Document specialist uncovers Nazi archives
Tech. Sgt. Kurt Rosenow must have stared in disbelief and dismay at his hometown of Berlin.
After the Russians bombed and conquered the city, it barely resembled the home he had left five years earlier, barely escaping with his wife to America. Now he was back, in an American uniform, sent to look for documents. But where, and how, in this rubble, would his team find anything of value?
He appealed to his former neighbors, the starving, war-weary, and defeated Berliners, to tell him where the Nazis hid their documents. And they told him.
Rosenow was born in Berlin to a prominent Jewish-German family. He studied law and political science, married his sweetheart, and had nothing but hope for the future — until Hitler started his deadly campaign against the Jews.
At that point, Rosenow wisely left Germany and everything he had known, immigrating to the United States in 1940. He found a job working as a butler in New York City.
When he was drafted in 1943, he was assigned to Army Intelligence and trained as a documents specialist. The war took him first to Britain, where he worked in the Document Section of the Allied Headquarters analyzing prisoner of war correspondence. During the beginning of the occupation of Germany, he moved to Army Headquarters near Paris. In August 1945 he found himself right back in Berlin.
Speaking about the volume of documents he and his team found, Rosenow said, “We were overwhelmed by the mass of paper that came in, before we actually knew what had happened.” It eventually included hundreds of tons of documents — 75 million pages, or enough, Rosenow described, to reach eight miles into the sky if stacked one atop the other. The next problem was where to store all the documents so they could be processed.
Journalist Gitta Sereny interviewed Rosenow in 1994 an article for Britain’s The Independent, entitled “Giving Germany Back Her Past,” in which she recounted his experiences in those first days: ‘When I arrived in 1945,’ said Rosenow, ‘there were no files, no documents, nothing in writing or print.’ The Russians, upon entering Berlin, he said, had taken whatever records Goering’s people had not evacuated. But in the underground halls they had left the huge telephone listening installation — though, of course, with the wires cut. ‘When all that machinery was removed,’ he said, ‘it was quite eerie: these huge cellars, gapingly empty.’
It was obvious to the occupying forces that these empty cellars, once a closely guarded complex housing Hermann Goering’s telephone surveillance headquarters, was the perfect storehouse for the Nazi documents. The Western Allies renamed the facility the Berlin Documents Center, BDC, and put Kurt Rosenow, released from military service in 1946, in charge. Then began the real work of sorting, arranging, checking and filing that “mass of paper” into what one British historian has called, “the most complete [archive] any country ever produced.”
So what, exactly, had they found? There were 11 million files on Nazi party members — potentially 85 percent of the complete membership. After the war, the Allied powers attempted to remove active members of the Nazi party from official office and any influential positions in Germany, a process known as denazification. Many Germans swore they had never belonged to the party, only to be confronted with copies of their membership cards and numbers, produced as evidence during denazification.
There were 600,000 files on SS men and 550,000 files on SA men.
SS stood for “Schutzstaffel,” which was German for “Protective Echelon.” Initially established as Hitler’s personal bodyguard, they became one of the most powerful and feared organizations in all of Nazi Germany.
All SS men had to prove the purity of their bloodlines, and the BDC contained their racial and religious records going back six generations. During the Nuremburg trials, the entire organization of SS was deemed criminal and the same genealogical records that guaranteed men and women membership in the SS became proof of their culpability.
The SA, or Sturmabteilung, was better known as the “brownshirts” (from the color of their uniform shirts) or “Storm Troopers.” This group had bullied Germany’s citizens into compliance or at least quiet in the early years of the Nazi party. In 1931 it had 100,000 members; by 1934 the SA had mushroomed to two million.
There was so much more — millions of pages identifying judges, lawyers, ministry officials, priests and doctors — and detailed records of how they served the Nazi Regime. The list is exhaustive. The contents are frightening.
What began as a military document collection and exploitation mission has become a scholarly archive. The U.S. State Department took over the BDC from the Army in 1953. In 1994, the entire collection was turned back over to the German government, where many, including Kurt Rosenow, felt it belonged.
Rosenow was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1988 and passed away in 2001. His file was vague, missing details of any of the contributions he made to Army Intelligence. Were it not for the controversy surrounding the return of the BDC archive to the German government, he might have faded from our collective memory. But a quick search of the Internet revealed numerous articles and photos that had been published since 1988, and the USAICoE historians were thrilled to learn the rest of Rosenow’s story and to be able to share it.