ICRC WWI prisoner archives join UNESCO Memory of the World

15-11-2007 Feature

Archives recording the fate of about 2 million prisoners captured during World War One have entered UNESCO's Memory of the World. The occasion was marked by a ceremony at the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva attended by Swiss Vice-President, Pascal Couchepin, and the ICRC President, Jakob Kellenberger.

©ICRC/T. Gassmann/CER-E-00742 
Federal Councillor Pascal Couchepin and Geneva State Councillor Charles Beer 


The official ceremony to mark the entry of the archives into the Memory of the World comes just days after the 89th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War One. UNESCO's aim is to preserve mankind's documentary heritage.   

The data in the ICRC archives covers prisoners from 14 countries which detaining authorities sent to the organization. The ICRC set up the Agency at the outbreak of the conflict to try to restore contact between separated family members. The ICRC also visited many prisoner of war camps to check on conditions.

" It was the first time in history that this kind of tracing was done, " explains Martin Morger, of the ICRC's archives service.

The volunteers maintained the lists of prisoners provided by German as well as Allied authorities in Europe, Africa and Asia. These were bound into 2,413 black volumes covering the period 1914-1923. Individual cards were typed up for each name and updated if the prisoner was moved, received medical care or died.

UNESCO, which agreed in June to include the ICRC archives in its register said that they provided " testimony to the extent of human suffering during the First World War, but also of the pioneering action to protect civilians. "

The ICRC plans to restore and digitalize the archives by 2014 -- the 100th anniversary of the war's start – and make them available on the Internet.

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