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History of the GRC Tracing Service
The search for relatives who, due to war and armed conflicts, had become separated, and the clarification of the fate of the missing has been, since its inception, a part of the work of the German Red Cross and its sister societies abroad. The German Red Cross took over this activity for the first time throughout Germany during the Franco-German war in 1870 and continued this task during the First and Second World War. The end of the Second World War created a new challenge for the German Red Cross due to the confused situation, the huge influx of refugees and the millions of missing soldiers. The Tracing Service as a permanent institution of the German Red Cross came into being.
It was above all volunteers who registered the lost and those searching for them, and gathered information about missing persons at the end of the Second World War. In May 1945 a Tracing Service office was founded in Flensburg, under the name: “German Red Cross, refugee relief organisation, investigation service, central tracing file”. This file was transferred to the former GRC regional enquiry service in Hamburg in September 1945, continuing its work as Hamburg headquarters.
Almost simultaneously, the Tracing Service work began in Munich, the headquarters of the US sector. The Bavarian Red Cross had called for the registration of missing persons, evacuees and refugees for the first time in August 1945.
The Tracing Service assistants recorded tracing requests, searched for missing relatives and tried to reunite separated families spread out among different countries. Under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the employees of the Tracing Service soon started collecting documents about German civilians who wanted to emigrate from the former German territories, which after the war belonged to Poland, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, among others. Against all odds, even in the four occupied zones, a total of 42,557 people from Poland were finally be able to enter the Federal Republic of Germany, and around 40,000 people the former German Democratic Republic in the context of “Operation Link”, which continued until March 1951.
After the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany, in February 1950 the young West German government issued: "A call for the registration of prisoners of war and missing persons"; as a consequence of which 1.7 million soldiers, civilians and children were quickly registered as missing or in captivity.
In order to further improve the search results, the GRC Tracing Service merged the two files on persons searching and persons searched for on the Munich and Hamburg sites into one archive in Munich in April 1950. And so it was that the Central Name Index came into existence, which today counts more than 50 million records. In the second half of the 1970s the children’s Tracing Service, a service that took over the search and reunification of unaccompanied children and their parents, and enquiries into persons who had disappeared on the territories of the former GDR, were also combined in Munich.
From the end of the war until May 1950 around 14 million tracing requests were made. In 8.8 million cases the Tracing Service was able to pass on concrete information about the fate of next of kin.
Until December 1955 a total of 1.921 million returning soldiers had been questioned about missing persons. In this connection, 942,000 so-called returnee declarations providing information on missing persons and/or detainees were submitted. In January 1952 work began on the production of the 51-volume UN documentation “German Prisoners of War and Missing Members of the Wehrmacht” which was completed in 1955. The objective was to document the German losses suffered during the war and to allow international investigation. In May 1957 the GRC and the Soviet Red Cross agreed to help each other with their tracing efforts. By the end of the 1980s, the Tracing Service had received almost half a million pieces of information from the Red Cross of the former USSR.
In December 1957 the Tracing Service began printing the 25 volumes of the Missing Persons’ Photo Collections (199 volumes were dedicated to members of the German Wehrmacht and 26 to civilians). These works contained the personal details of 1.52 million missing persons with 90,000 pictures. In total, 118,400 volumes were produced. These photo collections were used to interview a total of 2.65 million returnees by 1964.
Reuniting Germans and ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe with their families in Germany remained difficult until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989/90. Usually these persons were not allowed to emigrate from their countries of origin. Only 0.5 percent were successful first time round. By 1987, the Tracing Service knew almost all the families that had emigrated.
Together with the international Red Cross movement, the German Red Cross was time and again able to successfully influence the Eastern European governments at that time and arrange for people to emigrate so that families could be reunited in justified humanitarian cases.
The first talks with the Polish Red Cross and the Soviet Union Red Cross in 1955 and 1957 brought about progress regarding the question of German minorities. One real breakthrough came about in October 1975 through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe that took place in Helsinki.
Prior to the conference the GRC Tracing Service was allowed to provide more assistance than in the past both materially and in terms of health services to those Germans residing in eastern and southeast Europe. First Poland and then Romania, as well as the former Soviet Union allowed the emigration of Germans for the purpose of family reunification.
Since the fall of the wall and the onset of Perestroika in the former Soviet Union there had been a huge rise in the immigration of Germans from Eastern Europe. In 1990 alone, 400,000 people emigrated from these countries to Germany. This joyful change for separated families led, however, to a series of changes in the admission procedures for (ethnic) repatriates. Immigration was no longer to be uncontrolled but instead take place only with prior consent. The amendment of the Displaced Persons Act, which involved a continual tightening of the admission conditions for (ethnic) repatriates, became a challenge for the employees of the GRC Tracing Service who were on hand to advise all those affected by family reunification issues.
Since the 1970s ever more people have sought protection in Germany from wars and internal state conflicts in their countries of origin. Many families were separated from one another during their way to Germany or lost contact with their relatives who stayed behind. For this reason, the GRC Tracing Service first began to support refugees living in Germany in their search for relatives in the 1970s. Until the present day it is still helping relatives to re-establish contact with one another, above all with imprisoned family members, and advises refugees living in Germany of the possibilities of family reunification in Germany.