Searching for Missing Persons: The Tracing Service of the German Red Cross between the Consequences of the Second World War and the Cold War

Employees (IfZ):  Dr. des. Nadine Recktenwald

Countless people were missing without a trace following the Second World War: lost family members, missing soldiers, prisoners of war, and children who were not able to provide information on their own names or places of origin. They all had one in common, they were both searching and being searched for. This project looks into the history of these people and the organization that took on the task of ascertaining what had happened to them: The Tracing Service of the German Red Cross (Suchdienst des Deutschen Roten Kreuzes, DRK).

The uncertainty over the whereabouts of family members kept the Second World War tangible and present for many families, decades after the cessation of hostilities. The DRK Tracing Service served as the first point of contact for German victims of the war. The organization assisted in the investigation of the fates of 8.8 million missing persons through the 1950s, helping many families to process the particular effect of the war on them. What impact did the search for missing persons have on the inner-German and intrafamilial processing of the consequences of the war? How did this change with increasing distance from the end of the war and the change in generations? This project places its focus on the organization of the DRK Tracing Service as well as the biographies of those who were searching for the lost.

A majority of those being searched for had gone missing in parts of eastern Europe and eastern Germany – in countries with which the Federal Republic of Germany did not yet maintain diplomatic relations. The tracing services of the countries in question therefore had to find their own means of cooperation, even as this was always affected by the political situation during the Cold War. This new project also looks into how the DRK Tracing Service built its own transnational, cross-bloc networks as a non-state actor in order to pursue the search for missing persons – and what effect this in turn had on the political and societal situation in West Germany.

The research project views the DRK Tracing Service as an actor at the intersection of (international) politics, society, and family, and seeks to advance a nuanced understanding of how individuals processed the consequences of war in West Germany within the context of the Cold War.

© Institut für Zeitgeschichte