How to look for records of... German Foreign Ministry and Italian documents 1867-1945 captured by the British
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1. Why use this guide?
At the end of the Second World War, Western Allied forces captured German Foreign Ministry documents, covering the period 1867-1945, a smaller number of Italian documents on foreign and internal affairs covering Benito Mussolini’s time in power and some files from the Japanese embassies in Berlin and Rome. The original records were returned to the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s, and to Italy in 1947, but The National Archives holds copies of the documents. This guide provides an overview of these records and advice on how to find individual items within the copied documents.
The originals are now available at the German Foreign Ministry Archives in Berlin and the German Federal Archives (collection ‘Deutsches Reich’). A set of copies of the captured German Foreign Ministry documents is also held by the United States National Archives and Records Administration. Furthermore, a number of academic institutions in the UK and USA which were involved in reviewing and filming these records still hold copies of those portions that they microfilmed.
The majority of these documents are, of course, written in German, Italian or Japanese.
2. The story behind these records
The original records were returned to the Federal Republic of Germany in sections in 1950, 1956 and 1958 and documents captured by the Soviets were also returned to Germany. In this section we describe, in brief, the events leading up to their return.
2.1 An overview of the German Foreign Ministry and its records
The German Foreign Ministry (Auswärtiges Amt) was created at the formation of Germany in 1871. Until 1919 it doubled as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Prussia. Between the First and Second World Wars, it underwent a number of reorganisations (these are described in GFM 1/14 and GFM 32-34 – see below).
In response to the threat of Allied action, between 1943 and 1945 the German Foreign Ministry decided to move the bulk of its Political Archive to safer rural areas. Only current working files remained in Berlin. As the military situation deteriorated, some records were microfilmed and/or deliberately destroyed, while others fell into the hands of the Soviets. Most records from Germany’s diplomatic missions in Europe survived the war, but only relatively few from its diplomatic missions overseas.
2.2 The records in Allied hands
In spring 1945, specially created Anglo-American expert teams were sent to Germany to search for political and economic archives, particularly those which shed light on the origins of the war, and Germany’s operations and war aims. The experts assembled several tons of German Foreign Ministry documents discovered in the Harz Mountains and Thuringia, together with documents from other places of deposit at Marburg Castle. Alongside the captured Italian documents, a small number of Japanese files were also seized, from the Japanese embassies in Berlin and Rome. These established a unified collection of the captured material.
The records were appraised for microfilming by the German War Documents Project (GWDP) set up by the British and United States governments in 1946 and later joined by the French (these records are now held in GFM 1 and GFM 33-35, see below). In summer 1948 the collection was sent to Britain, where it was housed at Whaddon Hall in Buckinghamshire. Until 1952 only official representatives of the British, US and French governments had access to the records.
After 1952 universities and scholars were permitted to sponsor microfilming programmes, but mainly only of pre-1920 records (these records are in GFM 6-25, described below).
3. Understanding the records: content and arrangement
The copied records are held at The National Archives under department reference GFM.
Only those records judged worthy of historical interest were copied (around 60% of the total captured by the British and Americans). The records are largely in microfilm format and, with a very few exceptions (such as the Stresemann papers in GFM 9), these mircofilm copies only cover the period up to 1920. Some files were microfilmed more than once, some only in part, others not at all. There are, however, paper copies of records covering 1867-1945, from the North German Federation (Norddeutscher Bund) to the German Reich. Many of these are extremely poor-quality photostats, illegible in places. For more details see the catalogue description of GFM.
The records have been grouped into several dozen series, described below. Click on the record series references in the table for more detailed information on each series. Note that series GFM 2-5 and GFM 26-32 contain no records. Record series GFM 26 to GFM 29 and GFM 31 and GFM 32 used to comprise material from the German Naval Archives. In 1966 it was transferred from The National Archives to the Ministry of Defence and can be viewed by appointment at the Naval Historical Branch.
Italian records are in GFM 36 and Japanese records in GFM 34 and GFM 35.
|Record series||Content and arrangement|
|GFM 1||A mixture of finding aids and repertoria, mostly created by the GWDP researchers and microfilmers|
|GFM 6 to GFM 25||Special collections chosen by particular individuals, institutions or governments for filming. For example, GFM 8 was a selection copied by the South African government, and includes primarily files which related to Africa.They cover a wide range of areas of special interest. Note that GFM 6-25 does contain copies of records not found in GFM 33-36|
|GFM 33||Paper copies of the microfilmed records 1867-1945, also includes some records from the Ministry of Armaments and War Production, Reich Chancellery, Naval Archives, and from the Prussian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the North German Federation. Arranged in microfilm serial number order|
|GFM 34||Mostly duplicates of GFM 33 and GFM 36 and records of: the Japanese Embassy, Rome (use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search within GFM 34 using Japanese AND embassy), Austrian topographical material (GFM 34/1037-1039, GFM 34/1109-1114, GFM 34/1126-1134), German agencies in Italy (GFM 34/3270, GFM 34/3314)|
|GFM 35||Microfilms of the following: The ‘Whaddon Special Films’ – copies of documents used in the Documents on German foreign policy volumes. This duplicates material in GFM 33, GFM 34 and other GFM series (GFM 35/1-233, with background notes in GFM 35/365). Records of the German consulates in Tsingtao, Chefoo, Hankow and Yokohama (GFM 35/240-300). Records of Japanese and Manchurian diplomatic and commercial representatives in other Axis states (GFM 34/300-317). The ‘Von Loesch collection’ (also known as the ‘Buro RAM files’ or the ‘Film Find’), correspondence between and meeting minutes involving Hitler and Ribbentrop between 1938 and 1943 (GFM 35/319-358). These records are not catalogued, but indexes to them are in GFM 35/318 and GFM 1/29)Prussian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Setting up of overseas colonies and naval stations 1860 to 1884 (GFM 35/359-363)Biographical data on German diplomats (GFM 35/364)|
|GFM 36||Paper copies of the following:Italian documents on foreign and internal affairs c1920-1945 (‘the Italian Collection’) including Mussolini’s private papers, and other private and official papers from leading Italian ministers and ministries. There are corresponding microfilms in GFM 34|
4. Understanding the records: how to search
A good way to get started is to consult the published Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945 series, copies of which are held at The National Archives library. Compiled from the German records themselves, this series, published by the British government, aimed to place in the public domain the most significant documents of the German Foreign Ministry relating to the build up to and execution of the Second World War.
A search for the documents themselves usually begins in our online catalogue but there are also published finding aids which may aid a search.
4.1 Using the online catalogue
Use our online catalogue to search for records by date and by keyword. To search across the entire GFM department, use the advanced catalogue search, placing GFM in one of the reference boxes. Alternatively, go to the GFM catalogue description for a full list of series references and links. Click on the series links to search that series, again using keywords and dates.
Keywords can be in English or German. For example, try both ‘France’ and ‘Frankreich’, ‘Rhineland’ and ‘Rheinland’. The catalogue entries for GFM 1 and GFM 33-35 are largely in English, whilst those for GFM 6-25 are in German. The extent and quality of catalogue descriptions varies.
4.2 Using published catalogues in German
Use the following published catalogues (only of use if you understand German), available through The National Archives library, for basic descriptions of the files in German, details of whether the files were filmed (in total or in part) and serial prefixes and serial/frame numbers of the films. They cover almost all of the records in the series in the table above with the exception of GFM 1, GFM 35 and those records that are not duplicates in GFM 34:
- Catalogue of Files and Microfilms of the German Foreign Ministry Archives 1867-1920 (Oxford 1959)
- Catalogue of Files and Microfilms of the German Foreign Ministry Archives, 1920-1945 (4 volumes: Hoover Institution 1962 to 1972)
Each volume contains an index of countries, topics and people, again in German.
Each volume also includes a list of serial/frame numbers in numerical order at the back. You can convert serial prefixes and serial/frame numbers into National Archives references as follows:
- Go to the advanced catalogue search, placing GFM in one of the reference boxes, and search with the serial prefix (for example, SA). This should establish the records series (SA, for example, is GFM 6)
- With the records series established, go to the paper version of The National Archives catalogue (in the Open Reading Rooms) and browse to the respective serial/frame number
Our catalogue only generally provides one serial number, even where a file was filmed more than once. The only way to establish whether a further copy exists is to look through all the relevant National Archives series lists covering files of the same date.
4.3 Searching in GFM 33 and GFM 34
It’s much easier to search the paper copies in GFM 33 rather than the duplicate films in GFM 34. Each item in GFM 33 has a description in our catalogue but the records in GFM 34 are not described at all. Furthermore, the paper copies are generally easier to leaf through than the microfilm.
If it is necessary to convert a GFM 33 reference into a GFM 34 reference, paper conversion charts are available at The National Archives in Kew, placed at the start of the paper catalogue volume for GFM 33.
Occasionally pieces within GFM 33 and GFM 34 (as well as GFM 35) are marked ‘wanting’, which in most cases indicates that the files were removed from the original Foreign Office collection and might now be found at The Imperial War Museum.
5. Related material in Foreign Office and Cabinet Office records
The following records in The National Archives also relate to these documents:
- Records of the Foreign Office committee (later a Cabinet committee) that administered the collection of enemy records and the GWDP: CAB 146
- Records of the British Embassy in Washington relating to these documents can be found in FO 115/4239-4244 for 1946, in FO 115/4308-4309 for 1947 and in FO 115/4360 for 1948
- Records of the Allied Commission for Austria (British Element) Headquarters and Regional Files (ACA series) relating to these records can be found in FO 1020/2796
6. Further reading
Robert Wolfe ed, Captured German and Related Documents: a National Archives Conference (Ohio University Press, 1974)