If I haven’t reiterated recently how honored I am to be on this tour, here is as good as any a place to do so. The materials housed in the Federal Foreign Office Archives are available to be viewed and used by the German public. If you were a German citizen and wanted to look at a document here, you would submit a request and then the archivists would bring your request to the reading room. Our group had an opportunity to go into the archive itself, which most German citizens would not get a chance to do.
The building that houses the archive was a bank up until the reunification. After the bank closed, the building was redesigned to house the Federal Foreign Office. The archive was put into the three underground floors. A second building was built across the yard for the rest of the office.
Our guide, Herbert Karbach, told us that what made this archive unique is that the archives of all the German government ministries are kept at the central Bundes Archiv. Because of the historical importance of the documents kept by the Foreign Office, it was important to have a separate archive for them.
The documents date back to the 1870s, when the German states first unified into a single state. Documents that predate unification can be found in the archives of the individual states. Karbach said that the collection is fairly complete because it suffered “not so very great losses” during the war.
The two important tasks of the archivists is to provide information to the ministry and to provide information to the public. Any file older than 30 years is open to the public. In the case of a file about individual people, it is available either 30 years after the death of the person in question or 110 years after birth if the date of death is not know. “Some people are rude enough to die without telling us,” Karbach joked.
Obviously, preserving the 25,000 meters of documents is of the utmost importance. The room is air conditioned to 16-17°C and 50% humidity. The archive boxes are made of a non-aging material (or so the company that produces them assures the archivists, Karbach added). Many documents have been scanned onto black and white microfiche. “It is not beautiful, but it is efficient,” he said.
They are also beginning to look into digital scanning, although Karbach pointed out that no one can guarantee that digital data produced today will be accessible in 20 years. The advantage is that digital scans can be in color, which is nice for the illuminated pages on older treaties.
Because of the nature of the archives, many of the documents are grouped by countries. If a country changes name, they do not re-catalog the older documents under the new name, so it’s important for the archivists to know a nation’s previous names. The original classification system was convoluted, so 20 years ago, they created a simpler number system. Fortunately, a vast collection of old log books used when Foreign Office workers checked out documents helped track down and classify all the documents.
Karbach selected a number of documents from the archive, which he showed off with particular glee. Using gloves to protect the documents, he brought out a treaty between the U.S. and Prussia about the military status of immigrants. It featured an illuminated text as a front page and, as was the custom of the time, a seal attached to the bound document. Noting that other seals had containers made of silver, he said that in a sign of “Prussian frugality,” this particular seal was actually copper with silver paint on it.
He next showed a report by a Prussian envoy to Denmark. The envoy was invited to attend a performance by Sarah Bernhardt and afterwards went to a formal dinner with her. When asked to make a toast during dinner, he praised Bernhardt as “the Belle of France.” She then gave her own toast, in which she raised a glass to “the whole of France.” Prussia had recently taken over the Alsace-Lorraine region after the Franco-Prussian war, you see.
Karbach pointed out in the margins of the report notes written in pencil by Otto von Bismarck, which had been traced over in pen by a clerk later. The envoy had noted that the Danes had assured him that his toast had gone over well with everyone. Bismarck wrote, “Not me.”
Next, Karbach showed a copy of the Serbian response to the Austro-Hungarian empire’s ultimatum after the Archduke Ferdinand. The ultimatum was meant to be unfulfillable, and German Kaiser Wilhelm II had publicly offered support to Austria and Hungary. However, at the end of the Serbian response, he wrote “After this, I never would have ordered mobilization.”
He also pointed out a map that was present at a meeting between Germany and the Soviet Union before World War II that resulted in a non-aggression pact between the two countries and divvied up Poland after Germany invaded. The map was signed by the German foreign minister and by Joseph Stalin himself.
The history geek in me had an absolute blast visiting the archives, and obviously it was a tremendous honor to do so.