Probe into ‘culture of fear’ at largest archive of Nazi persecution

Lawyer representing employees wrote to German culture minister claiming there was a 'toxic working atmosphere' at records centre


A cloud hangs over the world’s largest archive of Nazi persecution in central Germany after its director and her deputy were accused of promoting a “culture of fear”.

The crisis at the Arolsen Archives, home of the International Tracing Service (ITS), became public in March when a lawyer representing a group of more than 25 current and former employees wrote to the German culture minister claiming there was a “toxic working atmosphere” at the archive, situated in the town of Bad Arolsen, near Kassel.

The lawyer, Daniel Vogel, alleged that there was a “culture of fear” and that the director, Floriane Azoulay, and her deputy, Steffen Baumheier, had bullied staff to such an extent that not only had many left the archive but that some were ill on a long-term basis, suffering flashbacks, panic attacks and worse. Baumheier is alleged to have told a member of staff: “I’ll make your life a living hell.”

The affair was “completely unacceptable”, according to Christoph Heubner, vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee. “In a place where there is a duty of care to the victims of National Socialism, there is also a duty of care towards those who work there.”

Since 2012, the International Tracing Service has been run by a director appointed by the International Commission (IC), which consists of representatives from 11 countries, including the UK. Azoulay has been archive director since 2016.

In response to Vogel’s letter, the IC appointed a Berlin law firm, Gohmann, to carry out an investigation into the accusations.

It is due to submit its final report later this month. The IC has promised that it “will discuss possible labour law consequences during and after the investigation and, if necessary, decide on them”.

Ann Munster, spokesperson for the Arolsen Archives, said Azoulay and Baumheier have not been suspended. She said archive employees had been able to submit evidence to the investigating law firm until June.

“This investigation is ongoing. We’ll then be informed when it’s finished. And then the International Committee has to make a decision.” Azoulay and Baumheier declined to comment.

The ITS was set up by the Allies at the end of the war to trace missing people. It quickly acquired vast amounts of documentation from the Nazi concentration camps, prisons and other sites of incarceration.

With the addition of sources from the immediate postwar period, including documents relating to the displaced persons camps and emigration, as well as files relating to the tracing process itself, the ITS archive holds more than 30 million documents, containing the names of more than 17.5million individuals.

With more than 25km of shelving, the archive is a breathtaking monument in its own right.

From 1955 to 2012, the tracing service was administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross. It remains a tracing service as well as an archive open to scholars.

The claims about Azoulay’s and Baumheier’s leadership have been widely reported in the German press, from local newspapers such as the Hessenschau, Jewish outlets such as the Jüdische Allgemeine, and major national publications such as Der Spiegel and the German Editorial Network (the equivalent of the Press Association). But, somewhat curiously, they have found no echo in the English-speaking media.

Why should readers of the JC care about this story? The British government co-funded the ITS’s work from its beginning, and the archive’s history tells a story of a Britain that from 1944 onwards invested money and resources in war-ravaged Europe in order to carry out, however imperfectly, an act of ethical repair against the Nazis’ crimes.

After the first few postwar years, British civil servants complained about having to continue funding ITS, and the IC neglected to take much notice of it, as this newspaper reported at challenging moments, such as when the administration of the archives was being debated in 1955.

This is not just the world’s largest archive pertaining to the Nazi crimes: it is an archive whose history remains bound up with the UK. A digital copy of the archive is available at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London.

The irony is not just that an institution that is devoted to illuminating the evils of the past should be beset by allegations of bad working practices.

One of the reasons for opening up the archive in the first place was that under one of the Red Cross directors, Charles-Claude Biedermann, there were allegations that the ITS became a secretive and oppressive organisation.

Apart from the personal tragedies of devoted employees who have left their jobs, the largest irony concerns the future of the Arolsen Archives. Under Azoulay’s leadership, the institution has made it clear that it sees itself as a “memory institution”, promoting campaigns on social media and in the public sphere, such as its #everynamecounts programme.

Yet these programmes have been at the expense of maintaining the archive and promoting scholarship. All but one of the historians working in the research department have left. Worse yet, the research department no longer exists.

Without research, and certainly without caring for the archive that facilitates it, there can be no commemorative campaigns, however “relevant” to contemporary society the directorship wants to be.

Since 1955, the IC has tended to take the line of least resistance and not engaged seriously with problems at the ITS.

One hopes that, in today’s circumstances, with widespread Holocaust awareness being challenged in Germany by the AfD and elsewhere by similar far-right forces, it will act where necessary to defend the integrity and future of one of the world’s most significant archives.

Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London.

His book on the International Tracing Service, ‘Fate Unknown: Tracing the Missing after World War II and the Holocaust’, has just been published by Oxford University Press

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