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On a particularly rainy day in Germany, marked by foggy talk about the recession everybody now seems to have become used to, something truly astonishing happened: Cologne's historical archive collapsed. Most people thought of a metaphorical collapse when they heard about it (there has been so much talk about the economic crisis that it is almost impossible to escape the endless attempts to understand "the collapse"). But there was nothing metaphorical about the pile of rubble that remained where once the biggest city archive north of the Alps had stood.

Why is this collapse of a 1970s building housing an old archive major news? The building was destroyed by underground work on the extension of the city's Tube. A bulldozer went to work and thousands of years of documents crashed to the ground. Among these were 13th-century manuscripts, about 65,000 vellum-bound books, rare medieval maps and the literary archives of Heinrich Böll and other well-known writers. It had been raining for several days, the ground was damp and the hole quickly filled with water. Some historians spoke of a catastrophe for European historical research. Most locals, however, took it in their stride. "Well, this is Cologne, we are used to all kinds of destruction," said one man, standing in front of one of the many stale-looking buildings that were put up in the 1950s. Alluding to wartime air-raids, he added that he had seen the whole of Cologne flattened. "What is one building compared to a whole city?" he asked.

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