German Archive Privacy Laws

German privacy laws are no joke. For the past two weeks, I have been doing archival research in Freiburg and Berlin. In all of the archives in which I have worked (so far five), I have had to sign paperwork that says I will protect the personal information of subjects whose identities I come across in my research. I do not have a problem with this, but today I was in for quite a surprise in the East German division of the German Federal Archive (BA-SAPMO). When I registered online and checked in yesterday, I had to sign release forms about the protection of personal information for specific archival collections. Today, as I was sitting in the reading room and working through a series of documents that I could not photograph (ah, the feeling of Russian archives) due to their personal nature, an employee came up to me and told me that he needed to speak to me about my research topic. He led me into a back room and then began to interrogate me about my research topic in depth and what I was hoping to find in the documents that I had requested. He then asked about my university and said that he would need to keep a photocopy of my university ID in the archive records.

This, oddly, was a moment that felt like being back in Russian archives. I was actually surprised that all I had to do to register for the German archives was to email and fill out some forms online. In each reading room all I had to do was tell the staff my name and they would give me my files. In Russia, however, the archive registration process is far more strict. To apply to work in Russian archives, one need to present a signed letter (an отношение) that explains your topic, the dates of study, and your university affiliation. The letter has to be on university letterhead and a signature of the highest possible academic rank is best, that is it is better for it to be signed by a dean than a professor. When questioned about my research, the archive employee asked me about my university affiliation. He asked if I had a letter about it, and I had a minor deer in the headlights look as I said no, had bad flashbacks to Russia, and stated that I had my student ID. He said that would suffice.

Before I could get my files, I had to assure the staff member that I would anonymize any personal information that I found in the records I was perusing. When my dissertation is complete, I also need to submit a copy to the Federal Archive so that they can have it on record. My ID and answers were sufficient, and I was granted access to the remaining folders that I had requested, or rather had requested for me. The excellent take away from German archives is that the staff is very helpful. I emailed the archive’s general email account in May when I was planning my trip. My topic was given to some archivists, who put together a 20-page packet that listed all of the files that I should consult. Upon my arrival to this particular archive yesterday, I was handed sheets of paper for additional files that I should consult. At the time, one staff member handed me the privacy forms to fill out and proceeded to order 14 files for me without me knowing what exactly was in them. Thankfully, it was useful information.

New Archival Adventures

Today was my first foray into researching in German archives. So far I have only conducted extensive work in numerous Russian archives as well as a small amount of research in the USA at the Hoover Institution in California and the National Archives (NARA) in College Park, Maryland. Before I even came to Germany, I figured that the trip here would be far less painful than working in Russia. Each archive had an up to date website and I was able to contact and receive responses from archivists before my arrival. They helped me find files to order, which I did from America, that would be ready upon my arrival.

The day was off to an excellent start when I saw this beautiful Mercedes W124 on the way to the archive.

Sometime yesterday afternoon I arrived in Freiburg, Germany. I basically passed out from the travel and woke up early to arrive at the German Federal Military Archive a little after 8AM this morning. The building is fairly imposing and is surrounded by a very large metal fence. I walked up to what looked like a security guard kiosk and told the man there that this was my first time at the archive and that I was trying to find the reading room. He was super friendly and said that all I had to do was sign into a ledger. At the end of the day, I was to sign out. If I wanted to pop down the block to the café for a snack or coffee, I did not have to sign out. He then told me to go to a building near his kiosk, where there would be an automatic door. He pointed to a window on the first floor and said that I would be able to find lockers for my things there. I did indeed find the locker, which requires a 2 Euro coin to operate (good thing I got a chocolate croissant and a coffee on the way to the archive). I then found a man in the hallway, who happens to teach in the CUNY system, who told me how to get to the reading room. There was a friendly guy working at the desk and my ordered files were ready for me. All I had to do was once again sign a few forms agreeing to the terms of working in the archive and protecting the personal information contained within some of the folders. That was it. There was no need to show an ID. There was no need to sign the folders in and out. Nor did I have to sign inside the folder that I had read it, for what topic, and which pages.

Approaching the German Military Archive.

The staff was also extremely friendly and helpful. Although I read German fairly often for my research, I never speak it. It’s been roughly seven years since I have extensively spoken German, and that was at my undergraduate institution. The words are coming back, but my ability to string together a sentence is not helped by being tired from my travels. Thankfully the staff was patient and didn’t insist on switching to English, which was a fear that I had. Some Russian archival staff didn’t mind when I didn’t know the exact word or phrase for something, but others would quickly become angered and begin yelling. Here the most I got was a slight chuckle from my pauses trying to remember how to say a few words to describe the situation.

During my first day, I was able to read through eleven files. I have about four more that I ordered this morning that I didn’t get to. I also ordered another six folders before leaving. To do this amount of research in the Russian State Military Archive would have taken a minimum of two and a half weeks due to the five file request limit and a waiting period of four days to receive files. Much of the speed in processing the files is also because I can take photos of documents. In Russia, photographing archival materials is largely forbidden, so I spent much of my time fully reading through documents, taking notes, translating on the spot, or copying whole documents into my note taking program. While processing the large numbers of files to order from home I began to worry that my three-week trip to Germany would be too short. Currently I’m wondering if I budgeted far too much time to get through the files in the archives. I’m sure I’ll be able to fill up my free time.

On a last note, the afternoon security guard at the archive is Russian. I saw him reading a book in Russian and started to speak to him in Russian. He grew excited and asked me where I was from. Our conversation only ended because someone else came to the kiosk to access the archive. At the end of the day, he asked my name and where in the city I was staying. I asked if he would be there tomorrow and he happily replied yes. I think I have a new best friend.