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The missing persons of the Second World War

Intergenerational interest
Research methods

Intergenerational interest in clarification of fate

Around 20 million people in Germany are directly and indirectly affected by the Second World War. These people, now between 60 and over 90 years old, go through intensification in their memories of their own past with increasing age; many of them are still burdened today with their experiences of the war, regardless of whether they made these experiences as an adult or a child. The effects of such experiences show themselves mostly only in the later years.

Search for missing persons after the end of the Second World War. DRK tracing serviceBut an increasing number of people in the following generation are also dealing with the unresolved destinies of their family members. Children, who have often grown up without fathers because the latter were drafted into the war become now as adults more interested than ever in the fate of their father and their own heritage. They often find papers regarding their unsuccessful search for missing persons in the legacies of their deceased parents or mothers. Many take up their search again and enquire about its current status. If they receive a notification confirming the death of their loved one, they often ask for additional information about the last stages of the person’s life and their place of death. These people have a right to know the fate of their missing loved ones. The GRC Tracing Service dedicates itself completely to this humanitarian task and, thanks to its vast data collections, can in many cases provide more information.

Registration of prisoners of war and missing persons

In March 1950 after the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, President Theodor Heuss called upon all West Germany’s citizens to register their missing loved ones. West Germans flocked to the town halls and government offices to record all the personal data they had about the then still missing on index cards.

In total, around 1.7 million soldiers, civilians and children were registered about whose whereabouts no more details were known. The federal government transferred the collected case notes to the GRC Tracing Service for clarification. Many of these cases were clarified, but even today there are still 1.3 million people registered with the Tracing Service whose fates are still unresolved.

Since collecting this data was limited to West Germany, those people searching for missing persons in the former GDR and in eastern European countries were not taken into account. For this reason, even today, 70 years after the end of the Second World War, there are still completely new tracing requests being submitted. The actual total number of the missing is therefore still not known.

A complete clarification of all destinies is unfortunately not possible as many people disappeared in the chaos of war without written records being made. Hundreds of thousands of people ended up in captivity after the collapse of the Eastern Front; yet these people were only registered by the administrations of the transportation trains and the camps to which they were sent. People who died on the long marches there will always be counted among the missing, whose fate remains unclear.

Returnees being questioned by Red cross nurses. DRK tracing serviceTracing methods

A significant number of destinies could be clarified with the help of an extensive returnees’ interview of all those who were released from Soviet custody into West Germany.

There were tracing requests put out by the media - in particular radio broadcasting - as well as a close collaboration with the tracing service of the Soviet Red Cross, including a comparison of all registration archives.

Reconstruction of individual fates

Preparation of a report Photo: DRK tracing serviceIf the fate of a person could not be clarified with the help of the methods described, the GRC Tracing Service went on to reconstruct the stories of the missing with so-called surveys. These held detailed information on the last stages of life of the missing person. Direct access to the archival collections of the former Soviet Union was not possible at that time.

A copy of a missing persons report Photo: DRK tracing serviceTo this end, extensive material was available to the Tracing Service:

  • The troop’s missing soldiers’ list,
  • military historical research on the course of the fighting at the various sections of the front,
  • the last message obtained from the missing person,
  • the tracing request of family members,
  • statements by former military superiors,
  • above all, the testimony of the surviving returnees who were in the same military unit and fought in the same battles.

With the help of the available materials it was possible to establish what had happened to a military unit, on a specific day and at a specific place: Whether there had been tank or air strikes, heavy artillery or infantry battles, and what losses, deaths or captures were recorded.

In this way, the sequence of military events and the fate of the affected unit and its soldiers could be reconstructed. When this work ceased in 1991, there existed 1.12 million reports, 1.09 million regarding soldiers and 30,000 regarding civilians accumulated in 25 years.

Analyses of the Russian Archives

It was only under Gorbachev that the Russian archival sources were opened up in detail. The gradual transfer of data taken from prisoners' and internees files mainly stored in Moscow began in 1992. More information can be found under the section "Files from Moscow".