War Crimes

3 minute read

The dingy building on Manhattan’s Park Avenue South is a good half-mile from United Nations headquarters. There are no flags, no logo and no indication that controversy rages inside. Only the directory in the red marble lobby provides a clue. Listed inconspicuously in alphabetical order, right after Quadrille Wallpapers & Fabrics Inc., is United Nations Archives, twelfth floor.

Once a placid repository, the office is soon expected to buzz with activity. The sole security guard will be joined by other watchmen. Offices are being spruced up, and five new microfilm readers are being installed. The cause of the upheaval is a yellowing collection of World War II dossiers that contain depositions, unproven allegations and intelligence reports on thousands of suspected and known German, Austrian, East European and Japanese war criminals. This week, after decades of neglect and limited access, the records will be made available to accredited scholars, researchers and journalists. Says Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s permanent representative to the world assembly: “This opens a new chapter in Holocaust research. If these people are alive and untried, I hope many governments will act to bring these accused criminals to justice.”

The 120,000 pages of files are the work of the War Crimes Commission, a 17- nation panel formed in 1943 to compile lists of suspected war criminals. By the time the records were handed over to the U.N. in 1948, the group had collected information on 36,800 people. Though most of those cataloged are known to be dead, others are not. Among the more famous listed criminals thought to be still alive are Alois Brunner, a deputy to Adolf Eichmann who is ! in Syria, and Dr. Hans Wilhelm Konig, an aide to Josef Mengele believed to be in Sweden.

Though the files have always been open to designated officials of member countries, few requests were made, and information gleaned from the records could not be made public. Then, in 1986, just as the public furor was erupting over the Nazi past of former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who is now the President of Austria, a U.S. military archivist in Washington stumbled upon a master list of the names of all those for whom the U.N. possesses war- crime dossiers. As it turned out, Waldheim’s name was on the list. Israel and American Jewish organizations accused the U.N. of a cover-up and began a campaign to open the archives to public inspection. In October the 17 countries of the now disbanded War Crimes Commission agreed.

How valuable the files will be in tracking down and prosecuting criminals is debatable. The U.S. Justice Department is currently using the records to build cases against at least five suspects now living in America. But doubts remain about the evidence; the archives contain unsubstantiated hearsay along with the sworn testimony of eyewitnesses. “We have to protect the innocent by making sure this stuff is authentic,” warns David Wyman, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts.

The sudden public spotlight has complicated the work of Alf Erlandsson, the Swedish national who has headed the archives for nearly 20 years. His staff of 24 previously considered four visitors a month a busy season. Now Erlandsson expects at least that many callers a day. “This used to be such a quiet place,” he says. “I have a feeling things will never return to normal.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com