HISTORY IN RUINS Archive Collapse Disaster for Historians
By Andrew Curry
The collapse of the Historical Archive of Cologne on Tuesday buried more than a millenium's worth of documents under tons of rubble. Archivists and historians hope something can be salvaged, but the future of the city's past is grim.
Disaster struck in Cologne on Tuesday, as the building housing the city's Historical Archive suddenly collapsed. According to city officials, two people are officially missing and believed dead. And hundreds of firefighters were on the scene Wednesday looking for survivors as Cologne historians and archivists mourned the apparent destruction of Germany's largest municipal archive.
PHOTO GALLERY: COLOGNE TRIES TO SAVE ITS PAST
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"It's an inconceivable loss," Eberhard Illner, a former archivist for the city, told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper. "It's a catastrophe, not just for the city of Cologne but for the history of Europe." Cologne's archives are one of the only collections in Germany to have survived World War II completely intact. Because of Cologne's long history, much of its heritage was stored locally rather than in a state archive.
On Tuesday night and Wednesday, archivists worked alongside firefighters and rescue personnel. According to an archivist and historian with firsthand knowledge of the situation, volunteers have already pulled close to 9,000 documents out of the building's basement and the offices of archive employees. "It's possible that in the spaces between the rubble, some more items may have survived," the source, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "That would be really wonderful."
Cologne's history goes back more than 2000 years, when it was the Roman city of Colonia. In the Middle Ages, the city's prime spot along the Rhine River made it one of northern Europe's trading powerhouses, part of the Hanseatic League and a gateway between France and Germany. The Historical Archives contained extensive documentation from the city's Hanseatic period, as well as the archives of other Hanseatic League members, invaluable for historians looking at Europe's economic development.
The sheer numbers -- in total, the building had more than 18 kilometers of shelves -- reflect the rich history of what was once Germany's largest metropolis. The archive's collection of original documents included thousands from Cologne's golden age. The founding charter of the University of Cologne, signed in 1388, was inside, along with the documents that established Cologne as a free imperial city under Emperor Friedrich III in 1475. Two of the four manuscripts in the hand of Albertus Magnus, considered the greatest German theologian of the Middle Ages, were kept in the archive's rare books collection.
For historians trying to reconstruct the past, the greatest loss may be the more quotidian papers: Tens of thousands of receipts issued by the city government between 1350 and 1450, for example, or the 358 volumes of decisions and minutes of the Cologne City Council dating back 700 years.
The archives also contained the personal papers of almost 800 prominent German authors, politicians and composers, including Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war chancellor of Germany. The manuscripts and letters of Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll and Jacques Offenbach, a 19th century cellist and opera composer, were stored at the archive. Weimar Republic politician Wilhelm Marx and German-Jewish composer Ferdinand Hiller were among the other notables whose collections have been buried under tons of concrete. "These are fragile papers, that are now ground to dust," Illner told the daily.