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Did a burning tank turn your Wehrmacht relative into a tandoori soldier? Did a grenade blow him to bits? Did he starve to death or die of disease in a prisoner of war camp? Was he reported missing in action? Many Germans haven’t a clue. More than 1.2 million Wehrmacht soldiers are classified as lost, and their fate may never be known.
But the destinies of 3.1 million of Hitler’s warriors are on file in the archive for military personnel information in the Wehrmacht Information Office (officially Deutsche Dienststelle für die Benachrichtigung der nächsten Angehörigen von Gefallenen der ehemaligen deutschen Wehrmacht). This gargantuan collection of eighteen million alphabetically indexed yellowing cards was begun in 1939, at the onset of the war. It holds all official personnel reports of German soldiers. Five hundred clerks tend the files housed in this bland brick building, located next door to the state archive (Landesarchiv).
Widows, children, grandchildren, former Kameraden and others are entitled to information from this archive. Laws awarding compensation to victims and prisoner of war reparations necessitate the maintenance of these records for the German public. Old soldiers use the information to demonstrate that their current illnesses are service-related. Former laborers in the Reichsarbeitdienst or members of the Waffen-SS obtain evidence of service to collect pensions.
Archivists take about four months to research an individual case. "We often get grandchildren of Wehrmacht soldiers," says archive director Peter Gerhardt. "After they find out where their grandfather was killed, they travel there, to bring the past into the present." After forty years in the archive, Gerhardt reports favorable experiences; for example, there was the female singer in the Swedish pop-group Abba. In the 1970’s she found the record of her lost German father, who was still alive.
But information in the archive is not always accurate. "As a matter of interest," archivist Gerd-Michael Dürre showed Berliner Morgenpost reporter Iwan Zinn the card of his father, Gerhard Dürre. Though the elder Dürre had returned to Germany from Russian captivity in 1949, he was registered as missing. According to Herr Dürre, "There were cases where survivors stood before their own graves."
The German Red Cross Search Service (DRK Suchdienst, Sandwerder 3, Wannsee) also has information on missing German soldiers and civilians, including 123,000 who ended up in Soviet captivity. 43,000 of these died of starvation or disease, 756 more were executed. The Russians snatched many of these people off the streets after the war, because someone might have denounced them as Nazi collaborators. Family members frequently had no inkling of what had happened to them.