WASHINGTON, April 18 — Germany agreed Tuesday to allow access to a vast trove of information on what happened to more than 17 million people who were executed, forced to labor for the Nazi war machine or otherwise brutalized during the Holocaust.
The German government announced at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here that it was dropping its decades-long resistance to opening the archives kept in the town of Bad Arolsen. The files, which make up one of the largest Holocaust archives in the world, are more than 15 miles long and hold up to 50 million documents, some seized by the Allies as they liberated concentration camps.
"We now agree to open the data in Bad Arolsen," Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said at a news conference here. She said her country would seek revision of an international arrangement that governs the archives, The Associated Press reported.
The accord ends a nasty diplomatic dispute between the United States and Germany. More important, officials at the Holocaust museum said, it will open the documents to historians and researchers, whose access has been blocked because of Germany's strict privacy laws.
"Sixty years after the end of the war, it's time," Arthur Berger, the Holocaust museum's senior adviser on external affairs, said after Ms. Zypries pledged that Germany would work with the United States to make the documents available. The 11-nation commission that oversees the archives is to meet on May 16 in Luxembourg.
Paul Shapiro, the director of advanced Holocaust studies at the museum here, said the documents would offer insights into the day-to-day evils of the Nazi era, "the routine process of deportation, concentration camps, slave labor, killing." And perhaps, he said, the paperwork will offer clues to "a few new perpetrators" who, if no longer subject to earthly justice, can at least stand before the bar of history.
Mr. Shapiro said museum officials hoped to make the documents "truly accessible," available for computer viewing at Holocaust research centers around the world. Since 1998 about half of the documents have been copied in digital form. About 20 percent of the documents were copied on microfilm before 1998, Mr. Shapiro said.
Until now, Holocaust survivors and their relatives have been able to seek information from the Bad Arolsen archives, but they have sometimes waited years, said Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the Holocaust museum in Washington.
The files are controlled by the International Tracing Service, which operates as an arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The service, which since the end of World War II has used the files to help people learn about relatives who were victims of German atrocities, has been swamped. Its budget, provided by Germany, has been cut as part of national austerity measures.
The tracing service is run by a commission representing the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Israel, Poland and Luxembourg. Germany has long insisted that for the archives to be opened, all 11 countries would have to vote to amend the 1955 treaty that set up the tracing service as it restored German sovereignty.
In Washington on Tuesday, Ms. Zypries said Germany would move at a meeting in Luxembourg next month to change the treaty to open the archives. She said her government would try to persuade Italy, which had also resisted opening the documents, to go along.
The State Department's special envoy for Holocaust issues, Edward O'Donnell, said the United States favored opening all records on the Holocaust.
"We're very encouraged by the statement of the justice minister," he said. "We look forward to continuing the negotiating process."
In its resistance to making the archives widely accessible, the German government has cited the personal nature of much of the information in the files. The papers may disclose, for instance, who was treated for lice at which camp, what medical experiments were conducted on particular prisoners, and which inmates were tempted to collaborate with their captors.
But Ms. Bloomfield said such considerations were invalid. "The history is the history," she said, adding that Holocaust documents released earlier also contained personal information. "Let it be open."
While historians and researchers will find the material invaluable, the real beneficiaries are the relatives of Holocaust survivors. "Many are dying every day," Mr. Berger said. "They deserve to know what happened to their fathers or their uncles."
The Holocaust museum officials praised the German justice minister as a warm and open person and credited her with helping to sway her government. They had kind words also for Wolfgang Ischinger, until recently the German ambassador to the United States, and his successor, Klaus Scharioth.
Only two months ago, when the United States and Germany were still at odds, Ms. Bloomfield called Germany's stand "a scandal and a big scar" on the country's image, and Mr. Shapiro said Germany's position was "a form of Holocaust denial."
But on Tuesday, Mr. Berger said Germany's leaders had embraced their country's responsibility for the evils of the Nazi era. As for the harsh words of February, he said, "That's history."