When the archives building in the German city of Cologne collapsed on March 3, the disaster claimed two lives and centuries of history—including the private papers of Nobel prize laureate Heinrich Böll. After years of negotiations, city officials had reached a deal with Boll’s heirs for $1.5 million and held a special transfer ceremony only three weeks ago. None of the documents, ranging from the writer’s school reports to photographs and 80,000 letters, had been copied electronically. The 30 km of file shelves also held documents written by Karl Marx, Georg Hegel and Jacques Offenbach, edicts issued by Napoleon Bonaparte and the minutes of city council meetings going back to 1376, which had survived Second World War bombing raids. Now, historians fear all are irreparably damaged under the mound of concrete, steel and glass rubble created when the archives’ foundations, undermined by a nearby building project, caved in.