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La recherche des Allemands prisonniers ou portés disparus au cours de la Seconde Guerre mondiale
30-06-1999 Article, Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge, 834, de Monika Ampferl

The search for German prisoners or missing in World War II
Original in French | Published at DVHH.org by Jody McKim Pharr 25 Jan 2013

With our many partners, we continue to draw courage and joy in the thought that, for anxious families waiting at home, a new one is something happy and encouraging, something big, even if it represents the end of a long and painful agonizing uncertainty.[1]

-Max Huber, ICRC President

A page in the history of the Research Department of the German Red Cross

Monika Ampferl was for many years assistant and director of archives of the Research Department of the German Red Cross, Central Office of Information and Documentation in Munich. - Translated from the German by the ICRC.

War II began on September 1, 1939, which for millions of Germans meant - at the latest with the retreat of the Wehrmacht - a race for life or death. This was true not only for the soldiers, who were trapped for years, but also to a large extent for the civilian population, regardless of the part of the Reich where she was. Certainly, many people have been evacuated, but most stayed at home, suffering serious bombing. Others were forced to flee, were expelled, deported or detained. Many have not supported these tests and died of exhaustion and illness. At the end of the war, cities were destroyed, crippled the economy and the supply of the population extremely precarious. Families were scattered and without news of their relatives. Had become husbands and son? Where were the fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters? No sooner had we somehow organized his own life that we began to look. After the end of the war, a German out of four was looking for someone or was sought.

The words of Max Huber, highlight at the beginning of this article remain valid today. All those who have long worked in service research will confirm. It is unfortunate that Mrs. Sternemann[2] of Hamburg did not learned that in November 1994 that her husband, Hans Sternemann, died March 2, 1944, at the age of 33 years in a military hospital of Wolsk on the Volga, the news was nevertheless the definitive answer to the question she has been asking for years: What happened to him? The fact that the news did noy arrival until 50 years after the death of the person concerned is fortunately an exception.

In 1958, the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany requested the Research Service of the German Red Cross to shed light on the fate of people missing in connection with the events of the Second World War. It was then following categories of persons: members missing the Wehrmacht, missing civilians (who had been detained or deported by a third State), and children wanted or looking for their parents. The Office of Research Munich Research Service of the German Red Cross still performs this task today.

It should be noted, however, that the searches for missing persons actually began immediately after the start of the war. Consequently, millions of pieces of information - some comforting, others overwhelming - were transmitted before 1958. We will briefly the history of these research activities below.

1939 - Opening of the office "S" by the German Red Cross in Berlin

A few days after the start of the war, the president of the German Red Cross in Berlin was commissioned by the High Command of the Wehrmacht to provide for the duration of the conflict, the transmission of news to members of the army, accordance with the Geneva Convention of 1929 relative to prisoners of war. Office "S" (Sonderbeauftragter / chargé d'affaires Special) was introduced to the president of the German Red Cross, and connected to all sections of regional and district Red Cross. When, for example, the news of the capture of a soldier of the Wehrmacht came through the Central Agency for Prisoners of War, ICRC, his relatives were informed as soon as possible by the competent office of the Red Cross German Red. In July 1943, just a few months after the defeat of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad, the office "S" received via the ICRC in Ankara, sent from the Soviet Union: 333 postcards of German officers and soldiers prisoners. They were first considered by the political government of the Reich who do not follow him. However, the German Red Cross could, ultimately, deliver these messages to the families concerned.

Conversely, if a soldier at the front gave no sign of life for some time, his family could go to the German Red Cross and send a request to the unit concerned.

This is the section of the borough of Leipzig German Red Cross said on September 30, 1942, Mrs. Hanisch, following its request for her husband, Paul Hanisch: "We regret not being able to give you to date no certainty about the fate of your beloved husband. The searches were unsuccessful, it must be assumed that he was again in contact with the enemy and he fell to the Russians. So far, the USSR has not yet provided any information about the captured German soldiers ...

The first files were already missing persons constitutioned at that time in the office "S and the regional and district sections of the Red Cross. Mid-September 1942, the High Command of the Wehrmacht had already recorded the names of 75,000 members of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front disappeared. It was also the files of prisoners of war from the other side. In 1941, the army had counted nearly 450,000 Polish prisoners of war, and a year later, "hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war," which also English and French. These data were transmitted to the ICRC, as well as any Red Cross messages for family members.

The ICRC has proven to be a particularly important partner in the war and several years after the end of it. At the beginning of the Second World War, the ICRC opened successively of National POW for all belligerents. This was also the case for Eastern Europe: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania and Hungary. The Soviet Union was an exception, although it was attacked by the Wehrmacht in June 1941, despite the pact of non-aggression. She had not signed the Geneva Convention of 1929 relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War and felt not obliged to supply lists of prisoners to the ICRC.

The Central Agency for Prisoners of War, ICRC Geneva addressed the lists of names of prisoners of war (who were in camps or in hospitals) which were transmitted and, later, the lists of names of persons interned. At this time, the identities were transcribed on separate sheets, which were then classified by sectors national. This work extremely meticulous and lasted at least ten years was accomplished primarily by Swiss volunteers. They spent their energy for varying periods - a month, a year - and yet tireless volunteer. From 1941 to the end of 1949, the office "S" and the command of the Wehrmacht, and after the collapse of the Reich , Services Research, Hamburg and Munich, received identities 9,900,000 prisoners war or interned Germans. This selfless work carried out for several years, has more than eight million internees or prisoners of war from German to contact their relatives.[3]

Massive destruction of cities and the gradual occupation, but total Reich , paralyzed vital infrastructure. Roads, bridges and access roads were crowded, mail and phones worked only partially, newspapers no longer seemed. Moreover, from the beginning of 1945, the approach of the Red Army led to a veritable flood of refugees in the rest of Germany. Many were from the former provinces of East Prussia and West Prussia, the Free City of Danzig, as well as Eastern Pomerania. They fled the land or the Baltic to win the Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark still occupied. Completely taken by surprise, the Danes were faced with the arrival of a flood of 200,000 refugees settle in faster and more than 900 camps. The Danish government commissioned the Danish Red Cross to set up an administration Refugees ( Flygtninge Administration ). May 8, 1945, the day the unconditional surrender, the Germans were interned until they win one occupation zones created later by the Allies. Looking for son, husbands, children, brothers and sisters and began a large file Refugees (Flygtninge Kartothek), which still exists today, was created. During these difficult years, the Danish Red Cross has continued to provide assistance whenever she could.

When, in April 1945, Berlin was taken by the Red Army, the President of the German Red Cross in Berlin-Babelsberg was severely damaged. Part of the staff regrouped in other places, carrying documents and files in safe places they hoped. But most importantly, they retained their links with the Red Cross. The population was disoriented by the collapse of public order. That is why it was especially reassuring to know that there were some places - such as the German Red Cross, local councils, parishes and Catholic or Protestant religious associations - where you could go . It noted the names of people, including children, who came from the east and heading west, or returning soldiers, but could not return to their place of origin.

Among the refugees were also Lieutenant Helmut Schelsky (later became famous as a sociologist) and Lieutenant Kurt Wagner (who would become a mathematician). From East Prussia through the Baltic, they arrived at Flensburg in April 1945 with their unit. In this German town on the Danish border, both could see thousands of people wandering aimlessly. Themselves were indeed saved, but exhausted by what they had experienced, they know where to go. They posted tickets bearing their names on walls and tree trunks, they were everywhere visible, to tell their friends and family they were in Flensburg. Schelsky and Wagner took the initiative in the district section of the German Red Cross in the name of "relief work for refugees from the German Red Cross - Service Investigations - Central File." With this resolute and although hostilities had not yet ceased everywhere, the Research Department of the postwar period was born. Already a few months later, the service moved with his research files from Flensburg to Hamburg, roughly in the center of the British occupation zone.

1945 - Creation of research services in the areas of occupation

While the victorious powers created four zones of occupation in early summer 1945, research services were set up everywhere - private services as well, since, as we mentioned earlier, a German four sought or someone was sought. Permission to officially open such services should be negotiated each time with the military government concerned.

Shortly after the end of the war already, leaders of the former President of the German Red Cross is addressed to the Allied Control Commission in Berlin offering to create a new German Red Cross for all of Germany. But their request was denied. In the memorandum of 25 September 1945, the U.S. military government found that the German Red Cross had ceased to exist as a national service. Order of the Soviet military government, dated 19 September 1945, the German Red Cross was officially dissolved in the Soviet zone of occupation, with all its sections.

Before the tangible misery in the streets of Munich, the Bavarian Red Cross spoke a few days after the end of the war already, the U.S. military government asking for permission to conduct humanitarian activities. Problems of the resident population were added in Bavaria, Silesia those refugees and displaced persons who arrived since the beginning of May from the Sudetenland, very close [4]. In June 1945, the Bavarian Red Cross received permission to create a new society of the Red Cross in Bavaria and, in particular, to also establish a research service, provided to "purify" the former office Regional VII of the German Red Cross "of the National Socialist spirit and those who represent it."

August 1, 1945, the Bavarian Red Cross launched by way of displays, call for a first recording of "refugees, evacuees, missing persons, etc.." Adding that "the research service will operate in Bavaria in cooperation with the International Red Cross in Geneva, organizations Red Cross other Länder in Germany, the Bavarian authorities, charities, Catholic, Protestant relief work for internees and prisoners of war, Landesverein für Innere Mission and the Central Committee of Jews liberated."

As it was impossible to persuade the four occupying powers, despite arguments relevant to authorize the creation of a single Red Cross and one Research Service, it was quickly realized that the Red Cross 'with the forced dispersion e, the research work could not be done successfully if all organizations working together voluntarily. It is only because these organizations with their different groups of people worked together in confidence (as they still do today) and they exchanged information that 14 million people were found nothing in the first five years of the postwar period. Moreover, the structures put in place at the time remain, for the most part, even today.

That the German Red Cross had ceased to exist as an organization and the office "S" could no longer continue to work, the research services of Hamburg and Munich, approved by the occupying powers, is are responsible lists of names drawn up by the ICRC. Service Hamburg was responsible for cases involving the population living in the area of ​​English occupation, while the Research Department of Munich covered the American zone. The service time of the Munich later became the Research Department of the Munich German Red Cross, which still exists today.

In Munich, each information was transferred onto a sheet by teams working in shifts. In addition, the Research Service had a branch office in a former military transmitter Prien (Bavaria). With the authorization of U.S. military government, the TV reception desk always lists of names of German prisoners of war issued by Radio Moscow and Radio Vatican. These "signs of life" radio were then transferred to Munich. In the best case, some names corresponded to research requests submitted by their families and therefore could be transmitted.

Throughout Germany (and therefore also in the Department of Munich), the same question was ever more pressing: what to do for mothers to regain their children and that children can return to their mother?

The little Frieda Maier, five years old, and his brother Gerhard, seven were evacuated February 17, 1945, Silesia (now in Poland) with other children, on the order of Volkswohlfahrt (national welfare Socialist). They were brought via Görlitz (city today split between Germany and Poland) Franzenbad (now Czech Republic), arriving 28 February 1945 in Regensburg (Bavaria), accompanied transport. They were placed in the children's home Leonhardistift . Few days after their arrival, Regensburg was bombed. Frieda was wounded in the head. Where was her mother? Where was the rest of his family? Research revealed later that her mother had won the Soviet zone of occupation in December 1947.

But in many other cases, the mother could not be found.

The Research Service of the German Red Cross still handles cases of children who are looking for their brothers and sisters or other family members or relatives who are looking for their child (long since grown up).[5] It has been observed in recent decades that people with a name that is not their own, unaware that their parents are and where they come from, often through identity crises. They keep asking the Research Service of the German Red Cross if new information sources become available. To draw attention to the lost and abandoned children s, Research Services decided to print posters with their photos. So in February 1946, posters of the Research Department of Munich were placed in all public places and in all jurisdictions. If we had already sought during the war - but without much success to be honest - the fallen on the eastern front, we asked for more, after the end of hostilities on it had happened to them. Were they killed in battle without anyone knowing? Had they been captured? Were they died in captivity? These were the questions that arose all research services.

In August 1947, the Research Service for refugees and missing persons Rastatt, which acted as Research Service in the French zone on the basis of the Decree of 31 December 1946, asked soldiers repatriated news of their comrades who n were not income or that we wanted. Other research organizations followed, as Protestant Relief Services for prisoners of war and missing persons, Stuttgart or Munich Research Service. Returnees arrived in reception camps were asked about prisoners not freed or dead in the various camps, or about missing soldiers from the same unit. They were also asked to tell what they themselves had experienced and to give, for example, information on the means of transport or the conditions in which they had to work. In 1947, the Research Department had collected data on 400,000 returnees and using computers donated by IBM, was sorted by job number to the armies and camps. The Research Department of Munich then transmitted addresses to families looking for a closer.

In 1949, with the exception of a small number of people whose names were known, all prisoners of war or internees held in the West had gone home. More convoys of returnees from the Soviet Union arrived in Frankfurt on the Oder. Returnees who had relatives in the occupied areas of the West were transferred to Friedland / Leine (Lower Saxony). In 1948 and 1949, returnees began to declare that some of their comrades were sentenced to harsh sentences - 25 years of hard labor, for example - often for reasons unknown.

1950 - Extensive recording of prisoners of war and missing persons

After the war ended, various recordings took place, such as (mentioned above) led by the Bavarian Red Cross on 1 August 1945. But they never cover all areas of occupation.

So, Madam Sternemann, living Hamburg, had registered 18 September 1947 with the Hauptnährungs Wirtschaftsamt-und Service (main power and Economic Affairs) in Hamburg, her husband Hans (son of Friedrich Sternemann, last theater Stalingrad, latest news received December 20, 1942) and applied research about it.

In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany took control of the occupied areas of the West. Since prisoners were still in captivity, voluntary registration of prisoners of war and missing persons was organized from 1st to 10th March 1950. As the Wehrmacht divisions were also featured some foreign families of Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the Saarland (which was not part of Germany at that time) participated in this business . Only the German Democratic Republic, which had replaced the Soviet occupation zone in 1949, did not join them.

After this recording, the Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden had collected the names of 69,000 prisoners of war, prisoners or persons in custody, as well as those of 1,148,000 of the former Wehrmacht members missing - including Hans Sternemann - and 190,000 missing civilians.[6] They had been deported and now were forced to work in compensation, mainly in the Soviet Union.[7] The activities of the Research Department, which is now called the Research Department of the German Red Cross,[8] took a decisive turn with this record. Indeed, from that time, the Service emphasized the search for prisoners still detained, missing soldiers and civilians, and especially children.

In November 1950, prisoners of war and detainees (including former civilian detainees), held in the Soviet Union, began again to write to their families. This letter was sent to the Research Services of the two German states through the Red Cross in Moscow. The names and addresses obtained in this way allowed the relief organizations regularly send parcels to prisoners. In addition, this list served as the basis for successful interviews, which took place in September 1955 between the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and President of the Council of Ministers Soviet NA Bulganin. Until January 1956, 9626 "anci ens German prisoners of war and German citizens" could return home.

Regardless of the state registration, the Research Service of the German Red Cross asked the returnees into the 70s. The number of questionnaires, which was 400 000 in 1947, increased to six million. Tirelessly, we asked the returnees on their experiences and what had happened to the people wanted. This helped solve 240 000 cases.

1957 - Agreement between the Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR and the German Red Cross

The Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention of 1929 relative to prisoners of war. Therefore, Moscow did not feel obliged to transmit to the ICRC the names of some 2,388,000 German prisoners of war, and even fewer provide information on where they were transferred, or death.

When the last prisoners of war and civilian detainees arrived at Friedland German / Leine in January 1956 and the Federal Republic of Germany opened its first embassy in Moscow the same year, the German Red Cross tried to develop the dialogue begun in already in 1952 in Toronto with his sister Soviet Society. In May 1957, GA Miterew President of the Alliance, and Heinrich Weitz, President of the German Red Cross, signed an agreement between the Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR and the Cross German Red. The text of the agreement stated: "The stated intention, already in February 1957, the two National Societies to support each other in the search for missing persons of both peoples is confirm ed." This meant in practice 420 search requests could be sent each month to the Alliance. In 1958, the number of applications had already reached 1900 per month. Until 1991, the Research Service of the German Red Cross had received 445,000 applications for research in Moscow. This was a gigantic task, both for all services Archive for the Alliance. Archives could respond positively to requests for more than 80 000 people. Other research requests remained without result.

This was the case of the application of research on Hans Sternemann, which relied on the statements of two of his comrades. Already in November 1958, the Research Service of the German Red Cross had informed the Alliance that Hans Sternemann was detained in the camp Beketowka. In August 1960, a negative response came from Moscow. The Research Department informed that Mrs. Sternemann, according to testimony, her husband had probably not survived the war and he died in captivity.

Many families were grateful to receive the same response as sad and irrevocable. They wrote that they felt liberated from the psychological pressure and could make new decisions. Between 1966 and 1991, the Research Service of the German Red Cross has established some 1.12 million certificates. For many German families, it was then the ultimate answer to the search for a loved one.

The 1957 agreement stipulated that the two Societies Red Cross mutual assistance would focus the search for missing persons. Requests to the German Red Cross by the Alliance for s Red Army soldiers missing, which were probably fallen into the hands of the Wehrmacht, were transmitted to the Dienststelle Deutsche (German Development Service), the former Service information of the Wehrmacht, to be processed.

1989 - First negotiations between the German Red Cross and the Russian Archives

The German Red Cross on behalf of thousands of German families, is deeply grateful to the Research Service of the Alliance for the intermediary role it has played for decades in a humanitarian purpose. She has repeatedly emphasized during all visits and in many interviews. However, the German Red Cross has repeatedly asked the representatives of the German government to seek, at the highest level, to obtain what is called the "Book of the Dead." Time pressed, because the generation affected was entitled to know what had really happened to his family. The President of the German Red Cross also emphasized at every opportunity, for the "Book of the Dead." In vain.

But things would change in May 1989. The German Red Cross learned that the Alliance and the Russian Archives have taken the necessary steps to process documents concerning German prisoners died. Three years later, agreements were concluded with the Russian Archives, including the Centre for the conservation of documents and historical texts. Until the end of 1994, these were sent on diskette Archives identities 325,000 German POWs died in Soviet camps and buried on site. The Cyrillic alphabet was very anscrit Latin characters, so that personal data might be read by all employees in Munich.

Recording also concerned "Gans" Sternemann, or rather Sternemann Hans, born in Hamburg in 1911 (last residence: Hamburg, married, occupation: merchant rank: Chief Warrant Officer, captured 31 January 1943 at Stalingrad, Wolsk prisoner who died March 2, 1944, buried in the cemetery Wolskoe under number 4876). Thus, his widow told November 29, 1994, 50 years later, the news of the death of her husband, who died of illness in captivity.

Personal data of deceased prisoners of war were added information concerning civilian prisoners. Until the end of 1996, the Centre for the Conservation of historic documents and texts handed the German Red Cross records for 199,000 German civilians deported, who had been repatriated or died in captivity.

This was particularly the case Gölner Pauline, born in 1926 in Wolkendorf (Transylvania, Romania). Wolkendorf stopped January 15, 1945, she was deported to Ukraine and worked in the coal mine camp Chanchenkowo. Pauline Gölner died February 26, 1949, at the age of 23 years.

Almost all newspapers in Germany and many radio stations and regional television transmitted the news of the opening of the Russian archives. For the Research Service of the German Red Cross, the largest media event in this context was the program "After 50 years of silence" during which asked families seeking relatives to come forward . This call was valid especially for families new Länder in Germany. In many cases, these individuals could not seek to close a systematic way after 1989. Thousands of families filed a request for research: a new application or a first application. That is 65,800 families have learned, in the 90s, the death of a loved one.

1991 - Merger of the two Research Services German Red Cross

With the reunification of the two German states fusion of the two German Red Cross is imposed, as well as two research services. Thus, in early 1991, the Research Service had some 68 million records in total. Certainly, contacts had taken place earlier between the two services, but only assumed when a person once lived in the other Germany. From 1991, the information provided by the Research Service (reunited) of the German Red Cross helped 900 people each year (800 in 1995) to meet.

This was the case for twin brothers Rudolf and Alfred Kolb. From East Prussia, they were enrolled in the Wehrmacht. Once demobilized, they settled respectively in Erfurt (GDR) and Mönchengladbach (Germany). They were not new to each other. In addition, the Research Service of the German Red Cross in Munich received no information indicating Alfred Kolb could live in the GDR. An employee of the attentive Deutsche Dienststelle Berlin.[9] noticed a tracing request was still pending lorsqu'Alfred Kolb asked, for a reassessment of his pension, a certificate confirming the length of service in the Wehrmacht. The Deutsche Dienststelle immediately warned the Research Service of the German Red Cross in Munich. This Alfred Kolb asked if it was already in contact with his brother Rudolf. No, he did not know he was still alive.

Relatives and thus continue to find each other as four million Germans, after fleeing and being expelled, had found a new home on the territory of the former Soviet occupation zone.


Requests arrive every day. They come from foreigners living in Germany or Germans, especially the families of new Länder or persons of German nationality arriving from Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan and looking for relatives in Germany. Even if the news is exchanged daily, every day if the fates are elucidated, and if relatives are found, there is yet still tracing requests "in progress". The Research Service of the German Red Cross is still processing some 1.377 million unresolved cases relating to the Second World War. New sources of information become more accessible, this is particularly the case in Podolsk, in St. Petersburg or Moscow.

The Research Service of the German Red Cross will continue to expand its activities to those who turn to him. Consider applications for research and advice will lavish its still well after the 90s.


- Kurt W. Böhme, Gesucht wird ... dramatische Die Geschichte des Suchdienstes , Munich, 1965 and 1970.
- Walter Gruber, Das Rote Kreuz in Deutschland: zum 125. Jahrestag von Solferino , Wiesbaden, 1985.
- German Red Cross, 50 Jahre Suchdienst in Deutschland , Munich, 1995.
- Maren Köster-Hetzendorf, Ich hab dich so gesucht ... Der Krieg und seine Kinder verlorenen, Augsburg, 1996.


1. Statement of 22 October 1940 (unpublished). ICRC translation.

2. All names of persons wanted or looking for someone are fictitious.

3. In the activity of the Central Tracing Agency of the ICRC, see especially Gradimir Djurovic, the Central Tracing Agency of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant Institute, Geneva, 1981.

4. now estimated at 12 million refugees and displaced Germans.

5. In Germany, after the end of the war, some 291,000 applications were for children looking for their parents or parents looking for their children.

6. A comparison: 31 December 1997, the Research Service of the German Red Cross still had the names of 766,000 members of the Wehrmacht and 431,000 civilians missing.

7. agreements Yalta (February 1945) were at the origin of these repairs.

8. The German Red Cross in the Federal Republic of Germany was recreated February 4, 1950.

9. Formerly "Wehrmachtauskunftstelle" (Information Office of the Wehrmacht).



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