BERLIN - It is probably the most exhaustive record of human misery ever kept. Yet the details are contained in ordinary hardback writing books that might be found in any school classroom.

There are more than 47 million such files in Germany's central Nazi archive in the quiet town of Bad Arolsen. They fill 26km of shelves in what was once a Nazi SS barracks.

Punctiliously noted in the "Totenbuch" or "Death Book" of Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, for example, is the camp commandant's "present" to Hitler on the occasion of the Fuehrer's birthday on April 20, 1942: Three hundred Russian prisoners were specially selected for execution to mark the event.

The death list covers pages of lined paper recording how each prisoner was taken out into an execution yard and subjected to a so-called "Genickschuss" - a single bullet fired from the muzzle of a pistol pushed against the base of the skull.

The names, inmate numbers, dates of birth, and places of birth are meticulously recorded on each line.

The slaughter started at 11.20am when the word "Genickschuss" first appears. It does again at 11.22, and 288 times every two minutes thereafter.

Details of files concerning 17 million victims of the Nazi death camp and slave labour system were made public for the first time this week.

But during the six decades since World War II, they were used exclusively by the Red Cross to establish the fate of the millions who died or went missing under Nazi rule.

The files were kept off limits to the public, largely because of German objections about the need to protect victims' privacy.

But last Tuesday, the 11-nation commission which controls the archive finally agreed to open the files to historians for the first time. Under a ground-breaking deal, which promises to give adequate protection to personal data, scholars and researchers will be given access to one of the largest collections of documents on World War II.

The material is certain to provide fresh insights into the precise workings of the Nazi machine.

Historians welcomed the decision. "These are terrible stories from a terrible time," said Ulrich Herbert, a historian at Freiburg University. "It is frustrating, even appalling that these records have been kept off limits to researchers for so long."

The files spell out the barbarity in terse but telling detail: one details the plight of a French woman called Katrina arrested by the Gestapo for "complaining she was involuntarily sterilised by the authorities after giving birth to a coloured bastard".

Another records the fate of a German banker sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1937 after an informant overheard him criticising the Nazi regime. His camp record notes how he was given "25 strokes for laziness" in 1944 and a mouthful of "missing teeth" during interrogation.

Yet another tells the story of a 31-year-old nurse forced to wear a black and yellow "Star of David" branding her as a Jewish "race defile". "The woman is a half-Jew who lives with her Aryan boyfriend. She acknowledges they have had sexual relations." The woman disappeared in Ravensbrueck concentration camp. There are millions of similar records.

Since 1945, the Red Cross has relied on the Bad Arolsen files to respond to more than 11 million requests in 62 countries for information.

The records have been used to help slave-labour victims claim compensation from Germany, some through files recording their de-lousing at slave labour camps.

Jewish groups say that the opening of the files will provide a powerful antidote to Holocaust denial.

Israel Singer of the World Jewish Council said: "We need to preserve the past so that future generations can learn a lesson from it."

- INDEPENDENT