WASHINGTON — From Adolf Hitler down to the petty bureaucrats who staffed Nazi death camps, thousands of perpetrators of World War II war crimes were eventually written up in vast reams of investigative files that now, for the first time, can be viewed in their entirety by the public.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has obtained a full copy of the U.N. War Crimes Commission archive that has largely been locked away for the past 70 years under restricted access at the United Nations. On Thursday, the museum said it has made the entire digital archive freely available to visitors in its research room.
Although information in the documents has long been known to investigators and historians, the public was kept out. Even researchers at the U.N. must petition for access through their governments.
Many of those named in the archive were never held accountable.
In addition to the allegations of mass murder against Hitler and his high-level henchmen, the files list thousands of obscure but no less horrendous cases from across Europe and Asia. One such example is Helmut Steinmetz in Warsaw, Poland, accused of murdering a crippled Jewish man he met on the street, as well as killing a railroad porter with a stick for refusing to carry his luggage.
The vast collection includes about 500,000 digitized microfilm images with more than 10,000 case files in multiple languages from Europe and Asia on people identified as war criminals. Some files have lists of personnel at concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Ravensbruck.
Making the records public fosters a degree of belated accountability, said Paul Shapiro, director of the museum's Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
"They're not alive anymore, but what they did shouldn't be forgotten," he said. "We need to learn from what happened in that era."