Records management has a key role to play in preserving people’s rights. It’s one of the reasons we err on the side of caution; when given the choice, we opt to preserve records for the longest possible retention period.
While this approach generally increases traceability and transparency, it means we often lose sight of the fact that disposition plays an equally important role. As well as minimising data security risks, timely disposal protects the sensitive information entrusted to organisations by customers, employees and other stakeholders.
World War II gives us one of the most interesting examples of destruction as a means of upholding human rights. Following the German invasion and occupation of the Netherlands, anyone over 15 was required to carry a personal ID card. For Jews, the card – known as the persoonsbewijs – was marked with a large ‘J’.
The Dutch resistance forged some 80,000 ID cards to protect their Jewish countrymen. However, with Amsterdam’s civil registry office under German control, the forgeries could be cross-referenced and detected. Even with insider support from civil servants at the registry office who were willing to alter records, the operation couldn’t protect the nation’s 150,000 Jews.
Led by two artists – a painter called Willem Arondeus and a sculptor called Gerrit van der Veen – the resistance planned an attack on the civil registry office. By posing as policemen and drugging the soldiers who were guarding the building, they were able to douse the records in benzene and plant a series of bombs.
The local fire service was complicit and delayed responding to the subsequent blaze. When the crew finally began dousing the flames, they flooded the building in hopes of damaging any remaining documents.
Unfortunately, only about 15 percent of the records held in the building were destroyed. Arondeus and twelve other resistance members were captured and executed by the Nazis. Two were imprisoned in Dachau (but ultimately survived) and the remaining four evaded capture or were released.
And despite the tragic outcome, they leave us with a valuable lesson. Records don’t have rights – people do.