With the approach of the Allied troops, the Nazi regime set about systematically destroying all the key incriminating documents, in particular those providing evidence of the persecution and extermination of the European Jews. Mountains of documents were burnt directly in the back courtyards of the ministry buildings and other Nazi offices, while whole truckloads were transported to large incineration facilities. An inconceivably immense amount of evidence was irrevocably lost in the flames, while a great deal of material was also destroyed in Allied air raids. After the war prosecutors and historians embarked on the arduous search for the remaining documents and began the enormous task of assessing and analysing the material.

Despite the immense losses, those responsible had documented their own crimes in such detail and length that gradually enough evidence was found for a viable reconstruction of what had taken place between 1933 and 1945. Scores of documents had survived, either overlooked during the systematic destruction or not disposed of because of the sheer lack of time. The most extensive collections of material from Nazi administrations and institutions relevant for the vast theme of “The Germans and the Holocaust” can be found in the Bundesarchiv in Berlin and its branches. The documents of regional authorities are located today in the archives of the federal German states (or in the case of the former German eastern territories, in the corresponding archives in Poland), while those pertaining to local authorities are in the respective city and municipal archives. Numerous key collections are deposited in archives overseas (see below). Please also take a look at the introduction to the sources in the other panels.

Administrative documents generated during the Nazi Era exhibit a peculiar form of camouflage when referring to murderous actions. To quote just one infamous example (there are many more), they speak of “special treatment” when referring to executions. It is in secret documents (such as the Ereignismeldungen of the Einsatzgruppen) that more explicit terms were used more broadly and not by mistake. Even some contemporary private German sources (such as private letters from the front) were usually subject to censorship, so that only few of these sources refer to violence directly. Parallel to official sources from the various institutions, authorities and churches, an array of important documents has been left behind by underground groups in the German Reich and occupied territories, the governments and secret services of Allied and neutral states, as well as individuals who were directly affected by events or observed them: statements and opinions, correspondence via telegram or letter, pamphlets, intelligence reports, and much more.

The criminal proceedings against Nazi perpetrators not only brought to light important documents for the post-war trials, but also provided historiography with further material for reconstructing and interpreting Nazi crimes. Investigative commissions, criminal investigators and historians endeavoured to make the documents accessible to the public. Hundreds of volumes of documents were published in most European languages, albeit frequently without adhering to scholarly standards. Often the selection of sources was arbitrary and they were neither annotated nor historically contextualised. The trial and de-Nazification records compiled in the immediate post-war period also became valuable source collections for researching the Nazi era. Besides the files of the Nuremberg trials against the major war criminals (in part published and fully available in copy), present in many institutions, and the trials conducted by the US military – known as the subsequent Nuremberg trials –, trials against German and other Nazi perpetrators took place in the Allied occupation zones in Germany and practically all countries affected by the Second World War.

For the topics under discussion here, the trials held in Germany are of particular interest, not least because they also included events and developments prior to the outbreak of the war in 1939. The majority of proceedings instigated by German state prosecutors took place during Allied occupation (1945-1949), before the founding of the Federal Republic and the GDR. It was first in 1958 that a central preliminary investigation authority was founded, the Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen zur Aufklärung nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen (abbrev. as ZStL, Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes). In Ludwigsburg, it was set up as a joint facility of the West German State Justice Administrations. Today, a branch of the Bundesarchiv in Ludwigsburg is charged with preserving those records which are no longer required by the Central Office and making them accessible to researchers. Users who are interested in the further course of investigations handed over by the ZStL to local prosecutors’ offices or looking for cases which took place before the setting-up of the ZStL in 1958 thus need to look for these files in the respective German State Archive(s), in the case of East German investigations, with the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (Der Bundesbeauftragte für die Stasi-Unterlagen, or BStU, []). Researchers wishing to get an overview of all cases for Nazi crimes before German prosecutors and courts can apply for a local search in a database at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich []. For cases that actually went to trial, most of the judgments have been published and can also be acquired digitally [].

It is important for researchers who look into post-war judicial proceedings to recognise the special reasons why these sources were collected and came into being. The prosecutors were interested in convicting individuals for specific crimes. Thus, witness statements were only of interest to them if they were useful in this regard (exhibiting no interest in questions which may be of importance to a researcher reading these sources today). Post-war statements by Germans in these trials (and, similarly, in de-Nazification proceedings) tend to be extremely evasive on any matter that touches upon possible guilt (while questioning, a witness could quickly turn into a suspect). They often resorted to the obfuscation of the truth. Nevertheless, these millions of trial records are a highly important source for many different questions – which can be unlocked if the circumstances of their origin and proper source criticism are taken into account.

The perspective of Jewish victims was reflected primarily in the correspondence of Jewish organisations and institutions, in personal sources (letters, diaries) and in articles published in the Jewish foreign press. Already while under the pressure of persecution, Jews had begun to ensure that their fate and reactions could later be researched from their perspective [see Ghettos under Nazi Rule - About the Sources] Those amongst them who were not murdered continued these efforts: immediately after liberation, survivors, most of them of Eastern European background, founded historical commissions or documentation centres, motivated by the urgent need “to chronicle, witness, and testify”, as Laura Jockusch has shown in her study (Jokusch 2012, 4). Above all, Poland and France are noted for these activities, but this can also be reconstructed for the German-speaking areas of particular relevance here: camps for displaced persons in Germany, Austria and Italy were true centres of documentation and early research into the genocide during the immediate post-war years. Activists took the documents collected in the DP camps on German territory with them to Israel in 1948/49, forming the basis of the Yad Vashem archives.

The Israeli memorial and research centre Yad Vashem was founded in 1953 in remembrance of the Nazi extermination of the Jews and to ensure the scholarly documentation of its events. The archive meanwhile comprises a collection of over 58 million pages of documentation and more than 138 000 photographs. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum also possesses an impressive collection of substantial documents. Since its opening in 1993, the USHMM has acquired documents from around the world, some of them original, most however in copy or microfilmed from archive holdings in a variety of countries. This is particularly interesting with regard to documents in Eastern European archives, for they can now be viewed conveniently. Many documents of German provenance, which are of great importance in the current context, can be accessed in Washington, whereas some are in the meantime once again inaccessible at their original location.

Jewish reactions to German persecution are at the centre of a new five volume documentary edition project which is currently being published by the USHMM: “Jewish Responses to Persecution, 1933–1946” offers important and representative sources, presenting different contemporary Jewish perspectives in chronological order. [].

The research sources have broadened considerably since the end of the Cold War and the opening of Eastern European archives. Many themes and issues can now be dealt with on a broader footing than previously. This was also the case for many Western European archives, which had only gradually declassified their originally restricted documents.

One source of considerable value are the secret reports on the prevailing mood and situation in Germany. Supported by an extensive network of informers, the Security Service (SD) closely monitored shifts in the moods, opinions and attitudes of the German population. Edited by Heinz Boberach, this source material was published in 17 volumes in 1984/85 under the title Meldungen aus dem Reich. Die geheimen Lageberichte des Sicherheitsdienstes der SS 1938-1945. Reports were also compiled by administrative and judicial bodies, the police, the SD and Gestapo as well as the Nazi Party and its organisations. Senior authorities, officials and functionaries attached great importance to gaining an accurate picture of the situation ‘on the ground’ as possible, using the collected information to gauge which measures the population could be expected to accept at which point in time. In 2004, Otto Kulka and Eberhard Jäckel published Die Juden in den geheimen NS-Stimmungsberichten (English edition 2010: The Jews in the Secret Nazi Reports on Popular Opinion in Germany, 1933-1945), a selection of these reports from March 1933 through to March 1945, complemented by numerous hitherto unpublished documents, contemporary writings, organigrams, drawings and photographs concerning the everyday lives – and of course the persecution and extermination – of Jews under the Nazi regime. Another important source for reconstructing the attitude and behaviour of the non-Jewish German population are the contemporary diaries, albeit these are not always easy to find. Therefore, coincidences still play a key role in locating new sources. For instance, the Arbeitsstelle Holocaustliteratur, an interdisciplinary research unit at the Justus-Liebig University, Gießen, has published the extremely informative diaries of Friedrich Kellner from Laubach in Hesse, which were entrusted to Laubach’s American-born grandson in 1968 and featured in an exhibition in the US. [Document E01] Researchers interested in this thematic complex should also consider the little-known archive in Emmendingen specialising in diaries, the Deutsche Tagebucharchiv.

The protocols of the secret recordings of conversations between German generals held captive near London represent an unusual and interesting source. These recordings were published by Sönke Neitzel in 2005, with an English edition released in 2007, Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942-45. The transcripts give an insight into the minds of the officers who, amongst other topics, speak about the “fun” they had killing, but also their fear as to what would happen to them should their atrocities were made public. [Document E05]

As already mentioned, many source editions relating to various regions and thematic fields have been published. Presumably the most important one is currently being compiled:

The 16-volume documentation Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland 1933-1945.

The documentary collection brings together a comprehensive range of central sources on the persecution of Jews during the Nazi period. The 16 volumes are divided into sections based on the respective territory and chronology. Many of the sources will be published for the first time. The selection presents documents from the perpetrators as well as testimonies of the victims and relevant material from third parties not directly involved. An extensive introduction at the beginning of each volume explains the context of the documents. Research and commentary are handled by experienced Holocaust experts. The editorial project is jointly administered by three institutions in Germany: the Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv), the Institute of Contemporary History Munich-Berlin (Institut für Zeitgeschichte) and the Chair of Modern History at the University of Freiburg.

Concentrating on contemporary documents so as to avoid a complicated source-critical classification of evidence and witness material, memoirs and oral history, the project faces the – by no means simple – task of locating sources from different perspectives on all the events. Especially key perpetrator documents often only exist in fragmentary form. The perspective of “third parties” allows some leeway in the selection of sources and can also include views from the “outside”, for example reports by foreign diplomats or press. Private letters and diary entries – where the author is not personally affected – describing the marginalisation and exclusion of Jews are drawn on. Finding sources from the victim perspective becomes increasingly difficult with the onset of the mass deportations in 1941/42, but through global archival research it is hoped that this perspective can be adequately represented in different ways up to 1945: the sources here range from children’s newspapers published in the ghettos to accounts given by Jewish emigrants in exile.

The translation of the 16 volumes in English has already started and will be published in collaboration with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.


Sonja Schilcher, Giles Bennett

Next chapter: A Society of Exclusion