The archives of the ITS were opened to the public in November 2007. What impact has this had on the work of the service?
It has brought the service an entirely new set of "clients" – researchers – in addition to the victims and their families who traditionally make requests. While the latter usually seek information about individuals, research workers are interested in broad historical topics. The ITS has had to adapt its working procedures to accommodate this new focus. Search criteria have had to be adjusted, and decisions have had to be taken to strike a balance between the need to protect sensitive personal data and the need for the information required for historical research to be made available to the public.
Why are you now focusing on areas of the former Soviet Union?
During the Cold War, the fact that the ITS was located in Western Europe made it difficult, or even impossible, for victims and their families from the Soviet bloc to go there. In order to compensate for this long period, the ITS and the ICRC are currently making a concerted effort to make the service better known within three successor countries of the Soviet Union: Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Large parts of these areas were occupied by Nazi Germany, and the number of victims is very high.
This initiative by the ITS, aimed at the last living representatives of the survivor generation, is intended to make sure that all interested persons will have an opportunity to contact the service. Because the archives have been opened to the public, applicants can now receive copies of the files that document their own fate or that of a relative under the National Socialist regime. Previously, they would have received only a single page setting out the bare essentials. In addition, the ITS is now able to receive and process requests in Russian, which it was previously unable to do.
Sixty-five years after the end of the war, is the ITS still receiving individual requests from victims or their relatives?
In territories of the then Soviet Union occupied by Nazi Germany, 25 per cent of the civilian population died. This means that, even now, just about everyone has a relative who disappeared or died during that time. Survivors are still with us, and they want to pass on what they know before it gets lost. But an increasing number of requests are also being made by members of the younger generation, which shows that the need to understand the past remains very high.
What are you doing to make the ITS better known in the former Soviet Union?
Five joint ICRC-ITS missions to Moscow, Kiev and Minsk were carried out over the past year to contact other archives covering similar periods and topics, National Red Cross Societies –the most important partners of the ITS – and victims' associations and research institutions. Proposals were made for various cooperation projects, some of which are already materializing.
Have these missions had an impact?
The trend is clear: there has been an upsurge in requests from these countries. The ITS is proud that its website has been available in Russian since May 2010. The number of visits to this portal increased fourfold following the recent missions to the region. Applicants can fill in an online request in Russian. The whole service is free of charge for survivors and next of kin.
The ICRC will pull out from the ITS at the end of 2012. What will be the consequences for the service?
With the opening of the archive for research purposes, the focus of the work at the ITS will increasingly be on historical research, documentation, archival work and education. These activities, which go far beyond the ITS's original task of providing tracing services, do not fall within the ICRC's core areas of responsibility.
It is for this reason that the ICRC has come to an agreement with the 11-member International Commission for the International Tracing Service, the governing body of the ITS (see box), to withdraw from its management role by the end of 2012. This will pave the way for a management structure to be adopted that corresponds to the new situation. Negotiations are under way with the Federal Archive of Germany with the aim of reaching an agreement under which that institution will advise and collaborate with the ITS.
The ICRC will remain associated with the ITS, as it will have the role of an observer and will continue to share its expertise in tracing.