Archivists killed for political reasons

Comma (2013), 2013, (2), 123–134.


This essay offers an overview of archivists who were killed for political reasons through the ages. After determining the criteria for inclusion, sixteen such political murders of archivists are briefly discussed. These cases were distributed over six regimes in seven countries. The following clusters can be distinguished: archivists who perished during Stalin's Great Purge, those who died in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Poland; those killed under Communist regimes after Stalin (USSR, Romania, Afghanistan), and those murdered in ‘the South’ (Algeria, Iraq). Although the set of sixteen cases is too small to identify proper patterns, an attempt is made to point to some striking similarities. In seven cases, the motives for the killings were mainly political; in another seven, religion played a major role, either because the killers did not tolerate religion or did not accept a secularist perspective. In two cases, ethnic-religious identity was the main motive. More than once, motives were mixed. Four out of the sixteen archivists were killed for reasons partly related to their archival work: David Riazanov (USSR), Károly Borbáth (Romania), and Zelig Kalmanovitch and Emanuel Ringelblum (Nazi-occupied Poland). Riazanov was accused of ‘wrecking activities on the historical front,’ a stigma that never left him. Borbáth's care for the archives of his political-religious community was intolerable in Ceauşescu's atheist state. Kalmanovitch and Ringelblum saw the collection of archives about life in the ghetto as a political and even existential duty. Killing the recordkeepers did not always prevent their legacy from spreading. This essay is a tribute to that legacy.

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Author details

Baets, Antoon