Writing a PhD on the French mandate in Syria, I often ran into the problem of missing archives. As German tanks approached Paris in the early summer of 1940, the secretary-general of the foreign ministry Alexis Léger* had his staff burn all current political records: this was a wise move, but it meant that all the documents on the ministry’s negotiations with Syrian nationalists in the 1930s were destroyed. Copies of much of this material might have been kept at the French mission in Damascus, but there it was the approach of a British/Free French invasion force in 1941 that provoked a Vichy official to burn the sensitive political paperwork. When France grudgingly (and hastily) left Syria and Lebanon after the war, meanwhile, shifting thousands of boxes of documents wasn’t the top priority: among the things that appear to have been mislaid in the rush for the exit is the entire documentary record of the Hygiene and Public Assistance Service, a mandatory agency that dealt with everything from planning sanitation in towns and cities to running refugee camps (what I’m working on now) and anti-malaria campaigns. This may be gone forever, or it may turn up one day in a warehouse outside Marseilles or Toulon.
Turning to the Syrian archives, even when I was doing my research in Damascus between 2003 and 2007 the surviving material from the mandate period was exceedingly patchy. At that time the handwritten inventories of the markaz al-watha’iq al-tarikhiyya, the Historic Documents Centre, were remarkably complete for the Ottoman period, very patchy for the mandate, relatively rich for the early independence period (from 1946), and stopped completely with the Baath takeover in 1963. What the state of the archives is now, I have no idea: it’s almost a year since I heard from a friend who worked there. (Update: a well-informed friend tells me that that part of Damascus, as a regime stronghold, has not yet witnessed serious destruction—but it’s “only a matter of time”.) Syrians have more pressing things to worry about than the fate of their national archives, but if they’re destroyed they would be a significant casualty: recovering from the intense divisions of the present will be all the more difficult if the documentary record of a shared past has been lost.
Historians need archives. So it was dismaying to read this post on the History Workshop Journal website about the destruction of significant archives in the UK: not because there are Panzer divisions sweeping towards them, or Syrian airforce jets bombing rebel-held areas nearby, but simply because the institutions that hold them can’t afford—or, worse, simply can’t be bothered—to protect them.
Are they worth keeping? Or are they just scraps of paper?
*Léger, who was not only dismissed from his post but also stripped of French nationality by the Vichy government, spent the next quarter of a century in the USA. He’s better known to posterity as the Nobel prize-winning poet Saint-John Perse: as you can see from his Wikipedia page, he knew how to rock a polka-dot bow tie.