Brigitte Zypries, the German justice minister, said on Tuesday that her country would work with the US to assure the opening of the archives, which are held in the German town of Bad Arolsen, and allow historians and survivors access to about 30 million to 50 million documents.

Jews, gypsies, the disabled and homosexuals were among the millions killed by the Nazis during the second world war.

Speaking in German, Zypries said: "We now agree to open the data in Bad Arolsen in Germany. We now assume the data will be safeguarded by those countries that copy the material and use it."

Until now, Germany had resisted providing access to the archives, citing privacy considerations.

The announcement, made at the US Holocaust museum on Tuesday, came after a 20-year effort by the museum and other countries to get the archives opened.

Negotiations intensified in the past four or five years and took on even greater momentum in the past two years, said Arthur Berger, spokesman for the museum.

"We are losing the survivors, and anti-Semitism is on the rise, so this move could not be more timely"

Sarah Bloomfield,
Holocaust museum director

In a meeting with the museum director, Sarah Bloomfield, Zypries said Germany had changed its position and would seek immediate revision of an 11-nation accord that governs the archives.

The United States, Belgium, Britain, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland must also agree if the records are to be opened, a process she said should take no more than six months.

Survivors

The next step is a meeting in Luxembourg on May 15, when all 11 countries would have to reach consensus. In some instances, parliaments would have to approve the archives' opening as well.

Opening the archives would enable many survivors and families of victims of the Nazis to learn with more certainty what happened to their relatives.

Said Bloomfield: "We are losing the survivors, and anti-Semitism is on the rise, so this move could not be more timely."

Gideon Taylor of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, lauded the decision.

"These records have been awaited for years by Holocaust survivors and scholars of this terrible period.

"Their release while survivors are still alive will enable these documents to be enhanced and explained through personal testimony of those who lived through the Nazi era."