Should millions of documents about the victims of Nazi persecution be freely available on the internet? Before the online archive went into development, it was the subject of intense debate at the Arolsen Archives. On the one hand, there was the need to make the documents that have been included on the UNESCO Memory of the World register available to as many people as possible worldwide. But wouldn’t an online archive remove Nazi documents from their historical context? And might publishing the documents in this way even violate personality rights and copyrights? The Arolsen Archives gave these questions careful consideration: most experts and, above all, the relatives of the victims feel that the opportunities afforded by an online archive are much greater than the risks involved.

Floriane Azoulay

»Our archive is an indispensable source of knowledge for society today. We must make it available online so that this knowledge can be accessed by younger generations too. The rights of the victims and their families to truth and information also has the highest priority for us.«

Floriane Azoulay, Director of the Arolsen Archives

The legal basis

The Arolsen Archives are not subject to national data protection directives, but to specific international provisions: the International Commission (IC) – which consists of government representatives from eleven member states – supervises the work of the institution on behalf of the former victims of persecution. Article 11 of the international treaty ratified by all the member states stipulates that the IC shall independently define the directives for the publication of personal data from the holdings of the Arolsen Archives. In 2017, the IC decided on a 25-year term for online publication. This means that all the documents from the archive are accessible – except for inquiries that are less than 25 years old.

“At last!”

What do the relatives and other interested parties say can now that they can research online? In the first week alone, more than 100000 people used the new online archive. Many of them took the opportunity to tell us about the experience in our social media channels. Users are unstintingly enthusiastic about the new possibilities:

»I thank everyone for this important information. I learned a little more about what happened to my grandfather. I saw his signature for the first time and I know that he was taken away very quickly because of what little effects he had with him. Bless everyone for this project.«

»At last! How many years have many of us who are interested in Nazi history been waiting for this? Thank you to everyone who has made this possible!«

»Unbelievable, I found things and names of my father’s side I didn’t know before! Very exiting!«

»My father never talked about the relatives he lost. So recovering even a name on a list is very important for us. These files add much more information. I am so appreciative of the efforts made in uploading this data.«

»I am shaking, here is a relative of mine, thanks to the archive @itsarolsen and @yadvashem for the hard work. I am crying.«

What the experts say

We have spoken to international Holocaust researchers, historians and data protection specialists and asked them the following questions:
What do you think of an online archive on the victims of Nazi persecution? What risks and opportunities do you see in the transition from analog to digital when working with archival material?

Arye Schreiber, Data Protection Officer and GDPR specialist

Promoting truth and justice

The Arolsen Archives make an enormous contribution to the pursuit of truth and justice. They should be disseminated far and wide and made increasingly accessible and available.

Dr. Tobias Herrmann, German Federal Archives

A fascinating means

Presenting digital archival materials online is a fascinating means of making central historical sources available to an almost unlimited number of users who can access the sources whenever they like from wherever they may happen to be.

Zvi Bernhardt, Deputy Director of Reference and Information services and of the Hall of Names, Yad Vashem World Holocaust Center

Increase transparency

The new Arolsen Archives online database published in partnership with Yad Vashem signifies the organization's goal to increase transparency and accessibility to information and documentation about the crimes and atrocities of the Nazi era.

Dan Stone, Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at the University of London

Risks and benefits

In general, I would say that the risks are in many ways the same as the benefits.

Suzanne Brown-Fleming, Director of Visiting Scholar Programs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The global nature of the Holocaust

The size and scope of the Arolsen Archives collection staggers the imagination.

Alfred Weidinger, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Leipzig

“On the internet, what’s done is done”

Alfred Weidinger is an art historian and the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Leipzig, one of Germany’s largest exhibition venues. When he heard that the Arolsen Archives and the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site were making a collection of photographs of concentration camp survivors available for the “Coding da Vinci” culture hackathon, he criticized the use of this data on Twitter. We talked to Mr. Weidinger about his views on the publication of cultural data from the Nazi era.

The most important questions in relation to the online archive

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