I’ve been looking through the handful of cartons of documents originating from the German police at the Archives nationales in Paris. These are the papers of the SIPO-SD, meaning all the various German policing authorities, both Nazi Party and military, that persecuted Jews, Communists and resisters; passed out travel permits, and kept an eye on industry. It’s an incongruous collection of receipts for requisitioned cutlery, biweekly forms of numbers of arrests made, and internal Gestapo telephone books.

Intriguingly, even if you took the papers themselves out of context, pretending you didn’t know how the Second World War ended, you could tell that the people who wrote these papers both knew that their end was near and refused to believe it.

To begin with, there’s the quality of the paper. Some of the documents, mostly the earlier ones, are typed on nice, clean, white paper. But the dreaded German police also used the back of maps, some of which show every elevation, every cove and every building in England, with German notations, perhaps meant for the invasion Hitler intended to launch in 1940. Others give the sort of topographic information so useful to partisans and evaders and were probably confiscated by the Germans before being cut down to office paper size. Or they used the back of letterhead from the conquered Third French Republic that was replaced by the French State, better known as Vichy, in 1940. I sincerely doubt that the Gestapo was recycling in order to protect the environment. I think it’s a sign of the conquering army’s impoverishment, just like the receipts for cans of sardines issued to police personnel in July 1944.

Most telling, is the detailed SD report from June and July 1944. One third of each page has burned away, leaving scorch marks along the tattered edges. An archivist has carefully restored it, gluing the fragments onto stronger, full-size pages. Somehow it survived the notorious auto-de-fé of German files that darkened the skies above Paris in the days before their retreat. It must have been the last one on the bonfire, because the earlier ones aren’t here.

In fact, there are so few documents in this collection that you’d have to say that the German’s succeeded in preventing their archives from falling into French hands.* Because they certainly produced records. There’s a sheaf of meticulous receipts for the last days of the SIPO-SD’s Parisian mess hall. Even that final report, written as the Allied armies headed for Paris, is detailed and carefully typed.

Clearly the German police knew that their days were numbered in France: they could hear the enemy’s artillery. And they knew they would be held accountable: why else burn their records? But they kept doing what they were trying to hide that they had been doing. They kept arresting resisters until the very end. The last train of deportees, including many members of Dutch-Paris, left for the concentration camps as the German army retreated.

* Many of the records of the office in charge of persecuting Jews in France, however, were saved and can be found at the Centre de documentation juive contemporaine in Paris.