Efforts by Ernst Posner and the National Archives to Protect European Archives during World War II

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

The National Archives began to think, after the invasion of North Africa in World War II, of the practical importance of records in connection with the government of conquered territory.  Archivist of the United States Solon J. Buck and senior National Archives official Oliver W. Holmes took an active interest in the proper organization of archives in enemy and other occupied territory and, according to The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, “were primarily responsible for establishing plans and personnel for the effective preservation of much of this irreplaceable documentary material.” Also taking an interest in the fate of archives and records in Europe was Dr. Ernst Posner, professor of archival administration at American University.

Ernst Maximilian Posner, born in Berlin on August 9, 1892, attended the University of Berlin and served in the peacetime military.  When World War I began he rejoined the infantry and saw action on both the western and eastern fronts, and before he was mustered out in December 1918, he had been awarded both first and second class of the Iron Cross.  He then resumed his studies at the University of Berlin, where he received his doctorate in 1920, and that year he became an archivist with the Prussian State Privy Archives.  As a result of the Nuremberg laws of 1935, he was involuntarily pensioned off from his position.

In 1938, deciding it was time for he and his wife to leave Germany, Posner made a two-month trip to the United State to explore job prospects.  While in this country he delivered, in English, a lecture at the National Archives in April on German archival administration.  Despite Buck thinking highly of Posner he was not in a position to offer employment.  Posner returned to Germany, and then in November, after the Kristallnacht riots, he was arrested and imprisoned for six weeks in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  In January 1939, thanks in part to Buck’s assistance, American University offered Posner a lectureship in archival administration.  It was not until much later that year he was able to get to the United States, where, in the fall of 1939, he began teaching, with Buck, a two-semester course entitled “The History and Administration of Archives” at American University. After Buck became Archivist of the United States in 1941, Posner taught the course by himself. Besides teaching archives administration he subsequently taught in the History Department, including, among others, courses on the Middle Ages, Europe, Germany, and historical research.

Posner’s suggestive paper, entitled “Public Records Under Military Occupation,” first read to a small luncheon group at the National Archives on May 5, 1943 and soon thereafter published by the National Archives, was the spark that, according to Holmes, “suddenly lit our sluggish imagination and opened our eyes to the importance of protecting records as a military measure.” 

Posner’s paper prompted Fred Waldo Shipman, Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, NY, who had listened to Posner’s presentation, to write a memorandum the next day to President Roosevelt in which he set forth the importance of protecting records in war areas, both for their eventual usefulness to military government and for their cultural value. Two days later Roosevelt read the memorandum at one of his regular cabinet meetings and asked that the members give the problem their attention and issue any orders required to ensure that records in war areas were given necessary protection.

Following up on Roosevelt’s interest and concern, on May 8, General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, sent cables to Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower (then Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces) and Jacob L. Devers (then commander of European Theater of Operations, United States Army) that it was felt that the great loss suffered in the past because local archives in cities and towns had been destroyed could be avoided during the war if special care was taken to preserve such archives.  He informed them that the President was anxious that every effort possible be made for their preservation at the time of initial occupation and during the period of occupation, and all appropriate commanders in the field were directed to issue the necessary instructions to prevent damage to archives in localities occupied.

The first full meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies’ Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas took place on in New York City on June 25. At the meeting, Buck, who was a member of the committee, expressed the hope that archival material would not be overlooked and that information concerning this material was readily available in the National Archives.  Copies of Posner’s paper were circulated and Buck stated that Posner would be interested in helping to prepare a full inventory of archival institutions of Europe.

On July 9, William B. Dinsmoor, acting in his capacity as chairman of the Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas and the committee’s executive secretary Sumner Crosby met with Maj. Gen. J. H. Hilldring, Chief of the Civil Affairs Division of the War Department.  At this meeting Hilldring approved the committee’s idea of providing the War Department with cultural maps.  Five days later Dinsmoor wrote Hilldring that the committee was proceeding with the greatest possible speed in the preparation of maps of cities in European war areas, beginning with Italy.  He noted that the collection of the factual data to accompany the maps was proceeding in collaboration with the Library of Congress, National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution and that on July 15 they were preparing to start a similar program at the Frick Art Reference Library.

Early in July, Dinsmoor and Crosby visited the National Archives and asked for its advice and cooperation in the development of lists of cultural monuments, treasures, and institutions to be made available to the armed forces, the military authorities having already indicated to these committee officials that such lists would be welcome and highly useful. A plan for the compilation and furnishing of such information by the National Archives on archival repositories in Europe was presented and agreed upon.

Most of the needed information was in the National Archives library, but a person of Posner’s background, knowledge, and general ability was required to interpret and organize it in usable form. Posner was eager to help.  The National Archives furnished overall supervision, materials, typing assistance, and assistance in revision, and editing; and, according to Holmes, Posner addressed the project “with his customary energy and efficiency in the months that followed, giving, except for his classes, almost full time to the project.”  Work was begun on archival repositories in Italy a few days before the invasion of Sicily on July 10. Before that campaign was over, information as to the name, location, official head, holdings, and buildings for some 140 archival repositories had been furnished on four-by-six inch cards to Dinsmoor’s committee.  Similar information to that produced on Italian archives was furnished for archival repositories in Greece, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Bulgaria in August.  Before the end of September, similar material had been furnished for about 370 archival repositories in France.

At the end of August, Buck, in sending a copy of the National Archives-Posner 29-page listing of archival repositories to Hilldring, wrote that the National Archives had been compiling for and sending to the Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas data concerning archival repositories in various countries.  He noted that the National Archives had furnished data on archival repositories to the committee for Italy, Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia and they were nearly ready for France. These data, he wrote, were supplied in the form of slips, in order that they may be readily combined with data from other sources. Buck wrote that the National Archives had put together the data concerning Italian archival repositories and reproduced it in a limited number of hectographed copies, one of which he was transmitting. He asked Hilldring whether, in his opinion, similar assembled lists of archival repositories in other countries would be likely to be of sufficient use to justify the National Archives proceeding to produce the hectographed copies for other countries, in addition, of course, to the combined data that would be supplied by the Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas.  Upon his receipt of “Archival Repositories in Italy,” Hilldring had a copy immediately sent to General Eisenhower, where it was intended that it be distributed to the proper officer for use in protection of archives within Italy.

On September 7, Hilldring responded to Buck that until the War Department had received reports on the usefulness of the Italian list he was not in a position to say whether the National Archives should prepare similar assembled lists for other countries. If possible, however, he informed Buck that he believed that the project should be coordinated with pending studies of the newly established American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe (in 1944 “Europe” changed to “War Areas”).  He added that on August 25, the Commission had held its organizational meeting and appointed various committees to consider the whole problem of protecting works and materials of cultural, historical, and scientific value in countries occupied by the Allies.  Hilldring wrote that he was hopeful that one result of these studies would include the Commission’s preparation of a comprehensive program for the protection and restitution of all such works and materials.  Such a program might well contain specific recommendations covering the points raised by Buck’s letter, if the Commission considered that archival repositories and materials were included within its responsibilities.  Hilldring noted that he agreed with Buck that every practicable effort should be taken to preserve local archives, and that the War Department would be glad to consider any specific additional measures consistent with military necessity that the National Archives might recommend.  He added that ample general instructions had already been issued for all efforts to be made to preserve local archives and to utilize the information contained therein.

As it turned out, the Committee, the Commission, and the War Department welcomed the assistance the National Archives provided, all realizing the importance of archives and archival institutions.  Much of the information on archival repositories in enemy-occupied territory that the National Archives furnished army authorities was incorporated onto maps prepared by the Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas and published and distributed by the Military Government Division of the Provost Marshal General (PMG)’s Office.  Lists of archival repositories and information on record keeping practices of existing agencies were also furnished directly to the PMG’s Office, which distributed them to overseas theaters of operations.  These lists contained the names, location, official head, holdings and buildings for 1,619 important archival repositories in Europe.  When these lists of archival repositories were received they were generally used as reference tools by Intelligence units and the information in them incorporated on maps used by bomber commands. They were also distributed to the Monuments Men of the various Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives units for the purpose of identifying and checking on the fate of important archival collections, and subsequently providing for their care and protection.

For additional information regarding Posner, the National Archives, and the protection of European archives see Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949, General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165; The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Report of The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1946); Oliver W. Holmes, “The National Archives and the Protection of Records in War Areas,” American Archivist, Vol. IX No. 2 (April 1946), pp. 110-127;  and, Rodney A. Ross, “Ernst Posner: The Bridge Between the Old World and the New,” The American Archivist, Vol. 44 No. 4(Fall 1981), pp. 304-313.

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