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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.

"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.

And somewhere underneath the rubble lie the remains of 500,000 photographs of the city and its people, an irreplaceable visual record of life in Germany's fourth largest city. Likewise, more than 100,000 architectural drawings and plans may have been destroyed.

There may be no way to recover the lost collections. Large parts of the pre-1945 documents were put on microfilm and stored in a bunker in the Black Forest, but according to Illner the microfilm is of poor quality. And the post-war collections -- including records from the Cologne Art Association used to track the provenance of artworks -- have no back-up at all.

From the outside, the Historical Archive certainly looked indestructible. The bunker-like concrete structure was built in 1971, with a raw concrete façade and slit-like windows. Designers hoped the mass of concrete would keep the temperature inside constant without expensive air conditioning systems, an archive design that became known as the "Cologne model."

Yet just weeks before the collapse, the archive organized a symposium to talk about the building's shortcomings. In the decades since its construction, the building had run out of space, and some of its secondary collections were housed in rented spaces nearby. The building's thick concrete turned out to trap heat, and in the unusually hot summers of 2003 and 2006 temperatures in parts of the archive topped 85 degrees, potentially disastrous for fragile documents and the wax seals that adorn some of the 65,000 original documents dating back to 922 AD in the archive's collection. Until a few years ago, the archive's 26 workers shared a single Internet connection.

That's all irrelevant now, of course. As rescue crews struggle to secure the ruins -- pumping concrete into the spaces below ground to stabilize the rubble -- archivists are hoping more can be salvaged from the wreckage. Firefighters said Wednesday it was unlikely they would find any survivors.

The head of the city's fire department, Stephan Neuhoff, said officials believe the building's collapse may be related to the construction of a subway line beneath the same street where the archive is located.

This isn't the first time a major German archive has been hit by disaster. In 2004, the Anna Amalia Archive in Weimar lost 70,000 books in a fire. "Unlike a fire or a flood, lots of people hope that the stuff isn't totally destroyed," Jurgen Weise, a historian at the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Wirtschaftsarchiv, or Rhineland-Westfalen Economic Archive, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's possible we might be able to rescue it, but it could start raining at any time." Archivists hope the city can put a roof or shelter over the ruins as quickly as possible -- and then see if any of the city's history can be salvaged.

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