Holocaust Historian Slams Germany for Shedding Millions of Death Records

The Hamburg State Archive destroyed an estimated 1 million death certificates dating from 1876 to 1953. The state cultural ministry later admitted the move was a mistake

FILE Photo: An American soldier stands among German loot and records stored in a church at Elligen, Germany, April 24, 1945.
AP Photo/U.S. National Archives

The Hamburg State Archive shredded millions of death records, including those dating from the Nazi era.

A historian of the Holocaust called the records’ destruction “catastrophic.”

According to the Hamburg Morgen Post newspaper, the state cultural ministry is defending the decision by the archive’s director, Udo Schäfer, to destroy an estimated 1 million death certificates dating from 1876 to 1953.

But even Schäfer admits he made a mistake. In his own defense, he explained to the paper that “almost all the information” contained in the files is found in other archived documents, like death registries and in files from jails or hospitals.

Schäfer, who has directed the archive since 2001, now says he should have considered that historians and other scholars have cited the documents in their publications — and that these sources no longer exist. He said he would not make the same decision today.

Historian Sybille Baumbach, who has worked on reconstructing the life stories of Jewish Holocaust victims for the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel, told reporters that the death certificates contained information that — if recorded elsewhere at all — would be difficult to find, such as cause of death and the name and signature of the doctor who made the determination.

She said that in many cases these certificates provided important clues in cases of so-called euthanasia murders, because such deaths were far from natural and merciful, and the doctors who signed off on them often were the murderers themselves. Baumbach called the loss “catastrophic.”

The shredding has drawn criticism from politicians, historians and associations representing survivors of the Nazi regime. The documents have been considered important in research on Nazi crimes against humanity and have been consulted by the Hamburg association for cobblestone memorials, which mark the last domicile of victims who were deported and murdered.

Rainer Nicolaysen of the Hamburg Historical Association called it a “serious loss.” He told the Morgenpost that Schäfer had admitted to him in early August that he had wrongly thought the documents were duplicates.