fragile things

[first posted on HNN]

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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