International Tracing Service, Arolsen

Already in 1944, the British government organized a Central Tracing Bureau for the registration and tracing of missing people resulting from Axis persecution. In 1955, after several reorganizations and relocations, the center ultimately was named International Tracing Service (ITS) and established with its permanent archives in the West-German town of Arolsen. It was put under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), with a governing commission of representatives of 11 countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, UK, USA).

The ITS’s purpose was limited to collecting documents on the fate of the victims of persecution by National-Socialist Germany, and assist survivors in filing compensations claims against Germany. Its archival material was not publicly accessible due to privacy and safety concerns for the former persecutees.

In 2007, the ITS opened its archives to the public, and extended its purpose to research and education. It moreover prepared copies of its archival material for each governing country. In 2012, the Red Cross withdrew from the ITS’s management. In 2019, the ITS started posting its archival material online, with the aim of making everything accessible online eventually.

Until 1993, the ITS sent out lists of registered deaths in National-Socialist camps on request, consisting of data contained in their archives. The total death toll of their victim lists steadily rose over the years as their documentation became more complete. It reached a value just short of 300,000 victims in 1993. This includes both Jews and non-Jews.

This figure stands in stark contrast to exclusively Jewish Holocaust death-toll figures of six million. However, the ITS lists only cases where a death can be ascertained by official documents, such as camp records documenting the death of an inmate. Most victims of the Holocaust are said to have been murdered in the so-called extermination camps or by the Ein­satz­grup­pen without ever having been registered or documented in any way. Hence, there is hardly any relationship between the ITS’s death-toll list and the claimed death toll for the Holocaust.

Furthermore, many of the documents preserved in Eastern European archives were not yet accessible to the ITS by 1993, let alone analyzed and integrated into their database. Therefore, the ITS’s data was highly incomplete, even for documented cases of camp deaths. This can be seen especially in the case of Auschwitz, where wartime camp documents show some 135,500 victims, whereas the ITS had data for only 60,056 of them in 1993.

As of this writing, the ITS’s archival material is accessible in a format that virtually prevents any user from tallying up victim numbers. This was probably done by design. However, once all the ITS documents have been made accessible and analyzed, it is likely that a more accurate overall death toll of documented victims will become available. That still leaves out the uncounted multitude of those whose fate might never be known.

Notably, there has never been a similar archival tracing of the victims of persecution by other participants in the Second World War, such as the roughly 12 million ethnic Germans expelled from East Germany and Eastern Europe toward the end and after the war, or the many victims of purges in territories reconquered or liberated from the German armed forces. These victims evidently don’t count.

(For more details, see Rudolf 2019, pp. 292-295; 2023, pp. 46f.; Kollerstrom 2023, pp. 91-96.)

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