Czech official restricts access to the countrys files on Nazism

PRAGUE — The Czech Defense Ministry has come under fire for a decision to restrict access to its files about the wartime activities of Nazi Germany's SS units.

Defense Minister Miroslav Vyborny has been asked by government officials to justify the action after unnamed critics in the Czech press denounced it as an attempt to appease a German government eager to bury its past.

The new measures were introduced in September, but came to light earlier this month when Jewish researchers, including historians from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, approached Czech President Vaclav Havel's office complaining that they had been denied access to the SS archives. Czechoslovakia's SS archives are some of the most comprehensive in the world.

"Making documents inaccessible plays into the hands of Germany," one anonymous Defense Ministry official recently told the Czech newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes, or Youth Front Today.

Germany "dislikes the fact that almost everyone in Prague, especially Jewish organizations, have access to the documents about SS units," the official said.

Unnamed diplomats and government officials quoted in the newspaper article argue that the new measures — which stipulate that a person wishing to visit the archives must first receive permission from the deputy defense minister or his assistant — will impede research into crimes committed by Nazi Germany and prevent the prosecution of war criminals.

Hanus Schimmerling, chairman of the Terezin Initiative, an association of Czech Holocaust survivors, said the Defense Ministry may want to protect the people the archives implicate.

"As a former [concentration camp] inmate, I can imagine there are still former SS soldiers alive and the information from those archives would make their lives difficult," Schimmerling said.

Vyborny dismissed the accusations. "Speculation in the press [about the Czech government's motives] is wrong," Vyborny said last week. "Germany is a democratic state and punishes Nazi crimes. It is not a state interested in hiding such crimes."

Vyborny said the stepped-up security was merely a precaution to prevent important documents from being stolen.

Thomas Bagger, a spokesman at the German Embassy in Prague, also rejected the charges, saying the "decision was a purely Czech affair."

"It is absolutely absurd to insinuate that the German government pressured the Czechs into taking such measures," he said, adding that Czech officials' worries about theft of archival documents were a "reasonable concern."

Bagger would not deny press reports that in the past German authorities have requested that the archives be handed over to them.

He also said there have been talks on the issue between the two countries dating back to 1992.