In the night of 2nd of September 2004, the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany was substantially damaged by fire. The flames raged for several hours and destroyed unique parts of the library, including 50.000 books, numerous artworks from the 16th to the 18th century, as well as the historic building structure.
The library is named after Anna Amalia, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenbach (1785 to 1775), who in 1766 arranged that the book collection of the court was reallocated in the library. Nowadays, the institution attracts over 90.000 visitors every year, benefiting from its proximity to several cultural heritages site of world fame (for example, the Bauhaus and the Goethe and Schiller Archive are situated in Weimar). The library holds over one million objects on German literature and historic documents, including the world’s largest Faust collection, Nietzsche’s private library and handwritten notes by Friedrich Schiller. Especially the ducal collection of sheet music, containing about 3.000 notes, was hit hard by the fire and only 68 notes of particular value survived the incident. Furthermore, manuscripts and rare prints were lost, among them a part book by Orlande de Lassus from 1588.
In that extraordinary night, a broken power line is assumed to have caused a fire in the attic of the library’s main building. The disastrous flames soon spread to the third floor, on which a rococo chamber held some of the library’s most precious treasures. Luckily, library staff and citizens of Weimar reacted quickly and a spontaneous human chain was formed to save 28.000 endangered objects. Under the guidance of library director Michael Knoche, over 9.000 citizens of Weimar helped to rescue numerous objects in the night of the fire and in the following days. Although 34.000 volumes have thus been saved from vanishing, the fire fully destroyed the third floor and the attic of the UNESCO heritage library.
Given the nature of such a large scale fire incident, not all of the saved objects remained fully intact; heat, fire, soot and extinguishing water affected them to various degrees. Packed in foils, the books were brought to the Centre for Book Preservation in Leipzig, where they received an initial cleaning and were freeze-dried. After the books had fully dried, 14.000 volumes could return directly to the library since they only needed minor repair work. The other 20.000 volumes have been professionally restored over the course of several years and then gradually reintegrated in the library.
The restoration of an extant number of volumes as well as the renovation of the library building meant an unexpected and huge expenditure to the library and the city of Weimar. Fortunately, the city and its citizens acknowledged the importance of the library’s cultural heritage and what was lost of it. With the collective help of private donations and public funding, about 40 million euros were available to repair the damage. Within three years, the library had been renovated and finally reopened in 2007, the 268th birthday of Anna Amalia.
While the disastrous aspects of the library fire are clearly undisputed, the fire had positive outcomes on Weimar and its people, too. The incident did not only bring people closer together, but also enabled Weimar to pursue the renovation of further national heritage sites sooner than originally planned. As a direct consequence of the fire, Weimar received increased financial and advisory support from the German state and is now, step by step, renovating its national heritages sites. Ironically, already in the 1990s, library director Knoche tried to draw attention to the urgent necessity to renovate the library and to update its fire prevention measures, but no action was taken. A fire was needed first to carry the protection of Weimar’s unique cultural heritage into effect.
(accessed on September 24, 2016)