Lost Treasures in Cologne, Germany

On one of my trips to Germany, we visted the beautiful city of  Cologne.  I was saddened to see the following news:

March 5, 2009

The city without a memory: treasures lost under collapsed Cologne archives

cologne1 (Federico Gambarini)

The six-story building (shown above) was supposed to be a model for similar archives around the world. But it collapsed in minutes.

The German city of Cologne woke up yesterday without a memory.

As police used tracker dogs to try to unearth suvivors beneath the collapsed archives building, engineers were trying to work out how the 1971 institution – once regarded as a state-of-the-art documentation centre, copied across the world – could have simply collapsed, as if hit by a missile.

Some of Germany’s most valuable documentary treasures may have been destroyed, wiped out in the three minutes it took for a six-storey building to become a pile of smouldering brickwork on Wednesday afternoon.

The private papers of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll, one of Germany’s most powerful postwar writers, have been lost under the rubble. They include the drafts of books, corrected manuscripts, letters and radio plays. The writer was born in Cologne and insisted before his death in 1985 that the papers be moved from Boston to his home town.

Lost, too, were manuscripts of essays and articles written by Karl Marx when he was editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne in the 19th century.

Letters written by the philosopher Hegel, lyrics and notes written by the composer Jacques Offenbach – who composed The Tales of Hoffmann – edicts issued by Napoleon and King Louis XIV, and the personal papers of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first Chancellor and former mayor of Cologne, were also lost.

If they are ever recovered, the documents will almost certainly be irretrievably damaged.

“We are talking here about 18 kilometres of extremely valuable archival material, of absolute importance to European culture,” Eberhard Illner, the head of the city archives, said. “Now the memory of a European city has been destroyed. I can only hope, but cannot believe, that some of these fragile documents survived under tonnes of concrete and steel.”

The archives included the minutes of all town council meetings held since 1376. Not a single session had been missed, making the collection a remarkable resource for legal historians.

The earliest document stored in the building dated back to 922, and there were hundreds of thousands of documents spread over six floors, some of them written on thin parchment. A total of 780 complete private collections and half a million photographs were being stored.

Many of the documents had been recovered from library buildings smashed by Allied bombing during the Second World War.

That was one reason why Böll – most famous outside Germany for his novel Group Portrait with Lady – was determined that his manuscripts be housed in the Rhineland city. He had been hailed as the pioneer of postwar Trümmerliteratur, the “literature of the rubble”, chronicling Germans’ attempts to rebuild their lives and recover their memories. Cologne seemed the appropriate place to house his work.

Mr Illner compared the loss with the fire that raged through the Anna Amalia library in Weimar in 2004. The Cologne loss could be even greater, however, because most of the documents are original and have not been copied.

“Even if there isn’t something that hasn’t been pulverised or destroyed by water, it will take decades of restoration work,” said the historian Joachim Oepen.

When the building was constructed, a small nuclear-bomb proof chamber was included in the cellar to protect the most precious pieces. But in recent years, the chamber has been used only to store cleaning material.

There was even less warning of the collapse of the building than would have been given during a nuclear attack. Workers on the rooftop heard a cracking noise and immediately alerted the 26 people using the archives at the time. Less than three minutes later later, the building was flat.

If there are human victims, they are entombed under an amusement arcade that adjoined the archives. The fire brigade said today that there might be two or three people crushed under the tangled girders, but that their chances of being found alive were diminishing by the hour.

Staff at the archives first noticed cracks in the cellar early last year, but the building was deemed safe. Preliminary blame is being laid on the construction nearby of a new underground railway station.

Published in: on March 5, 2009 at 9:50 pm  Leave a Comment