The French foreign ministry building on the Quai d’Orsay
There are sensible times to destroy archives. In 1940, for example, the German army was advancing on Paris, the secretary-general of the French foreign ministry, Alexis Léger*, had all the ministry’s current records burned. This creates a bit of a problem for me, as a historian of French mandate Syria, because it means all the records of the 1930s negotiations in Paris between the French government and Syrian nationalists over Syrian independence are missing—but I can see that it made sense at the time. The war ministry took no such action (I wonder if this is because the general staff was packed with collaborationists-in-waiting, while Léger was a known anti-Nazi whose French citizenship would be revoked by the Vichy government); as a result, it saw its archives looted by the Germans, who carted vast quantities of militarily sensitive documentation back to Berlin, from where the Red Army looted it in 1945. Forty thousand boxes of material were returned in the 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, but an unknown quantity remains in Russia.
The Château de Vincennes, Paris, HQ during the 1940 campaign and site of the defence ministry archives today
Britain had different reasons for destroying archives. The policy of archive destruction that was implemented extensively across British colonies as they approached independence, in the period after 1945 , aimed to whitewash the historical record, to ensure that anything that might like the retiring colonial master look bad (and there was plenty of it) shouldn’t fall into any, well, black hands. Or those of future historians. Plenty more material—1.2 million files—was repatriated, but withheld from the national archives.
There’s an article about it in yesterday’s Guardian, and a slightly earlier comment piece that’s worth reading by Richard Drayton.
*Under the pseudonym St-John Perse, Léger also wrote poetry: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1960.
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