Denying the right to memory

Why do we need a public record of war crimes? Forgive and forget say those for whom the revelation of secrets might be politically disastrous or whose moral judgement might be called into question. Publish and be damned say others for whom truth-telling and probity are the foundations of democratic accountability.

An academic is calling on the British government to obtain and make public a little known United Nations archive documenting 10,000 cases of Second World war crimes. The documents include reports of 2,000 prosecutions and thousands more of individuals suspected of war crimes. They have never been made public.

Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, believes the United Nations War Crimes Commission archive, held at the UN headquarters in New York, is not just of interest to historians but could be invaluable in prosecuting contemporary crimes. “We’ve asked the British government to obtain a copy, which it is entitled to do, for the use of researchers here, and that the British government should support the publication at a minimum of these 2,000 trials, the records of which are in New York.”

Plesch believes almost all those named as suspects in the archive are now dead, although tracking down Nazi war criminals is not over. In 2009 Josef Scheungraber, now 92, was sentenced to life in prison by a Munich court for the deaths of 10 people in a village in Tuscany in 1944. But he has remained free as lawyers launched successive appeals. In 2011 John Demjanjuk was convicted at the age of 91 as an accomplice in the murder of 27,900 Jews at Sobibor in Poland. He spent decades fighting deportation orders from Cleveland, Ohio, and had already won a reprieve from a death sentence passed by an Israeli court in 1986.

The UN archive has only been accessed by a handful of historians under tightly controlled conditions. Permission is needed from a historian’s own government and the UN and only a handful of academics have obtained it. They are forbidden to take notes. Plesch’s demand for the archive to be opened is backed by Ben Barkow, director of the Wiener Library in London, the world’s oldest Holocaust memorial institution. The library would be prepared to house a copy of the archive under closed conditions while the question of public access is decided.

The archive includes almost 400,000 pages of documents, mainly transferred to 184 reels of microfilm but not digitally stored or indexed. It contains the records of the UN War Crimes Commission established in October 1943 by 17 allied nations to list and compile evidence and court records on alleged war criminals. Only a few of the cases were prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46, but thousands of other now almost forgotten trials were held in 15 different countries.

Opening the archive to public scrutiny would set a precedent that many governments might wish to avoid. Is it going to lead to the Spanish government conceding repeated requests to come clean about crimes committed 70 years ago during the Spanish Civil War by people who are now dead and whose crimes are covered by an amnesty passed in 1977? Will France reveal secrets about the Algerian War? Will the USA say what really took place during the “war on terror”? Not a chance. Governments will continue to repress the public right to memory.

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