centre de Documentation et de Recherche sur la Résistance/CDRR), paid a two-day visit to the International Tracing Service (ITS) late in July 2016. Last month Dostert had assumed chairmanship of the International Commission that sets down the guidelines of ITS activities. Every year one of the eleven member states takes on the body’s presidency. This year it has been the turn of Luxembourg. The ITS talked with Mr. Dostert about the commission’s plans.  

Mr. Dostert, only a few people know the International Commission (IC) for the ITS. How would you describe its role?

The commission has been the governing body of the ITS since 1955. After the war had ended, the Allies quickly realized that they would have to take on the care for the survivors of Nazi persecution and the millions of displaced persons. The search for family members proved to be an equally urgent task. Countless documents were collected and, in parallel, evaluated for this purpose. Thus the archive in Bad Arolsen came into being and has remained an international center to this day. The governing body composed of eleven member states is an exceptional constellation, admittedly, we are facing up to our responsibility. Ever since the opening of the archive to research late in 2007, this responsibility has grown and the commission has met regularly twice a year. Communication among our members is excellent and our joint cooperation with the ITS is fruitful.   

Since the opening of the archive many things have changed. Which stance do you take on these developments?

First the commission had only envisaged opening the archive and making accessible its documents to research. But what has come of it is so much more. We have learned that it requires a great deal of time to describe the archival holdings and to restructure the tracing service into an archive and documentation center. So all of us have arrived in the real world meanwhile. By our decision to establish a new archival building, we have made it clear that we are going to support and guide this process in the long run.

What are your plans for the term of Luxembourg’s presidency?

We want to give the ITS maximum support by intensifying cooperation, sending clear messages and translating specific goals into practice. In the coming year the IC will be meeting for the 80th time. To mark this occasion, we will hold a conference in Luxembourg which will address the research potential of the archival collections as well as aspects of the ITS history. We want to make people even more aware of the treasure trove of documents that is preserved in Bad Arolsen. The inscription of the archival holdings into UNESCO’s Memory of the World register in 2013 will prove helpful in that context.  

Last year the ITS started making collections accessible online. Are you in support of this strategy?

We would not have thought this step possible a few years ago, but it is the right step to take. The ITS collections document one of the most important chapters in the history of humankind, which is of equal importance for research and education and for a person’s own family history. Thanks to the internet and digitization, we have much more efficient means of reaching people than we used to have. By offering extra online exhibitions, we will create new avenues to the documents. We must considerably broaden our knowledge on the type and provenance of the documents. An in-depth description of the holdings shall help us reach this goal in the future. This is the quintessence of the experience gained by the seven member states of the IC using a digital copy of the ITS archival collections.   

This process will take time, and the wheel of world history keeps on turning. Don’t you fear that the interest in Nazi persecution and the events of World War II might diminish?

We certainly cannot make a forecast, but the huge number of incoming inquiries proves a strong and lasting interest. I am sure that anniversaries will encourage every young generation to raise questions regarding the political events of the era and the personal history of their own families. The individual fates documented in the ITS archive offer a personal and valuable access to history which does not fail to appeal to people’s minds and hearts. The ITS archive focuses on the victims and documents the fates of all groups and minorities which were persecuted by the Nazi regime.

Nationalism and violence against minorities are on the rise in Europe. Is it still possible to convey the so-called “lessons from the past” to coming generations?

Yes and no. There will always be people who are unable or unwilling to learn, who are indifferent to the past and fail to develop any sense of their family history. But National Socialism and the World War II still show us the red line that we as human beings must never cross again. Not all people find their way and place in our globalized world, some feel helpless or overstrained. We have to make sure that this feeling of growing insecurity will not be misused. The longing for stability, a home and one’s own identity is deeply humane and must not be used to serve the ends of crude nationalism. An archive like the ITS can clearly counteract attempts to rewrite national history. It stands for historical truths. It is our conscience. But we need to make use of it, as it cannot speak by itself.