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History of the GRC Tracing Service

How it all started

Relatives searching for family members after the second world war

Caption: Second World War: Relatives searching for family members who went missing during the war.

The search for family members separated by armed conflict and the clarification of missing persons' fates have been part of the work of the German Red Cross and its sister societies abroad from the very beginning. The German Red Cross took on this task for the first time throughout Germany during the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and subsequently pursued it during the First and Second World Wars. The end of the Second World War presents the German Red Cross with a new challenge due to the confusing situation, the large streams of refugees and in view of millions of missing soldiers. Since that time, the GRC Tracing Service has been operating in its current institutional form.

At the end of the Second World War, mostly volunteers register the details of persons being sought and those searching and collect information about the whereabouts of missing persons. 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” and in September 1945 it was transferred to the then GRC Regional Enquiry Service in Hamburg. It resumed its work as the “Hamburg Zone Centre”.

Almost at the same time, the Tracing Service began its work in Munich, the zone centre in the US sector. In August 1945, the Bavarian Red Cross called for the first time on the population to register missing persons, evacuees and refugees.

Research and family reunification

Recording tracing requests - Second World War

The Tracing Service helpers record tracing requests, search for missing relatives and strive to reunite families separated across national borders. Shortly after the end of the war and under the leadership of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Tracing Service employees already started collecting documents on German civilians who wanted to leave areas which were formerly German, but which had become Polish, Soviet, Czechoslovakian or else after the end of the war. Despite all adversities, even in the four occupation zones at that time, a total of 42,557 people from Poland were finally able to enter the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and about 40,000 people the German Democratic Republic (GDR) by March 1951 within the framework of the so-called “Operation Link”.


Registration of prisoners of war and missing persons

Registration of prisoners of war and missing persons

After the founding of the FRG, the West German Federal Government issued the “Call for Registration of Prisoners of War and Missing Persons” in February 1950, as a result of which 1.7 million soldiers, civilians and children were soon reported as still missing or in captivity.

So as to achieve better results, the GRC Tracing Service merged the two indexes of persons being sought and those searching recorded at the offices of Munich and Hamburg in April 1950. The Central Name Indexwas established; today, it contains more than 50 million index cards. In the second half of the 1970s, the Children's Tracing Service, which was responsible for the search and reunification of unaccompanied children and their parents, and the tracing of persons who had gone missing in the territory of the former GDR, were combined at the Tracing Service Munich Office.

By May 1950, around 14 million tracing requests had been made since the end of the war. In 8.8 million cases, the Tracing Service could provide information clarifying the fate of next of kin.

By December 1955, a total of 1,921,000 war returnees had been questioned about missing persons. In the process, 942,000 so-called returnee statements with information about missing persons or prisoners were submitted. In January 1952 the publication of the 51-volume UN documentation “German Prisoners of War and Missing Members of the Wehrmacht” was launched; it was completed in 1955. The purpose of the publication is to document German war losses and to enable international inquiries into missing persons. In May 1957, the German Red Cross and the Soviet Red Cross agree to cooperate in tracing service matters. By the end of the 1980s, the GRC Tracing Service received almost half a million requests for information from the Red Cross of the former USSR. In December 1957, the Tracing Service begins printing the missing persons’ photo collections: 225 individual volumes (199 on members of the Wehrmacht and 26 on civilians) containing the personal data of 1.52 million missing persons and 900,000 photos. A total of 118,400 volumes are printed. By 1964, the GRC Tracing Service had used these photo collections in a total of 2.65 million returnee interviews.

Help and support for ethnic German repatriates and their families

Family reunification of Germans and German nationals from Eastern Europe with their relatives living in Germany remained difficult until the turn of 1989/90. As a rule, these relatives were not allowed to leave their countries of origin; only 0.5 percent succeeded at their first attempt. Up until 1987, the GRC Tracing Service had a record of almost every family who had left the country.

Within the framework of the international Red Cross movement, the German Red Cross was repeatedly able to successfully influence the Eastern European governments of the time and thus achieve that they would allow emigration for the purpose of family reunification in justified humanitarian cases.

Initial talks with the Polish Red Cross and the Soviet Red Cross in 1955 and 1957 brought movement to the issue of German minorities. A real breakthrough was achieved in October 1975 with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which was held in Helsinki.

In the run-up to the conference, the GRC Tracing Service was already able to provide more assistance than before to Germans in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, including help with subsistence and health care. Successively, Poland and Romania as well as the former USSR will then allow Germans to leave the country within the framework of family reunification.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the perestroika that had already begun in the former Soviet Union, there has been an enormous surge in German immigration from Eastern Europe. In 1990 alone, 400,000 people from these countries entered Germany. However, this turn of events, which was positive for separated families, led to a series of changes in the admission procedure for ethnic German repatriates in the 1990s: The influx is no longer to take place in an uncontrolled manner, but only after prior approval. The amendment of the expellee act, which entails a continuous tightening of the admission requirements for ethnic German repatriates, also becomes a challenge for the staff of the GRC Tracing Service, who to this day advise the affected persons in all questions of family reunification.

Help and support for refugees and their families

Since the 1970s, more and more people in Germany have been seeking protection from armed conflicts in their home countries. Many families are separated on their flight to Germany or lose contact with relatives who have remained behind. For this reason, the GRC Tracing Service first began in the 1970s to assist refugees living in Germany in the search for their family members.

Never in history have so many people worldwide been forced to flee as today: Many affected people have moved to other regions of their country of origin, to neighbouring countries or have migrated to Europe. The number of minors and children who have fled unaccompanied, i.e. without their parents, relatives or the support of adults, is high. Often those arriving in Germany on dangerous escape routes have lost their relatives or have been separated and since then are uncertain about their whereabouts. They are tormented by concern for their families and uncertainty about the fates of their family members. The GRC Tracing Service can help affected people in Germany, also in making contact with relatives who may be in captivity. Many legal and factual hurdles often have to be overcome before separated relatives can live together again. The GRC Tracing Service supports refugees and their relatives in the process of family reunification in Germany. In the GRC Tracing Service support centres, those affected receive qualified advice on the legal requirements, taking into account national and European law.

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