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Prisoners of war and missing persons

After the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in March 1950, Federal President Theodor Heuss called on all citizens to have their missing persons registered. Thereupon people flocked to the town halls and offices to provide personal details of their relatives on prepared index cards. The Federal Government transferred the collected cases to the GRC Tracing Service for clarification.

After 1949, the registration of missing persons was limited to the western part of Germany, so that searching persons in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and in the countries of Eastern Europe were not included in the registrations. As a result, the GRC Tracing Service still receives new tracing requests today, more than 75 years after the end of the Second World War. For this reason, the actual total number of missing persons cannot be determined conclusively.

Nor is a full clarification of all fates likely to be possible in the future: Many people disappeared in the turmoil of the war without any eyewitnesses or written records. For instance, after the collapse of the Eastern Front, hundreds of thousands of people were taken captive, but they were only registered once they reached the transport train and destination camp administrations in the Soviet Union. People who died on the long march there will probably forever belong to those whose fates remain unknown.

Between 1945 and 1950, the GRC Tracing Service received a total of about 14 million inquiries about missing persons whose whereabouts were unknown. The GRC Tracing Service helped to solve many cases, but the fates of about 1.3 million people remain uncertain to this day. As a family member, you can contact the GRC Tracing Service with a new tracing request or inquire about the current status of investigations into a missing person case that has already been recorded.

You can submit your tracing request online here. The Tracing Service is available to you personally in a GRC regional or district branch near you.

Tracing methods

The fates of many missing persons can be clarified in the course of extensive questioning of all returnees released from Soviet custody to West Germany. The gathered information on unsolved fates is bundled in the missing persons’ photo collections published nationwide by the German Red Cross, which the GRC Tracing Service makes available in digital form today.

Tracing reports are broadcast through the media and in particular on the radio. At the same time, the GRC and the Soviet Red Cross agree in May 1957 to assist one another in their tracing activities. As part of the cooperation of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the GRC Tracing Service can - within an annually limited contingent - direct inquiries about German missing persons to the sister society if there is concrete evidence that the person was a prisoner of war. The Soviet Red Cross then initiates inquiries with the competent Soviet authorities and transmits the results to the GRC Tracing Service. About 450,000 tracing requests for missing persons are thus submitted to the Soviet Red Cross between 1957 and 1991. In a total of around 80,000 cases, the fate of the missing person can actually be clarified and the relatives of the person sought can be notified of a concrete date of death.

Reconstruction of fates

When the available tracing options are largely exhausted, the GRC Tracing Service focuses on group research. As of the 1960s, the GRC began reconstructing the history of missing persons on the basis of so-called GRC reports. These reports reconstruct the course of battles and combat activities of individual military units in order to depict the last stages of life and the presumed fate of the missing persons.

The Tracing Service has comprehensive material at its disposal for compiling these reports:

  • Missing persons reports from the troops
  • Military historical research results on the course of fighting at the different sections of the front
  • The missing person's last personal message
  • The tracing request of the relatives
  • Statements from comrades and military superiors
  • Statements from surviving returnees who fought in the same military unit and on the same battlefield
  • Reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

The available material helps to determine what happened in a military unit on a specific day, at a specific location: Whether there were tank or air strikes, heavy artillery fire or infantry fighting, and what losses or captures were recorded. The fate of the unit in question and its soldiers is then reconstructed on the basis of the course of the war events. By the time this work was discontinued in 1991 after 25 years, a total of 1.12 million GRC reports had been compiled, of which 1.09 million dealt with soldiers and 30,000 with civilians.

Evaluation of Russian archive holdings

Only Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy and the opening up of the Soviet Union finally allowed a detailed indexing of Russian archive sources. The gradual transfer of data collected from the prisoner and internee files, which were mainly stored in Moscow, began as early as 1992. Subsequently, the GRC Tracing Service successively concluded agreements with various archives on the acquisition of information and data. This allowed the GRC Tracing Service to obtain information from other archives and, for the first time, digital copies of Russian documents. With the help of this information, the GRC Tracing Service has been able to clarify about 255,000 further missing persons’ fates from 1992 to the present.

Relatives and those affected can personally request copies of existing prisoner-of-war and internee files from the GRC Tracing Service.

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