Details of the fonds
Name of the institution
French National Archives
Name of the fonds
Paris War Damages Settlement Centre. Personal property war damages records
152 boxes (ca. 24 linear metres)
Description of the archival fonds
Creators of the fonds
Ministry of Construction. Paris War Damages Settlement Centre.
In World War II, the sheer extent of the havoc wreaked in France was unprecedented. The French State drew on the principles set out in a law dating from 17 April 1919, the so-called “Victims’ Charter” (Charte des Sinistrés), and on pre-existing administrative arrangements to introduce legislation on 11 October 1940 setting up the Technical Commission for Housing Reconstruction (CTRI - Commissariat Technique à la Reconstruction Immobilière). This was tasked with ensuring victim compensation. For its part, the General Delegation for National Infrastructure (DGEN – Délégation Générale à l’Équipement national) established by a law on 23 February 1941, was placed in charge of urban planning and reviving national production infrastructure. A further law dated 12 July 1941 then completed the picture by fleshing out the provisions on war damages reparations. The toll in terms of human life and material damage was exacerbated by Allied air raids and the retreat of the German troops: in 1945, five million French people had suffered some form of damage with buildings being destroyed and personal property plundered and damaged. In the aftermath of Liberation, the War Damages Commission (Commissariat General aux Dommages de Guerre), assisted by the local and regional authorities, pursued the work of processing compensation applications started under the Vichy government. The Ministry of Reconstruction and Urban Development (Ministère de la Reconstruction et de l’Urbanisme) was created by decree on 16 November 1944, and its responsibilities defined by an ordinance of 21 April 1945. In 1949, the War Damages Commission was replaced by a War Damages Office, which reported to this Ministry. It was replaced by the Under-directorate for Settlement of War Damages Claims (Sous-direction de la Liquidation des Dommages de Guerre), which operated from 1965 until 1975.
In the ordinance of 8 September 1945 damage suffered during the Occupation was assimilated with war damage, enabling individuals whose property had been destroyed or removed through requisition, confiscation or looting to apply for compensation. It is important to understand that all applications, including those from the victims of persecution, were handled by the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urban Development. On 28 October 1946, a law was passed proclaiming “the equality and solidarity of all French citizens with regard to the cost of war” and establishing the right to full compensation for “confirmed, direct material damage caused to buildings and contents by act of war in all départements of France”, but imposing very restrictive conditions on compensation for foreign nationals. Victims were only entitled to compensation if they actually replaced their property. Compensation was calculated on the basis of the value of the property on the date on which the prejudice occurred, and on various other criteria such as, for furniture and furnishings, the type of furniture and the members making up the household. Applications poured in after the end of the war and were processed according to priority. The deadline for claims, originally set at 1 January 1947, was later extended to 5 July 1952. Between 1944 and 1985, 3 million applications were received for damage to personal property alone: 1,785,000 for family furniture and furnishings and 1,250,000 for “household goods” not used to furnish or decorate homes, in other words articles such as firearms, fishing tackle, camping equipment, etc.
The local and regional offices of the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urban Development processed applications for damage to personal property within their specific geographical area. They were responsible for assessing its value, paying compensation to victims and settling disputes. To do this, they employed up to 170,000 staff. These offices gradually shut down as the stream of applications trickled out, and all unfinished business was transferred to settlement centres covering several départements. By 31 December 1961 there remained only 15 regional offices and 11 settlement centres, including the one in Paris which covered the Seine, Seine-et-Oise, Seine-et-Marne and Eure-et-Loir départements and had a 2,700-strong workforce. By 1964, it was the largest of the six remaining settlement centres, with responsibility for 55 départements. As a result of a circular dated 6 January 1976, the Paris War Damages Settlement Centre, which at that point still had some 20 staff, was renamed the National War Damages Settlement Centre (Centre National de Règlement des Dommages de Guerre). This was finally closed down in 1985. During its final year, a team of four had the task of winding up all business and archiving the files.
Description of contents
Files on personal property war damages transferred together under number 19780332 bear the reference RB (for Reconstitution des biens [replacement of property]), followed by the initials DOM (or sometimes M), or more rarely MUC, standing respectively for “Mobilier familial enlevé par l’occupant” (family furniture taken by the occupying forces) and “Meubles d’usage courant” (household goods). The files are classified first by category and then in numerical order. Most relate to looted property in and around Paris or abroad. Applicants were mainly those eligible under the German Bundesrückerstattungsgesetz law (BRüG – Federal Restitution Law), and in particular Jewish families, and celebrities of all types, from a former Miss France to a future French President! In most cases, applications concerned apartments looted in the absence of their owners or tenants, but others were lodged by diplomats posted to countries invaded by Germany, or self-employed professionals, such as doctors with surgeries in their own homes.
The Germans began plundering Jewish homes in occupied Eastern France in winter 1941. On 25 March 1942, the occupying forces created the Dienststelle Westen (Western Office) headed by Kurt von Behr. The organisation's staff and offices, at 54 Rue d’Iena in Paris, were separate from those of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR – Reichsleiter Rosenberg Task Force), created earlier. From early 1942, the Möbel Aktion (“Furniture action”) operation systematically pillaged vacant apartments, with complete disregard for the law. Those targeted were French and foreign Jews who had been interned, imprisoned for offences or expelled to the free zone or who had emigrated. In spring 1944, the operation was extended to cover the south of France, although to a lesser degree. In total, by 31 July 1944, the Dienststelle Westen had ransacked 69,619 apartments in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It is estimated that two-thirds of these were in France. The spoils were sent initially to sorting centres, the “Lévitan” camp, the Austerlitz camp, Hôtel Cahen d’Anvers, 2 Rue Bassano and 60 Rue Claude Bernard. Removal companies were requisitioned for the purpose from summer 1943 through to 1944. Valuable furniture was then shipped to Germany to be distributed among war victims. Works of art and musical instruments transferred to the ERR and its specialised “Sonderstab Musik” (Special Music Unit) were collected together at a number of dedicated locations. The provenance of the items was not recorded, and consequently only a fraction of them were returned to their owners after the Liberation. Where ownership reverted to the State, items were generally sold by the Land Office (Administration des Domaines).
The Federal Republic of Germany passed the Bundesrückerstattungsgesetz law (BRüG – Federal Restitution Law) on 19 July 1957, later amending it on several occasions. It applied to property looted in West Germany and Berlin, but also to property transferred to these places. The French Ministry of Reconstruction and Housing undertook to provide applicants, who had the right to be represented by the Unified Jewish Social Fund (FSJU - Fonds Social Juif Unifié), with the information they needed to calculate the value of their looted property. Given the difficulties involved in proving that property had been shipped to Germany, it was decreed in 1959 that such transfer should be assumed as a matter of course. When the third amendment was made to BRüG legislation in 1964, the deadline for claims was lifted and dormant applications revived. This resulted in an upsurge in applications, often received via the FSJU’s Office for Looted Personal Property (Bureau des Spoliations Mobilières). Applicants were required to produce an official document regarding any compensation for war damages they had received or, if they had received no such compensation, confirming that they were making their first application.
Compensation claims under the BRüG law nevertheless followed a separate procedure to that indicated in the personal property war damages records in the French National Archives. The latter consist of the application for compensation completed by the applicant and accompanied by supporting documents (most frequently copies of birth, marriage or death certificates or identity documents together with a detailed list of furniture seized by the occupying powers, insurance certificates, statements from the mayor, the police commissioner and witnesses, and where applicable, further documentary evidence) an administrative and financial subfolder indicating, among other things, the final decision about the amount of compensation, the decision to proceed, the demand that payment be made and issued, other accounting documents, plus correspondence between the applicant and the examining department. At times, they also contain other miscellaneous documents, and in particular occasional photographs of apartments and enquiry reports.
Applications for compensation are a particularly rich source of information because they contain details of the name, status and address of the applicants, and about the people making up the household, the dates when the event occurred and when the application was lodged. Notes about the origins, religion or fate of the victims during the war jotted in the margins of documents can provide interesting insights into family histories.
Furniture inventories, insurance certificates and any eventual photographs provide information about the socio-economic status of the victims, who were often middle class, and about their lives before the war. These documents are potentially useful sources for research into looted property and, maybe, the corresponding reparations.
The 195 items making up transfer 19780332 are highly disparate. They do however include 152 files on personal property war damages, which represent the lion’s share. These, which were estimated in the early 1960s at the equivalent of almost one hundred linear km of archives for France as a whole, were radically culled during the same period, although in proportions varying from one département to another. Circular no. 62-10 from the management of Archives de France dated 14 March 1962, announced that a selection would have to be made among these records “in cooperation with the War Damages Office”, the archives of the different départements not having the capacity to house them all. Annexed to this circular was an excerpt from Ministry of Construction circular no. 62-11 addressed to the département Prefects and Heads of Construction on 6 February 1962 stipulating that the following should be conserved:
- a. Records that the Chief Archivists of the département were anxious to keep for their historical or scientific value;
- b. Records relating to appeals still being processed by a War Damages Commission or any other legal authority;
- c. Records containing documents that the parties concerned had asked to have returned, in application of Article 28 of Law 61-825 of 29 July 1961, in cases where it was to be assumed that the Director of the local archives had rejected their request;
- d. Records that the parties concerned had asked to be kept, to enable them to assert their rights under Federal German legislation (BRüG).
In February 1964, the Paris offices of the Ministry of Construction were given permission, by the Archives of the Seine département, to dispose of almost 135,000 files on personal property war damages. However, in application of the circulars, care was taken to conserve those records where the compensation awarded was in excess of 1,000,000 old francs and those of people eligible for pay-outs under the German law (BRüG), who had made a specific request to this effect. Following the official transfer of the archives of the former Seine département in 1999 and 2000, Paris Archives are now home to 7,000 files on personal property war damages, 2,600 concerning furniture stolen by the occupying powers and 20 relating to household goods. It would seem that the war damages records included in this particular transfer escaped destruction because the victims were eligible to apply for BRüG compensation or because they were famous. They had remained at the Paris War Damages Settlement Centre, which became the National War Damages Settlement Centre, and were transferred to the French National Archives by archivists from the National Archives seconded to the Ministry of Public Works. The transfer docket states that, for space reasons, Paris Archives were unable to take them when they were scheduled for disposal in 1973. Personal property war damages records in the National Archives are therefore complementary to closed files transferred earlier to this institution which, for the most part, may still be found there, as evidenced by matching gaps in their numbering.
The records at the National Archives and Paris Archives do not constitute a representative corpus of victims of looting and, even less, victims of persecution in the Seine département. Jewish families who were French nationals and property-owners, and who had applied to the Paris authorities for war damages, may never have applied for compensation under BRüG, or may never have specifically asked the authorities to hold on to the documents submitted with their application, as required by the regulations.
Method of acquisition
Custody and access
French National Archives at Pierrefitte-sur-Seine:
59 rue Guynemer, 93383 Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, France
These documents may be freely consulted under the terms of the order of 10 November 1998 granting a blanket waiver for consultation of certain public archival fonds on World War II transferred to the French National Archives by the Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Housing.
These documents may be freely reproduced.
A numerical inventory is available for consultation in the National Archives virtual catalogue room.
In accordance with the recommendations of the CNIL (French Data Protection Agency) with regard to the treatment to be reserved for sensitive data, this entire inventory can only be consulted from dedicated workstations in the French National Archives catalogue room. It consists of a detailed nominative version of the directory comprising, in particular, the applicant’s family name, given name, date and place of birth and the address from which the property was seized.
Sources and bibliography
- National Archives
• Transfer 19970272 : operational records of the war damages administration (1945-1986).
• Archival fonds of the War Damages Office (Ministry of Reconstruction and Urban Development and, later, Ministry of Construction), and in particular war damages files handled at national level, classified according to business sector.
- Local archives, series W: war damages files handled at national level, war damages files relating to buildings, and to a lesser extent, personal property.
In particular, in the Paris Archives:
50 W 1-995, 51 W 1-350, 52 W 1-27, 53W 1-4, 1094W 1, 1126W 1, 1131W 1-24: war damages files for the Paris département (1935-1982).
47 W 1-116: return of property to victims of looting: restitution orders, bailiff’s affidavits and reports (1945-1950).
- Unified Jewish Social Fund (FSJU - Fonds Social Juif Unifié) (Paris): general files relating to the application of BRüG legislation and correspondence with the victims of looting.
- The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (Jerusalem, Israel): archives of the Office for Looted Personal Property (BSM - Bureau des Spoliations Mobilières) deposited by the FSJU (around 36,000 individual files).
- Bundesamt für zentrale Dienste und offene Vermögensfragen (BADV - Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues) (Berlin, Germany): archives of the Oberfinanzdirektionen (Regional Finance Offices).
- Landesarchiv Berlin (Federal State Archives, Berlin, Germany): archives of the Wiedergutmachungsamt (WGA - Restitution Office) and the Entschädigungsamt (Compensation Office).
• ANDRIEU (Claire), GOSCHLER (Constantin) et THER (Philippe), dir., Spoliation et restitution des biens juifs en Europe, XXe siècle. (Spoliation and restitution of Jewish property in Europe, 20th century). Paris: Autrement, 2007.
• BACKOUCHE (Isabelle), GENSBURGER (Sarah), « Expulser les habitants de l’îlot 16 à Paris à partir de 1941, un effet d'« aubaine »?» (“Did expelling the inhabitants of block 16 in Paris from 1941 have a “windfall effect”?), in Pour une microhistoire de la Shoah (For a microhistory of the Shoah), dir. Tal Bruttmann, Ivan Ermakoff, Nicolas Mariot, Claire Zalc. Paris: Seuil, « Le genre humain » collection, 2012, p. 169-196.
• GENSBURGER (Sarah), Images d’un pillage. Album de la spoliation des Juifs à Paris, 1940-1944 (Images of plunder: album of the spoliation of Jews in Paris). Paris: Textuel, collection « En quête d’archives », 2010.
• GRYNBERG (Anne), « Indemnisation, spoliations » (Compensation, spoliations), in Dictionnaire du Judaïsme français depuis 1944 (Dictionary of Judaism since 1944), dir. Jean Leselbaum et Antoine Spire. Paris: Armand Colin, 2013, p. 423-426.
• LINSLER (Johanna), « Réparations allemandes » (German reparations), in Dictionnaire du Judaïsme français depuis 1944 (Dictionary of Judaism since 1944), dir. Jean Leselbaum et Antoine Spire. Paris: Armand Colin, 2013, p. 770-772.
• PIKETTY (Caroline), DUBOIS (Christophe), LAUNAY (Fabrice), Guide des recherches dans les archives des spoliations et des restitutions, (Guide for archival research concerning spoliation and compensation) Mission d’étude sur la spoliation des juifs de France (Working party on the spoliation of Jews in France). Paris: La Documentation française, 2000.
• WIEVIORKA (Annette) et AZOULAY (Floriane), « Le pillage des appartements et son indemnisation » (The plunder of apartments and its compensation), Mission d’étude sur la spoliation des juifs de France. (Working party on the spoliation of Jews in France) Paris: La Documentation française, 2000.
Name and address of department responsible for completing this form:
French National Archives
Département Environnement, Aménagement du Territoire et Agriculture (Environment, Territorial Planning and Agriculture Division)
59 rue Guynemer
Authors: Marie Chouleur and Sylvie Zaidman, Heritage Curators