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How the Preservation of Archives During WWII Led to a Radical Reformation of Strategic Intelligence Efforts

Cant, Lisa

In 1943, in the midst of World War Two, the Allies established what was perhaps the most unusual and unexpected army unit of the war: the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives army unit (MFA&A), created not so much to further the war effort but specifically to address the fate of culturally significant objects. The unit placed archivists and art specialists within advancing American and British army units. Drawn from existing army divisions, these volunteers had as their mission the safeguarding of works of art, monumental buildings, and—more significantly for this study—archives, for the preserved archives ultimately produced intelligence that was valuable both to the ongoing war effort and for the post-war administration of Allied occupied Germany. Although the MFA&A division was initially created to find looted objects and protect culturally relevant material including archives, the Military Intelligence Research Section (MIRS), a joint British and American program, recognized the possible intelligence benefits that could be gained through the exploitation of captured German archives. This agency pioneered strategic intelligence, as up to this point the use of a large quantity of enemy records to develop studies quickly enough for application in then-current large-scale military operations was an untried military technique. Although a wealth of literature about fascist Germany and World War Two exists—at least some measurable part of it relying on information contained in German archives and documents captured by the Allied Forces during and after the war—the story of the archives themselves has received scant attention. This story hinges on the actions of two wartime agencies, MFA&A and MIRS. Neither of these two programs had clearly formulated missions that encapsulated their later responsibilities; both programs developed over time. These two programs changed the way the United States came to use intelligence during wartime, and the country has taken advantage of this system of exploitation of information in subsequent conflicts.

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History
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B.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 9, 2012
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