History of the Political Archive and its holdings
Today, the Political Archive stores archive material covering over 26 linear kilometres. The structure of the record groups as well as a certain number of gaps in the records result from the Archive’s own eventful history since 1920. A basic understanding of this history is very important when planning archival research and critically analysing sources.
Establishing and setting up the Archive (1920–1936)
After the First World War, the Foreign Office was radically restructured. As part of this reform, named after the then head of staff at the Foreign Office, Schüler, a “Hauptarchiv” [main archive] was set up to store the files from the departments which had been closed down. The second founding feature of the Archive was the drafting of the edition “Die deutschen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch” (The German Documents on the Outbreak of War).
On 3 August 1920, the Hauptarchiv commenced its operations in the official premises at Wilhelmstrasse 75. Since 1924 it has been known as the Political Archive. This marked the beginning of the Foreign Office tradition of maintaining its own archives, independently of the archive set up by the German Empire (Reich) in 1919. It was first headed by Hermann Meyer (1883 - 1943), who had previously worked at the Prussian Secret State Archives. He put together a list of sources for the Foreign Office files which is still used today.
Independently of the Archive, but in close technical cooperation with it, a so-called “Guilt Division” was set up with the aim of analysing the historical and propagandist aspect of the issue of war guilt. This is where the first comprehensive edition of Foreign Office archive material was compiled, entitled “Die Große Politik der Europäischen Kabinette” [“The Grand Politics of the European Cabinets”].
When it was founded in 1870, the Foreign Office maintained the archives of the Prussian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Files which were no longer needed were occasionally handed over to the Prussian Secret State Archives. In 1921, following the establishment of the Political Archive, a division of responsibilities was adopted which stipulated that all files which had been closed prior to 1 January 1867 were to be kept in the Prussian Secret State Archives, whilst newer files were to be stored in the Political Archive.
The body of the files contained in the Political Archive is comprised of 20,000 volumes of files from the closed registry of the former Political Directorate-General (I A), the central office and the telegram office. Bit by bit, files from the “non-political” divisions and missions abroad were also added to the Archive. Due to a lack of storage space however, in 1930 “non-political” archive files from the period up to 1918 were also deposited in the Reich Archives, specifically files from:
- the Consular Directorate (I C)
- the Trade Policy Division (II)
- the former Legal Directorate-General (III)
In addition to this, from the outset the Reich Archives contained files from the Colonial Division (IV) which had been reopened as an independent office of the Empire (Reich) in 1907.
Related literature: Meyer 1920; Philippi 1959; Kröger 2012.
Evacuation and losses incurred during the war (1936–1945)
In 1936, during the Nazi dictatorship the “Guilt Division” was merged with the Political Archive and since then the archive has also served as a “historical division”. During the Second World War, the Political Archive was involved in raids of the archives of other countries’ foreign ministries which took place up to summer 1940. The seized files were all returned, at the latest by the end of the war.
1936 saw a further organisational reform, followed by the mass handover of files from the missions abroad in light of the danger of war following the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. This saturated the capacity of the Political Archive and forced more archive material to be transferred to the Reich Archives.
In 1943, archive director Johannes Ulrich (1902 – 1965), who had close ties to the national conservative resistance, initiated the process of evacuating the holdings of the Political Archive to palaces in the Harz mountains. The holdings that were moved included all documentation for the period up to 1920 and most of the material from 1920 to 1936. However, as they were being transported a large part of the classified files and parts of the documents from this period belonging to the Cultural Directorate-General were burned in a fire due to an accident.
Most of the files from the period from 1936 onwards which had still been needed for business ongoing in 1943 fell victim to bombs or, in the last few months of the war, deliberate destruction of Foreign Office premises. The losses cannot be precisely described – however, they affected in particular:
- files from the Political Directorate-General on countries with which the German Empire still maintained diplomatic relations in 1943
- files from the Office of the Reich Minister (which in any case have been partly preserved on microfilm)
- personnel files of officials still active in 1943
The evacuation sites of the Political Archive were not directly impacted by the war. In April 1945 the order was given to destroy the classified files, but the archivists working at the relevant locations delayed carrying it out, meaning losses were minimal. In the end predominantly archive material of the following provenance were incinerated:
- Political Directorate-General I Military
- Trade Policy Division
- the Embassy in Paris
Related literature: Hansen 1996; Kröger and Thimme 1999; Grupp 2002.
Safeguarding and return of archive material (1945–1951)
The Western Allies salvaged the contents of the Political Archive stored in other locations, amalgamated them with Foreign Office files found in Berlin as well as material from other sources (including the Reich Chancellery) and transferred them to Whaddon Hall in Great Britain in 1948. A selection from the archives were filmed and it is still possible to request duplicates of the films from the United States National Archives. The Oxford and Kent catalogues were compiled using the collection of material available with the help of old descriptive lists, and they served as the primary finding aids for the records until 1945. Eventually, work began on the edition “Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik 1918–1945” (ADAP) [“Files on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945”].
Overall, the Foreign Office archive material stored in the Reich Archives did not suffer any major war losses. The archives were safeguarded by the Soviet Union along with segments of the remaining office files from Foreign Office premises in Berlin and elsewhere, and they were transferred to the German Central Archives in Potsdam up to 1960. Remains of this archive material from the former Legal Directorate-General are still in the Special Archive of the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow or have gone missing.
In 1951, the Western Allies gave the Federal Republic of Germany the personnel and budget files which were needed in order to set up the new Federal Foreign Office. The Political Archive was reinstated as a division in order to to enable these files to be archived. By 1959, the remaining archive material had been transported to Bonn on the basis of an agreement concluded in 1956, and since then they have been fully accessible for research purposes. German historians participated, on an equal footing, in running the ADAP publication project.
The files of missions abroad left behind after 1938 had been either destroyed or confiscated by their host country when war broke out against Germany and/or at the end of the war. Nearly all of the files impounded since 1951 were returned, but the records offices of some missions abroad are still located in institutions belonging to foreign countries.
Related literature: Philippi 1960; Schmid 1962; Thimme 2001; Eckert 2004.
Two foreign policy archives (1951–2000)
After 1951 the Political Archive initially served as a selective archive which sought to store only files from the new Federal Foreign Office which were truly worthy of being retained. Just as in 1920, the systematic collection of material to be archived began with files from the political directorates-general. In order to fully unburden the registries of old files, a separate registry was set up and it was not merged with the Political Archive until 1968. Previously, due to space constraints, it had primarily destroyed files from the early 1950s from country divisions within the Economic Directorates-General.
The records centre was set up in 1972 as a comprehensive repository in which all files submitted from Germany are stored before being processed and allocated to the archive which corresponded to their provenance. A second comprehensive repository was set up for the archive material from the missions abroad. Work on processing the contents of the final archive began in earnest in the 1980s. In connection with this, the files from the Zentrale Rechtsschutzstelle [central legal protection office], which had been part of the Federal Foreign Office from 1953 to 1970, were handed over to the Federal Archives.
The edition of ADAP was concluded in 1995. At the same time, on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office, the Munich/Berlin Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ) started publishing the “Akten zur Auswärtigen Politik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland” [Files on the Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany – “AAPD”]. This annual publication presents the events which took place 30 years previously, the first edition on the year 1963 was released in 1993.
In 1951, an administrative archive to temporarily store files was set up in the Ministerium für Auswärtige Angelegenheiten der DDR [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the GDR – “MfAA”]. It obtained the status of “Endarchiv” [final archive], independent of the GDR’s state archive administration in 1966. Ultimately, the archive became responsible for:
- open files from the MfAA headquarters and missions abroad
- formerly classified files opened for public use
- interministerial agreements between the GDR and other countries
The personnel files and still-classified files were archived in other MfAA locations, GDR state treaties were stored at the Council of Ministers of the GDR. Following the unification of Germany, the Federal Foreign Office’s Agency for winding up the GDR Foreign Service merged these holdings with the MfAA archive and kept them in the depot building of the armoury in Berlin. The destruction or alienation of files in the last months of the GDR means there are gaps in the records for the late 1980s, in particular amongst files concerning the top echelons of the MfAA.
Move and consolidation (since 2000)
When the Federal Foreign Office moved in 2000, the Political Archive accompanied it from Bonn to Berlin. The stacks set up in the new headquarters in the former Reichsbank building on Kurstrasse store archive holdings from the Foreign Office and the MfAA, as well as documentation on the construction of the Reichsbank.
The sub-groups stored in the GDR’s German Central Archives were taken over by the Federal Archives in 1990. An archive exchange in 2008 facilitated a clearer overview of the distribution of the holdings. Since then, the Federal Archives have held all archive material dated up to 1918 from the former Legal Directorate-General, as well as those from the Trade Policy Division from the years it was in operation (1867 – 1920, 1936 – 1945). Since then, the Political Archive has housed the entire collection of archive material from:
- missions abroad
- personnel and administrative divisions
- country divisions (1920 – 1936)
Until a deadline rule was introduced on 1 January 2013, the Federal Republic of Germany’s classified files remained completely closed and could not be used. Nevertheless, since the first AAPD was compiled in 1993, a widely-used collection of copies of tens of thousands of de-restricted files (B 150 record group) has been developed. The classification period of restricted files of the German Empire and the GDR expired in 1945 and 1991.
Related literature: Biewer 2005; Walter 2009.