Everyone remembers what happened to Beckmesser in the opera "Die Meistersinger" after he stole a manuscript from Hans Sachs. The base mind of the thief, in his anxiety to use this song, mechanically put it together and later faced public disgrace and condemnation. It often happens thus when fragmentary notes are used, of which there are many left in all kinds of archives.
Not just once have I had occasion to examine private and public archives, and the thought would often come. What a confusion of minds would take place if all these fragmentary notes, already worn away, were to be published! Not only in private letters but also in the documents of public institutions there are so many involuntary cryptograms that if one glued them together in a purely mechanical way, one would arrive at a downright absurdity, even where a high public benefit was hoped for.
It is terrible to think that historical deductions are often based on such incidental fragments. A historian remarks with profound thought, "The chronicler does not mention this and this, consequently there never was such a condition," or, "The legation was received in a certain chamber, which means that an extraordinary recognition was accorded this legation."
Such conventional deductions can be cited ad infinitum. But in reality it could be quite different. It could happen that the chronicler did not write about a certain event simply because at that time he was called to a meal, or the legation was received in an important chamber because at that time repairs were taking place in the customary quarters. Just why sometimes the strangest, most inexplicable circumstances took place is hard to explain centuries later.
A case is known when a request for the royal approval was sent by a courier to the palace and was signed three hours later. Afterwards an investigator might have noted that the emperor was so deeply interested in that document and hurried it to such an extent that he signed it at once. But in reality that episode was handled quite differently. The courier, a relative of the personal valet de chambre of the emperor, gave the briefcase to him, and he in turn, seeing the emperor promenading in the garden, found it possible to give him the document to be signed at once, and thus the signature was obtained.
From personal observations many facts could be quoted which to the eyes of a remote investigator could be viewed quite differently and would evoke weighty and deep conclusions. I do not want at all to devote myself to the subject of the significance of an incident in the life of a nation. Episodes are known to all when battles were won or lost because of the sniffles of the commander in chief of the army. Also known in the life of a nation are violent commotions which took place because of the deafness of a certain council chairman. Who knows what may happen? In no way do we desire to occupy ourselves with a rejection of some conclusions of the investigators, who, as it is, are often compelled to change their opinion when faced by new facts.
I wish to write to you about something different. Archives should be preserved in great order. Not only in a mechanical order, but take care that there should not appear some uncertainties which could later cause confusion. When one pictures file cabinets full of correspondence with different countries, one can imagine how some historiographer depicting social trends will be perplexed before this huge quantity of seemingly diverse aspirations and appointments. Besides, for the sake of abbreviation, many names are written shorter or designated by letters alone — so many misunderstandings may occur merely because of a similarity between these letters. Therefore one should in some cases, before leaving the documents in the archive, at once clarify, even briefly, the circumstances that could present some kind of perplexities in the future.
There were cases in which one could notice how, as a joke or with evil intent, fragmentary quotations were substituted. Of course, one could, when one wishes, make the strangest combination of fragments even out of any document. Likewise, one should correct the accidental errors in writing, not only on the originals but also on all copies. I recall how once, because of one letter, a serious offense occurred. One "Sabaneyev" was called "Saba-keyev,"1 and of course he perceived in this mistake a deliberate insult. Often mistakes are corrected in the originals, and they remain in the copies left in the archives, bringing someone into confusion. Besides, misprints occur even in governmental orders. Everyone could probably recall misprints in orders that could create personal as well as public embarrassment. There are plenty of such examples.
Do not think that I enter into superfluous details. On the contrary, precisely out of seemingly small things sometimes issue unlimited consequences. Especially at present when there is such an amount of international correspondence in different languages, subject to a quite varied, conditional understanding.
Thus, for instance, in one case, because of an insistent request, I had to replace in a translation the word I like so much — culture — with civilization. But this does not mean that someone should draw the conclusion that to me both of these concepts are of equal value.
Often a keeper of archives was himself called archaic. But this is quite wrong. Precisely in the hands of such archivists is to be found all living history, including that of the state. Instead of routinely prepared folders in the files, the keepers of archives should enter their notations explaining all kinds of conditional terms unavoidable in correspondence and in expediting business.
I remember a case when a certain document was signed not by the Secretary of a Department himself, but by the Assistant Secretary. And a conclusion was drawn, because of this, that the head of the department for some reason evaded participating in this matter. But in reality, the head of the department on that day suffered greatly from an attack of dysentery and could not participate in any work for the time being.
Another episode comes to mind, widely commented upon at that time, when a certain head of a government had to leave a festive reception immediately. Who knows what may happen in life! Nothing human is alien to people.
The main purpose of this letter is to remind about the necessity of high quality in the preservation of archives. One should not, even for a brief period of time, admit the thought about adding something tomorrow to that which one was not inclined to do today. Each sign of laziness and sluggishness should be excluded everywhere, and especially in circumstances that could bring a successor into confusion. If we have no right to squander someone else's time, we also have no right, because of carelessness or laziness, to bring anyone into confusion.
Clarity, precision, and cleanliness are achieved where negligence is not allowed at all. And what a pleasure it is to see these qualities everywhere! They cleanse all life and replace unnecessary complexity by precision, simplicity, and clarity.
June 7, 1935
1 This name is close to the word dog.