History of the Political Archive and its holdings

The Political Archive in the 1950s

The Political Archive in the 1950s, © Bundesregierung


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 archive, 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 composed a publication in the field of diplomatic concerning the files of the Foreign Office that has not been replaced to this day.

Independently of the Archive, but in close technical cooperation with it, a so-called “Schuldreferat” was set up to deal in a historical and propagandistic manner with the question 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 younger files were to be archived in the Political Archive.

The basis of the Political Archive was comprised of 20,000 files of the closed registry of the former Political Department (IA), the central office and the telegram office. Bit by bit, files from the “non-political” departments and missions abroad were also added to the archive. However, in 1930 due to a lack of storage space “non-political” files from the period up to 1918 were also deposited in the National Archives (Reichsarchiv), specifically files from:

* the Consular Department (IC)
* the Commercial Department (II)
* the Legal Department (III).

From the outset the National Archives contained files from the Colonial Department (IV) which had been established as an independent office of the Empire (Reich) in 1907.

Related literature: Meyer 1920; Philippi 1959; Kröger 2012.

Selected bibliography

Evacuation and losses incurred during the war (1936–1945)

In 1936, during the Nazi dictatorship the “Schuldreferat” 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 of the Foreign Office, 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, therefore further records had to be transferred to the National 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 Department were burned in a fire due to an accident.

Most of the files from the period from 1936 onwards which were still needed for ongoing business in 1943 fell victim to bombs or, in the last few months of the war, deliberate destruction of Foreign Office premises. The losses can be narrowed down only to some extend. They especially include:

* files from the Political Department concerning countries with which the German Reich still maintained diplomatic relations in 1943
* files from the Office of the Foreign Minister (which have partly been preserved on microfilm, though)
* personnel files of employees in higher civil service 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 Department I Military
* Economic Policy Department
* the Embassy in Paris

Related literature: Hansen 1996; Kröger and Thimme 1999; Grupp 2002.

Selected bibliography

Safeguarding and return of archive material (1945–1951)

The Western Allies salvaged the files of the Political Archive from the different locations, amalgamated them with files of the Foreign Office found in Berlin as well as material from other institutions (including the Reich Chancellery) and transferred them to Whaddon Hall in Great Britain in 1948. A selection of the records were filmed and it is still possible to request duplicates of the films from the United States National Archives. The so-called “Oxford”- and “Kent”-catalogues were compiled using the collection of material available and contemporary finding aids. They served as the primary finding aids for the records of the period until 1945. Eventually, work began on the edition “Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik 1918–1945” (ADAP) [“Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945”].

Overall, the archival material of the Foreign Office stored in the National Archives did not suffer any major war losses. The material - along with segments of remaining current records found at locations of the Foreign Office in Berlin and elsewhere - was secured by the Soviet Union and transferred to the German Central Archives in Potsdam up to 1960. Remains of this archive material from the former Legal Department 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 archive these files. 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. The seized files have mostly been returned since 1951, but some records of a few missions abroad are still located at foreign institutions.

Related literature: Philippi 1960; Schmid 1962; Thimme 2001; Eckert 2004.

Selected bibliography

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 relieve the registries of their old files continuously a separate registry (“reponierte Registratur”) was set up which was only united with the Political Archive in 1968. Previously, due to space constraints, it had primarily disposed of files from the early 1950s from country divisions within the Economic Directorates-General.

In 1972 the interim archives (“Zwischenarchiv”) was established as a comprehensive record group. Since then all files that are transferred to the Political Archive from divisions of the headquarters get sorted into it until they are being processed and allocated to the record group corresponding with their provenance. A second comprehensive record group was set up for the archival 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 ago, the first volume on the year 1963 was released in 1993.

In 1951, an administrative archive was set up to temporarily store files 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
* declassified documents opened for public use
* interministerial agreements between the GDR and other countries

The personnel files and still-classified files were archived in other locations of the MfAA, GDR state treaties were stored at the Council of Ministers of the GDR. After the unification those holdings were merged with the archive of the MfAA at the Federal Foreign Office’s Agency for winding up the GDR’s Foreign Service and kept at the depot of the Zeughaus (arsenal) 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 of the leaders of the ministry.

Move and consolidation (since 2000)

Together with the Federal Foreign Office the Political Archive moved from Bonn to Berlin in 2000. The stacks set up in the new headquarters in the building of the former Reichsbank on Kurstrasse hold the files of the Foreign Office, the MfAA and the documentation on the construction of the Reichsbank.

The Federal Archives inherited the files of the Foreign Office that had been kept in the GDR’s Central Archives in 1990. An exchange of records between the Political Archive and the Federal Archive in 2008 led to a clearer overview of the distribution of holdings. Since then the Federal Archives have held all records of the former Rechtsabteilung (Law Department) up to 1918 as well as the files of the Commercial Department from he years it was in operation (1867 – 1920, 1936 – 1945). The Political Archives now houses the entire collection of records of the:

* missions abroad
* personnel and administrative department
* regional departments (Länderabteilungen, 1920 – 1936)

Classified files of the Federal Republic of Germany were not accessible in principle until the establishment of a regulation for declassifying those files on 01 January 2013. Nevertheless, since the first AAPD was compiled in 1993, a widely-used collection of copies of tens of thousands of derestricted 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.

Selected bibliography

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