I had been considering visiting one of the German Federal Archives in Lichterfelde, Berlin the past few months but I had not really managed to do so until the first week of March. I had been going over a large amount of literature and other sources from libraries in Dresden and Weimar as well as busy with my secondment in Dresden that I had to find the time to organize my trip there.
The German Federal Archives, or the Bundesarchiv are the official national archives of Germany, housing millions of documents dating back since the Middle Ages and containing valuable collection from the Nazi era, the files from both West and East Germany before the reunification, letters and old photographs. There are a few branches situated throughout Germany depending on the types of sources that investigators and researchers are looking for. The main headquarters is in Koblenz. The other branches are in Berlin, Bayreuth, Ludwigsburg, Rastatt and Sankt Augustin. The materials that I was searching for are located in Berlin Lichterfelde, which house the archives of parties and mass organisations in the GDR (Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv, or SAPMO). I had been going through some literature such as the Anita Maaß’s Wohnen in der DDR (2006) and Christine Hannemann’s Die Platte (1996) which quoted literature from the Bundesarchiv DH1 section which contain files from the Ministry of Construction (Ministerium für Bauwesen) during the GDR. Hence, I was interested to visit the primary sources myself and see if I could unearth more hidden treasures that may be overlooked by other researchers.
Turns out, a few procedures need to be covered before you plan your trip to the Bundesarchiv. I had to go online to their official website to find out the necessary information. I knew beforehand that the DH1 files are situated in Lichterfelde in Berlin. I had to search their online catalogue and browse through available materials that I would like to order and create a list. Then I had to email them with my request. I received an automatic response that they will process my request and that it could take up to four weeks. After a week, I received a reply that my request was processed and that the materials were ready for me in the reading hall. Once again, I had to plan another trip to Berlin. I planned to visit the Bundesarchiv for two days since I ordered many materials. I was supposed to fill out a form describing the purpose of my visit and agree to the terms and conditions in using the materials. I could either email the form before my visit or hand it to them directly when I arrive. I opted for the latter.
The Bundesarchiv in Lichterfelde was approximately forty minutes from the centre of Berlin, in the borough of Steglitz-Zehlendorf on the southwest of the city. From the S-Bahn station in Lichterfelde Ost I had to take the X11 bus for about four stops to reach my destination. The entrance to the Bundesarchiv was guarded, and the monolithic brick buildings were noticeable at the beginning. I had to give my name and ID to the security before I could enter. He handed me the key to the locker, a transparent plastic bag and visitor’s pass. There were a few buildings within the complex but the one I had to go to was a long multi-storey white building behind the large brick building. I had to follow the yellow lines on the road guiding visitors to the white building. At the time of my visit, there were still construction works being done on the main brick building facing the entrance. As I reached the white building, I had to go through the long corridor to shed off my coat and leave my belongings in the locker room and only take the necessary things in the transparent plastic bag given to me. As soon as I reached the reading hall, I had to give the person in charge my completed form and she gave me instructions on how to retrieve the materials, the formal rules and how to cite the materials. I was given a checklist with my name on it and head to another counter at the other end of the hall to retrieve my materials. I was only allowed two or three files of materials at once.
The reading hall was spacious and it was similar to a library reading room. There were areas designated for only reading and others for photography of the materials and a row of tables equipped with computers allowing the users to search within the database. I was able to find some interesting information for my research, although each file I received a massive amount of papers to shift through. After months of reading secondary sources and literature, I was finally able to get my hands on the original material. Some of the ink has faded over time, the papers were botched, and yellowing so, I could not read some of them. Most of the sources I was inspecting were formal directives or orders from the Ministry of Construction. They were typewritten, signed and handed out to the responsible authorities. There were a few reports of the problems faced in investments and finances and proposals on how to resolve these issues in the next five-year plans. The existence of these materials confirmed to me what I had already read about previously in secondary literature. Owing to the abundance of sources I could only manage to go through a few and time made the most of my discovery. Besides myself, there were several other people there in the reading hall, either for work or scientific purposes or for personal reasons, i.e. to track family history. Overall, I found my visit productive and satisfactory. The procedures were simple and uncomplicated while the reading hall for visitors comfortable and quiet.
Text and photo: Azmah Arzmi