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The removal of ultra-thin oxide surface layers on nanometric nickel particles is investigated in the framework of electric field-induced dielectric breakdown. In situ transmission electron microscopy was used to directly apply electrical biasing to agglomerates of nanoparticles during simultaneous imaging of the contact area between two adjacent particles. The applied electrical field initiated dielectric breakdown of the surface layers through percolation of oxygen vacancies and the migration of oxygen away from the particle contact, which leads to the formation of metallic necks and their subsequent growth. The experimental results represent direct evidence for surface cleaning effects during electric field-assisted sintering.