Blogs > Cliopatria > fragile things

Mar 12, 2009 12:53 am

fragile things

If you haven't already heard: an archivist's and historian's nightmare has transpired in the city of Cologne. A treasure trove of 65,000 original documents dating from the year 922, including a clutch of Karl Marx manuscripts, letters by Hegel, the personal papers of West Germany's first Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and an unbroken series of Cologne's carefully preserved town council meetings dating back to 1376, was destroyed in minutes when the archive building collapsed some days ago.

Being a young student of Southeast Asian history, I came to best know the turmoil of the Japanese Occupation and World War II not through lived experience or by reading memoirs, but through the deep chasm that tears through Southeast Asian archives, hollowing out three years and splitting the twentieth century into two halves: pre-war, post-war. Archives are destroyed quickly in war and conquering: when a new power seeks an erasure of the old, in the upheaval of battle and destruction, in bombings and air raids. Or else they are destroyed slowly by time: crumbling, fading, disintegrating -- the gradual, inevitable entropy of all living things, including memory. But in Cologne, and in other tragedies of this sort, so much vanished in so little time, and in such an absurd, absurdly preventable manner (some think that the Cologne building, state-of-the-art and less than 40 years old, collapsed only because a train line was being built right underneath it -- a claim corroborated, I think, by this photo) that my reaction is more one of bewilderment than anything else. A kind of chasm has opened up in German history now, and time will tell how deeply the loss will be felt.

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Rachel Leow - 3/18/2009

hi Ralph, didn't notice there was a comment - sorry for the delay! I suppose it's naughty of me to generalize for archives outside the British and Dutch colonial states, so I shouldn't. There are, as you point out, several ways the war affected the archive. First, it damaged a lot of pre-war records, so materials for e.g. the 1920s and 30s are hugely skeletal in comparison to what's available after the war. Secondly, when the Japanese took over, an enormous number of changes took place within a really short time: names, languages of record-keeping, composition of institutes, structure of government departments - so it's very easy to lose track of the people and institutions you're trying to trace when you get to 1942, and often it's a frustrating and fruitless search. Thirdly, it was a time of real destitution and strife, and in such times, record-keeping in general becomes a luxury of sort. Some of the best records of the Occupation are memoirs written from prison, where people didn't have nearly quite as much to do. I imagine that this story, in some form or another, holds for quite a large part of Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia - though as I said, and as you kindly remind me, I oughtn't to generalize so wantonly!

Ralph E. Luker - 3/12/2009

I have a question, Rachel. Is it possible to generalize about the WWII records gap in southeast Asian archives? Is it that during the occupation turmoil records were not kept or that they just didn't survive? Did war and occupation destroy pre-WWII records?

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