German Administrative History and Traditions 1933–1945

Administrative history forms an important basis for diplomatics as it helps researchers to properly evaluate the hierarchical relationships between correspondents or identify the jurisdictions and briefs of the different authorities involved. A profound knowledge of administrative processes and traditions is a crucial prerequisite for correctly interpreting German-language document related to the Holocaust.

There are two parts to this introduction to German administrative history: In Part 1, we will look at the basic principles of administrative organisation and administrative behaviour in Germany, and in Part 2, we will try to give a brief overview of the administrative history of Nazi Germany. In order to highlight the specifics of this period, we felt it would be helpful to start with a description of the constitutional common practice in the civil service and the administration under the Weimar Republic and then sketch out the changes the Nazis made to these processes after coming to power.

1. The Structure of Public Administration  

1.1          Forms of organisation

Over the course of the 19th century, the principle of collective responsibility, which had governed German authorities and local government since the early modern period, was increasingly pushed back. This principle, also referred to as the principle of collegiality or Kollegialprinzip in German, meant that decisions were made by groups of officials on the same level of authority. By the time the Nazis came to power, the only sector where this principle was still in place was the judiciary, and this has remained true until today. It was replaced by a monocratic form of organisation, where the final responsibility for all decisions made lays exclusively with one person at the top of the organisational hierarchy. This is why, for example, documents from the Reich Ministry of Finance were usually headed and signed “Der Reichminister der Finanzen” (The Reich Finance Minister) and not “Das Reichsfinanzministerium” (The Reich Ministry of Finance). The head of an official institution bore the overall responsibility for decisions made under his authority, although all decisions could not conceivably be made by one person alone. Therefore, individual briefs were delegated to subordinate officials with titles such as Dezernent, Referent or Referatsleiter (Department or Division Head). These subordinates, however, did not act on their own initiative, but always on the orders of the institution’s head. This is also expressed in the style found in documents from these institutions, which are usually written either in a generalised style using the passive and general pronouns like man, or in the first person, while earlier documents, produced under the principle of collective responsibility, are often written in the first person plural.


1.2          The three-tier administrative structure

To all intents and purposes, German public administration followed a strictly hierarchical three- or four-tier system with the ministries at the top. Although the Chancellor held policy-making authority even over the ministries assembled in the cabinet, the ministries independently worked on their respective portfolios, and their authority extended to the subordinate authorities and agencies within their fields. This hierarchy is known in German as Ressortprinzip or portfolio principle. Separation of power meant that there was strict separation between the judiciary and the state administration.

The administration was divided into three hierarchical levels:

  • At the top of this hierarchy were the administrative authorities in charge of the entire Reich territory, i.e. the top-level agencies which were not subordinate to any others, such as the ministries, the Audit Office (Rechnungshof) etc., as well as the upper-level agencies, which were subordinate to a ministry.
  • The second level assembled the middle-level agencies with regional briefs, which usually served to provide a regional basis for central national administration. However, this middle level did not exist in all areas. It was particularly well developed in the field of finance (with agencies like the regional finance offices), the Reich Post Office and the Reich Railway.
  • The third level consisted of lower-level agencies with local authority such as the (main) customs or post offices (Zollämter, Postämter). In some cases, however, local administration was also carried out by state or local government institutions or other public bodies.

1.3          Public and local administration

Public administration is the implementation of government policies and the management of public services through the state’s own agencies on both a national and a local level. In the case of Nazi Germany, this applies to both Reich- and state-level agencies and authorities. Only in some fields, like finance, which includes taxation, Reich agency structures extended directly all the way down to the lowest level of administration. In fact, administrative tasks on this lowest organisational level were often carried out by local government agencies subordinate to municipal or district authorities, which also had other, exclusively local briefs. This applied to District Administrators (Landräte) for example, who worked with and for both national and local government agencies. Not all administrative tasks were carried out directly by Reich administrative agencies. Some tasks were also devolved to agencies and public institutions which only indirectly answered to the Reich government, like the employment agencies.


1.4          Public officials, state employees and public service workers


The staff of German public administration fell (and falls) into two categories: tenured public officials or civil servants (Beamte) on one side, and state employees and public service workers with private-law work contracts on the other. Tenured officials in Germany were and are in charge of implementing government policies and providing public services and administration as prescribed by laws. They are therefore tied to the state through a special employment status and an oath of loyalty. At their appointment to their office, which, after a successful trial period, they will hold for the rest of their lives, officials pledge allegiance to the constitution. While the salaries for state employees and public service workers are regulated according to collective labour agreements, while the salaries of public officials are regulated by law and aim to provide officials with the financial means of leading a lifestyle that is adequate to their office. Tenured officials can hold many different ranks and are on one of four distinct career tracks, depending on their training, academic degree, experience and responsibility. The lowest of these career tracks is referred to as low-level public service (einfacher Dienst), followed by mid-level, upper-level and top-level public service (mittlerer, gehobener and höherer Dienst). The latter usually includes significant executive powers. An official’s title indicate the bearer’s rank and salary, while a specifying addition often also indicates the field and overall administrative structure in which an official works. For example, the title of Regierungssekretärin (lit. government secretary) indicates that the bearer is female and works in general administration, while a Zollinspektor works in the customs service, a Kriminalrat is a higher-ranking police officer with the Kriminalpolizei (CID), and a Reichsbahndirektor is a high-ranking official with the Reich Railway. The titles and ranks of public officials usually have equivalents in the Wehrmacht, the Police and the SS.

1.5          Administrative structure

The institutions of German public administration are all based on a very hierarchical structure. At the top of each agency, ministry, or other institution is a chief official whose title, depending on the agency he or she heads, is usually Minister, President or Director. The mid- and low-level structure of these agencies is usually divided into departments (Abteilungen), and sometimes also into main and subordinate departments (Hauptabteilungen and Unterabteilungen). These departments in turn, are then further divided into divisions (Referate).

This organisational structure of German public administration can be easily illustrated using organisational charts, and these were regularly produced. Much more detailed information including the names of all staff members and their individual responsibilities can be gained from a Schedule of Authority (Geschäftsverteilungsplan).

->           Cf the examples given under Diplomatics: Tools


1.6          Traditional administrative principles based on the rule of law


  • Written documentation: Ensures that the state of affairs and development of a case are documented and traceable in files.
  • Legality: All government and administrative measures must be in accordance with applicable law (i.e. the constitution, individual statutes or other legal regulations).
  • : Administrative measures must consider the competing interests and freedoms of different parties fairly and proportionately, and the means employed in a measure must be proportionate to its aim.
  • : An administration should treat equal facts equally, irrespective of their contexts.


2.          The state and administrative structure of the Weimar Republic

2.1          German Reich

o Government: parliamentary republic

o A federal state where legislative, judicial and executive authority was held by both the federal government and the constituent states (and where both often held competing legislative authorities). In comparison to the imperial constitution of 1871, however, considerable authority passed from the states to the federal government, for example through the creation of the Reich Tax Office (Reichsfinanzverwaltung), the different railways were concentrated in the national railway company, the Reichbahngesellschaft, and all military matters passed under the authority of the federal government.

o The Reichstag was the Weimar Republic’s parliament where elected members represented the people. The constitution guaranteed universal suffrage for all German citizens from the age of 20 as well as direct election, equal voting rights and a secret ballot.

o The Reichsrat was the second legislative body made up of representatives of the states. It held only vetoing powers, and its decisions could be overturned by a 2/3 majority in the Reichstag or a referendum.

o The Reichspräsident was the head of state, elected directly for a period of seven years. The President represented the country on an international level, appointed state officials and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, the Reichswehr. He held the power to dissolve the Reichstag and, in national emergencies, could govern by emergency decree based on Article 48 of the constitution.

o The Reich government (Reichsregierung) consisted of the Chancellor (Reichskanzler) and the ministers (Reichsminister), i.e. the cabinet.

o Top-level Reich agencies (ministries):

  • Reich Chancellery (Reichskanzlei)
  • Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt)
  • Reich Ministry of the Interior (Reichsministerium des Innern)
  • Reich Ministry of Justice (Reichsjustizministerium)
  • Reich Ministry of Finance (Reichsfinanzministerium)
  • Reich Ministry of Economics (Reichswirtschaftsministerium)
  • Reich Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Forestry (Reichsministerium für Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Forsten)
  • Reich Ministry of Labour (Reichsarbeitsministerium)
  • Reich Post Ministry (Reichspostministerium)
  • Reich Ministry of Transport (Reichsverkehrsministerium)
  • Reichswehr Ministry (Reichswehrministerium)

      Other top-level Reich agencies:

  • Reich Audit Office (Rechnungshof des Deutschen Reiches)
  • Reich Debt Commission (Reichsschuldenkommission)
  • Reichsbank (the Central Bank, not always independent)

o Subordinate agencies:

Upper-level agencies (Oberbehörden) which carried out direct administration on the federal level. These included the army (Heer), the National Railway (Reichsbahn), the Reich Waterway Agency (Reichswasserstraßenverwaltung), the Reich Finance Office (Reichsfinanzverwaltung, in charge of taxes, customs, construction and compensation), the Reich Social Services Office (Reichsversorgung), the Reich Postal Service and, partially, the Reich Labour Office (Reichsarbeitsverwaltung).

o  Judiciary:

  • Ordinary courts which cover civil, criminal and non-contentious jurisdiction
  • Hierarchy of courts: local courts (Amtsgerichte), district or regional courts (Landgerichte, LG) and higher regional courts (Oberlandesgerichte, OLG)
  • Courts with special jurisdiction like fiscal courts (Finanzgerichte), administrative courts (Verwaltungsgerichte) or labour courts (Arbeitsgerichte)
  • The Reichsgericht in Leipzig, the country’s supreme criminal and civil court, which also served as the federal and constitutional court in disputes between states, for example

o Archival institutions for documents from the Reich’s agencies and institutions:

  • Reichsarchiv: founded in 1919 to absorb the files from the many military and otherwise war-related institutions which had been disbanded. Also in charge of storing documents from the top- and higher-level agencies of the Reich. Precursor organisation of the Bundesarchiv.
  • Due to their regional character, documents produced by mid- and lower-level institutions and agencies of public administration were (and still are) archived in the respective state archives (Staatsarchive).

2.2          Constituent states of the German Reich

  • Following the integration process, which came to a close in 1929, the German Reich was made up of 17 different states (Länder)
  • The states had their own governments, government agencies and constitutions
  • The states differed considerably in size, with Lübeck as the smallest and Prussia as the largest state, which led to marked differences in administrative practice. Prussia alone covered two-thirds of the area of the German Reich and held three-fifths of the overall number of inhabitants.
  • The state of Prussia was divided into provinces which were each headed by a High Commissioner (Oberpräsident), administrative regions (Regierungsbezirke) with their own regional presidents (Regierungspräsidenten), and districts (Landkreise) headed by district commissioners (Landräte) on the lowest level of state administration. Local government, in turn, was divided into districts with district assemblies and district councils (Kreistage and Kreisausschüsse) and different municipalities.


3          Changes to the Reich administration post-1933

 3.1           Changes to the relationship between the Reich and the states

The two Laws for the Synchronisation of the State with the Reich, known as the Gleichschaltung Laws, were passed as early as spring 1933 (31 March and 7 April). They ordered the state parliaments to be synchronised with the results of the Reichstag elections of 5 March 1933 and transferred many administrative powers from the states to the Reich. The new Reich Government appointed State Governors (Reichsstatthalter) with dictatorial authority. They were superior to the state governments, had the power to appoint or dismiss state officials and judges and held legislative powers on the state level. However, the state governments and their interior, education, finance and, in some cases, economic ministries continued to exist, even though the states had lost almost all of their autonomy.

In 1934, most of the Prussian administration was merged with the Reich administration except for the Prussian state government (Staatsministerium) and the Prussian finance ministry. The latter later lost its independence because of Minister Popitz’s involvement in the 20 July plot. The new ministries were initially referred to as “Reich and Prussian” ministries (Reichs- und Preußisches Ministerium für XYZ), but by 1938, following the Anschluss or annexation of Austria, these double names had mostly been abolished. In some cases, this had happened even earlier, like in the case of the Reich Justice Ministry (Reichsjustizministerium), which was renamed in 1936.


3.2           Changes to the Reich Administration

Up until the middle of WWII, administrative activities on the federal level, particularly at the top of the hierarchy, increased constantly. Independent top-level Reich agencies were created for fields that had hitherto been treated as secondary. The tasks of the Reich Administration also expanded as responsibilities were shifted from the states to the Reich.

a) Newly established ministries or top-level Reich agencies (the “classic” form):

  • 1933: Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda)
  • 1933: Reich Ministry of Aviation (Reichministerium der Luftfahrt)
  • 1934: Reich Ministry of Science, Education and Culture (Reichsministerium für Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung)
  • 1934: Hans Frank appointed Reich Minister without Portfolio (actually in charge of judiciary reform)
  • 1934: Reich Forestry Commission (Reichsforstamt,  initially part of the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture) with Goering at the head as Reich Forestry Commissioner and Master of the Hunt
  • 1935: Reich Office for Land Use Planning (Reichsstelle für Raumordnung)
  • 1935: Reich Ministry for Church Affairs (Reichsministerium für Kirchenangelegenheiten)
  • 1938: Responsibilities held by the Reich War Ministry (Reichskriegsministerium) pass to the Wehrmacht High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) with Hitler as Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief
  • 1940: Reich Ministry for Armament and Munitions (Reichsministerium für Bewaffnung und Munition), renamed Reich Ministry for Armaments and War Production (Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion) in 1943
  • 1941: Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories (Reichsministerium für die besetzten Ostgebiete)


b) Plenipotentiaries with special responsibilities (Sonderbeauftragte): Special posts were created for tasks which Hitler was particularly interested in or which had particular political urgency. These plenipotentiaries were able to act independently from the Reich agencies and allowed the government to leave their portfolios formally unchanged. They were allocated their own funds and recruited their own staff. They answered directly to Hitler and enjoyed his full confidence. Examples for such posts were:

  • The Inspector General of German Roadways (Generalinspekteur für das deutsche Straßenwesen), created in 1933. Office held by Fritz Todt, who established Organisation Todt initially to carry out roadworks. Todt was succeeded by Albert Speer following his death in a plane crash in 1942
  • Inspector General of Construction for the Reich’s Capital (Generalbauinspektor für die Reichshauptstadt), created in 1937. Office held by Albert Speer


c) Newly established offices and institutions:

o Central Offices and Agencies:

  • Plenipotentiary for the Four Year Plan (Beauftragter für den Vierjahresplan), office in charge of economic planning and achieving economic autonomy, created in 1936 and held by Hermann Göring, to whom other Reich Commissars (Reichskommissare) and Plenipotentiaries (Generalbevollmächtigte) reported
  • Ministerial Council for the Defence of the Reich (Ministerrat für die Reichsverteidigung), made up of Lammers (Head of the Reich Chancellery), Funk (Reich Economic Ministry), Frick (Interior Minister), Keitel (Chief of the Wehrmacht High Command) and Hess (Chief of the Party Chancellery). During the war, the Ministerial Council essentially ran Germany’s affairs of state
  • Plenipotentiary for Total War (Beauftragter für den totalen Krieg ), office held by Goebbels

o Mid-level offices:

  • Inside the Reich: Reich Governors (Reichsstatthalter)
  • In the annexed territories: Reich Commissariat (Reichskommissariat, Saar territories), Reichsgaue (Reich administrative regions, Austria and annexed eastern Territories)

The areas coved by the Reichsgaue in Austria and the eastern territories were usually identical with the Nazi Party administrative regions known as Parteigaue. The same person usually also held the offices of Reich Governor and Gauleiter for one administrative region, which meant that the office holder controlled federal administration (including the Regierungsbezirke), regional administration of the Gaue, and regional and local Party offices. This amalgamation of government and Party offices was typical for Nazi Germany.

o The police:

  • After the Nazis came to power, they established and expanded the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police), made it increasingly independent of other agencies and put it in charge of political matters
  • In 1936, Hitler created the office of Chief of the German Police (Chef der Deutschen Polizei), which centralised the structure of the different police forces on a Reich level. Himmler, who already held the office of Reichsführer SS, was appointed to this post. From then on, the German Police was divided into two constituent forces:

            a) The Ordnungspolizei (Orpo or Order Police) charged with keeping up law and order

  b) The Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo or Security Police, which included the Gestapo and the Kripo or CID and other agencies) charged with investigating criminal and/or subversive activities

  • In 1939, Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA) is established by merging the Sipo and the Party’s security service, the SD (Sicherheitsdienst). This cements the close connection between the SS and the police

o The judiciary:

  • The Nazis made no fundamental changes to the judicial system, but excerted increasing political influence over the courts
  • In 1934, the People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof) was established as the highest court for cases of (high) treason and other political offences such as “subversion of the war effort” (Wehrkraftzersetzung). Cases which were considered less grave were usually referred to the Higher Regional Courts (OLG).
  • Special courts (Sondergerichte) were set up for political offences less grave than treason. These were initially only attached to the Higher Regional Courts (OLG), later also to most of the District Courts (LG)
  • Other special courts (Spezialgerichte) established under the Nazis were: a) the so-called Hereditary Health Courts (Erbgesundheitsgerichte); b) Local Inheritance Courts (Anerbengerichte, incorporated into the local courts), State Inheritance Courts (Landeserbhofgerichte) and the Reich Inheritance Court (Reichserbhofgericht) located  in Celle; c) Reich Administrative Court (Reichsverwaltungsgericht, established in 1941), located in Berlin; d) courts-martial
  • Hitler becomes the Supreme Judge of the entire German judiciary (1942)

The Reich government also interfered in local government and different self-administration processes through synchronisation and mandatory memberships:

o In economic life:

   a. Sectional organisation: The different business associations were forced to conform to the new organisational structure set up for the German economy. This structure (Organisation der Gewerblichen Wirtschaft) was made up of the following trade groups:

  • Reich groups (Reichsgruppen)
  • Industry groups (Wirtschaftsgruppen)
  • Trade groups (Fachgruppen)
  • Trade sub-groups (Fachuntergruppen)

   b. Regional organisation:

  • Reich Chamber of Commerce (Reichswirtschaftskammer)
  • Gau Chambers of Commerce (Gauwirtschaftskammern)
  • Local Chambers of Commerce (Wirtschaftskammern or Industrie- und Handelskammern)

Organisational structure of cultural life and the liberal professions:

Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer), Reich Literature Chamber, (Reichsschrifttumskammer), Reich Theatre Chamber (Reichsheaterkammer), Reich Music Chamber (Reichsmusikkammer), Reich Chamber for Fine Arts (Reichskammer der bildenden Künste), Reich Film Chamber (Reichsfilmkammer), Reich Press Chamber (Reichspressekammer), Reich Broadcast Chamber (Reichsrundfunkkammer, dissolved in 1937)


d) New legislative procedures

  • Taking away powers from the Reichstag: The last Reichstag elections in which several parties competed for votes were held on 5 March 1933. The Enabling Act of 24 March 1933 transferred all of the Reichstag’s legislative powers to the Reich government and thereby to Hitler’s cabinet. From July 1933, the NSDAP was the only party represented in the Reichstag.
  • The frequency and significance of cabinet meetings was greatly reduced after the passing of the Enabling Act, as they were no longer needed for discussing policy issues or decision making. The last cabinet meeting was held on 5 February 1938.
  • Hitler either communicated directly with the different ministers or indirectly through Hans-Heinrich Lammers, the head of the Reich Chancellery (Reichskanzlei) or Martin Bormann, the Head of the Party Chancellery (Parteikanzlei. Until 1941, this office was called the Office of the Deputy of the Führer, Stab des Stellvertreters des Führers). These high-ranking officials achieved additional importance because they had direct access to Hitler. New legislation was usually discussed and passed in meetings of department heads with or without the Fuehrer or by written consent in lieu of meetings. This correspondence was held between the different ministries and coordinated by the Reich Chancellery.
  • Fuehrer decrees (Führererlasse): This was legislation by decree, issued directly by Reich Chancellor and Fuehrer Adolf Hitler without the participation of any other legislative authority. These decrees were legally binding with immediate effect for all German administrative bodies and all German citizens.


3.3         Territorial changes to the Reich: annexed and occupied territories

a. Incorporated territories:

Before the outbreak of WWII, Hitler expanded the territory of the Reich three times. First by incorporating the Saarland following a referendum in 1935, then by annexing Austria and occupying the Sudetenland in 1938.

After Poland was defeated in WWII, several parts of the country were incorporated into the German Reich including the Danzig-Westpreußen, Wartheland and Eastern Upper Silesia Reichsgaue.

b. Administratively autonomous territories annexed by the Reich:

In 1939, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the General Government were annexed by the Reich as “additional states” (Nebenländer). Their governments and administration answered directly to Hitler.

c. Planned annexations:

The following territories occupied by the Reich were earmarked for annexation: Luxemburg, Lorraine (Lothringen), Alsace (Elsass), Upper Carniola/Kranj (Oberkrain-Krain), Southern Styria (Südsteiermark) and Bialystok, and from 1943 the Operational Zone of the Alpine Foothills (Operationszone Alpenvorland) and the Operational Zone of the Adriatic Littoral (Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland). These territories were usually governed by a Chief of Civilian Administration (Chef der Zivilverwaltung, CdZ) who answered directly to Hitler and usually also held the office of Gauleiter in a neighbouring district inside the Reich.

d. Occupied territories:

Different administrative systems were in place for those German-occupied territories which were not (or at least not openly) earmarked for annexation. Some were governed by military administrations like Serbia, Greece, France and Belgium or by civilian Reich Commissioners (Reichskommissare) like Norway, the Netherlands, the Baltic states and Ukraine or by Plenipotentiaries like in the cases of Denmark, Hungary or Croatia.

See in detail the list of the various territorial changes:



3.4          The Military

The Minister of the Reichswehr, an office created in 1919, held the supreme command over all parts of the armed forced (the army or Reichswehr, the navy or Reichsmarine etc.).

As a result of the Defence Law (Wehrgesetz) passed on 21 May 1935, the Ministry of the Reichswehr was renamed Reich War Ministry (Reichkriegsministerium). The Office for Ministerial Affairs (Ministeramt) was attached to the ministry from 1929. This task force was renamed Office for Wehrmacht Affairs (Wehrmachtamt) in 1934 and reorganised into the Wehrmacht High Command on 4 February 1938.

The army (Heer):

The Army’s chief of staff was the Chief of Army Command (Chef der Heeresleitung). The post was renamed Commander-in-Chief of the Army (Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres, ObdH) on 1 June 1935, and from 11 January 1936, the office was called Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, OKH). It consisted of the General Staff (Generalstab) and four offices: the Army Personnel Office (Heerespersonalamt), the Army Administrative Office (Heeresverwaltungsamt), the General Army Office (Allgemeines Heeresamt) and the Army Ordnance Office (Heereswaffenamt). On 19 December 1941, Hitler became Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

The navy (Marine):

From 1919, the Admiralty was highest office in the German navy. On 15 September 1920, it was renamed  (als Spitzenbehörde), 15.9.1920 in Marineleitung (ML), zum 1.6.1935 in Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (OKM) umbenannt.

The air force (Luftwaffe):

Soon after taking power, the Nazis began to disregard the ban on any kind of military aviation set out in the Treaty of Versailles. From 1933, Göring worked on the establishment and expansion of the Luftwaffe, first as Reich Commissioner for Air Traffic (Reichskommissar für den Luftverkehr) and then as Reich Minister of Aviation (Reichsminister der Luftfahrt). With the appointment to the latter post, Göring also became Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe (Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe).

A decree passed on 4 February 1938 made Hitler commander in chief of the entire armed forces. The Office for Wehrmacht Affairs was renamed Wehrmacht High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, OKW) and was made Hitler’s personal military staff. The position of Chief of Wehrmacht High Command, a cabinet position equal in rank to the other ministers, was created for Wilhelm Keitel. He took over the portfolio of the former Minister for War.


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