Nazi abuse of ICRC humanitarian service

31-05-2007 Feature

The recent presentation in Argentina of an ICRC travel document used by the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann to flee Europe has been widely covered in the world's media and led to questions about these documents.


  ICRC travel document    
     The ICRC travel document recently exhibited in Argentina had never been publicly displayed before, though its existence was known and indeed had been publicized in 1999 by the ICRC itself in a   press release . It is not a full-fledged identity document or passport but rather a temporary " laisser-passer " intended for refugees, displaced and stateless people and others who have no travel documents and are therefore unable to go either to their country of origin or residence or to another country willing to receive them.

These documents were created in 1945 to help tens of thousands of concentration camp survivors, former prisoners of war, deportees, forced labourers and other stranded civilians who had no valid travel documents. Many of them approached the ICRC for help in securing the papers they needed. Since then, ICRC travel documents have helped more than half a million people reach new homes. ICRC records show that more than 9,000 travel documents were issued between February 1945 and early 1946 alone. Almost all of them were for people caught up in the maelstrom of the immediate post-war period in Europe, without legal documents or proof of nationality and often desperate to start a new life elsewhere. The " laisser-passer " system exists to this day. In 2006, the ICRC issued more than 5,800 travel documents.


The ICRC has previously deplored the fact that Eichmann and other Nazi criminals misused its travel documents to cover their tracks. Writing in the International Herald Tribune on 10 March 1992, the then director of the organization's Department of Principles and Law, Yves Sandoz, wrote: “These men [Barbie, Eichmann and Mengele ] and their secret supporters took shameless advantage of a humanitarian service which benefited half a million people, mostly survivors of concentration camps and refugees from Eastern Europe.”

The document that has now appeared in Argentina is authentic. Adolf Eichmann obtained it after submitting a request to the ICRC in which he us ed a false name and a forged identity card. Neither during the immediate post-war period nor today does the ICRC have the means to verify the identity of applicants for travel documents. Such identity checks can be carried out only by the authorities of the countries to which they are travelling and which have accepted the ICRC's travel documents.


The ICRC continues to open its archives to researchers interested in the organization's work during the Second World War and its aftermath. While the ICRC has not archived copies of the travel documents themselves, it has retained records of the requests for them.


  See also Dialogue with the past: the ICRC and the Nazi death camps by François Bugnion, 05.11.2002