The International Tracing Service is an organization dedicated to finding missing persons, typically lost to family and friends as a result of war or political unrest during World War II. It is headquartered in Bad Arolsen in Germany, operates under the legal authority of the Bonn Agreement, is under the administrative umbrella of the ICRC, and is funded by the government of Germany.
In 1943, the international section of the British Red Cross was asked by the Headquarters of the Allied Forces to set up a registration and tracing service for missing persons. The organization was formalized under the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces and named the Central Tracing Bureau on February 15, 1944. As the war unfolded, the bureau was moved from London to Versailles, then to Frankfurt am Main, and finally to Bad Arolsen, which was considered a central location among the areas of Allied occupation.
On July 1, 1947 the International Refugee Organization took over administration of the bureau, and on January 1, 1948 the name was changed to its current International Tracing Service. In April 1951, administrative responsibilities for the service was placed under the Allied High Commission for Germany. When the status of occupation of Germany was repealed in 1954, the service found its current home with the ICRC.
After some discussion, the Federal Republic of Germany renewed in 1990 its continuing commitment to funding the operations of the ITS.
The organization is governed by an international commission with representatives from Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, and the United States. The daily operations are managed by a director appointed by the ICRC, who must also be a Swiss citizen. There are about 370 staff employed by the ITS.
Since its inception, the service has collected files on 17.5 million people, collected in 50 million reference files. The archive has 25,000 meters of shelf space, 225,000 meters of microfilm and more than 100,000 micro files. Work is underway to digitize the files, both for purposes of easier search and for preserving the historical record.
The center has responded to 11 million requests since the 1940s. It has about a two-year backlog in requests, processing more than 200,000 inquiries a year. These files are not open to general researchers but searches may be made of them in connection with specific individuals. Since 1996, files not relating to individuals - background files on camps and so on - have been opened to researchers and an electronic register of the individual files is being prepared as a preliminary to opening them too.
The ITS has been criticized in recent years for refusing to open its archives to the public. The ITS, backed by the German government, have cited German archival law to support their position. The laws mandate a 100-year-gap between releasing records in order to protect privacy. However, their critics argue that the ITS was created by the ICRC and remains under its authority, and as such is not subject to German law. One accusation raised against Germany and the ITS by critics is that they continue to keep the archive closed out of a desire to repress information about the Holocaust. Critics cite the fact that all eleven governments sitting on the International Commission of the ITS endorsed the Stockholm International Forum Declaration of January 2000, which included a call for the opening of various Holocaust-era archives. However, since the Declaration was made, there has been little practical change in the operations of the ITS, despite repeated negotiations between the ITS, ICRC, and various Jewish and Holocaust survivor advocacy groups. A critical press release from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum written in March 2006 charged that "'In practice, however, the ITS and the ICRC have consistently refused to cooperate with the International Commission board and have kept the archive closed.'"  In early 2006, several newspaper articles also raised questions about the quality of the ITS' management and the underlying reasons for the existing backlog.   
In May 2006, the International Commission for the ITS decided to open the archives and documents for researchers use, and to transfer, upon request, one copy of the ITS archives and documents to each one of its member states. This will take place once all 11 countries ratify the new ITS Protocol. So far, only Israel, Poland, The United States, Germany, Belgium, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Greece, and Luxembourg have ratified the Protocol.
- ITS home page
- ICRC overview
- 60 Minutes Episode on the Topic
- Bad Arolsen Investigative Series on the Topic
- ^ http://www.ushmm.org/museum/press/archives/detail.php?category=07-general&content=2006-03-07
- ^ http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/24/AR2006032401684.html
- ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/secondworldwar/story/0,,1714413,00.html
- ^ http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/17/AR2006041701369.html
- ^ http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/world/20070619-1312-naziarchive.html
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