Commentary, Release all government records created before 1946!
Old news keeps appearing. Regular readers of HRWG News will know that in the past few issues news items about World War II records are grouped under the heading of the war, simply because there have been so many of them. But we are also seeing a lot of stories about old records that are not open. “Good reads” in this issue has a complaint by a Turkish historian over lack of access to Turkey’s World War I era-records, a complaint that would be echoed by researchers trying to understand what happened during the period of the Armenian genocide. Turkey is not alone, of course. For example, in November 2014 Spain’s defense ministry refused to declassify records from the 1930s Civil War and the Francisco Franco dictatorship, saying it had “insufficient resources to analyze their contents.” A case before the European Court of Human Rights was brought by Mikhail Suprun who, along with the archivist who provided him the records, was convicted in a Russian court for violating ‘personal and family secret’ information while studying cases of ethnic Germans who were repressed and committed to special settlements in Arkhangelsk oblast during and after World War II. The records of the Japanese military during World War II are only selectively available.
Other countries and international institutions are opening early twentieth century records without problems. In 2014, for example, the United Nations opened the WWII War Crimes Commission records; the World War II era records of the French railroad, which transported victims to roundups that led to German extermination camps, were opened; the Vatican promised to open its World War II records. The personnel and related records of the NSDAP(Germany’s Nazi party) and its affiliated organizations and activities from the founding of the Party in 1920 until 1945 have been open at the U.S. National Archives for two decades.
Think of the issues that could be at least somewhat clarified by the release of all government records through World War II. Today the intellectual actors behind the wars of the first half of the 20th century are long dead, and most of the participants still alive were youths hauled into service. If we could agree that the government records through World War II would be opened without further review, consider what would be available: we could better understand the slaughter of the Spanish Civil War, the Turkish point of view during the attacks against Armenians, the Japanese Army’s organization of the “comfort women” stations throughout Asia, the purges in the Soviet Union. Although we would not have the records of the often bloody end of colonialism, we would know more about the administration of the colonies than we do now. And even if we continue to close records relating to pensions for people who are still alive, we would know far more about the people who lived during those turbulent decades.
As Melanie Altanian points out in her recent publication for swisspeace, “Archives against Genocide Denialism?” opening records does not at all guarantee that the records will be understood or believed: there are both selective use of archival material and the denial of particular evidence to contend with. But surely, surely it is better to argue about records that everyone can use than hypothesize based on partial evidence and records we can’t see. Nearly a century since the end of World War I, 72 long years since the end of World War II, it is time that governments open all their records through 1945.