Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 August 2017
IN addition to its devastating toll on living things, the Second World War caused the destruction of countless historic buildings, paintings, books and manuscripts. In Leipzig alone, aerial bombing incinerated fifty million volumes held in publishers’ warehouses. In London, bombs caused major damage to the British Museum Library in Bloomsbury and demolished much of the newspaper library at Colindale. By the autumn of 1941, one year after Germany and Britain began to attack each other's cities, bombing had consumed an estimated twenty million books in Britain and an untold number of unpublished documents. Although the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane emerged from the war relatively unscathed, bombs and rockets destroyed vast numbers of irreplace- able documents held at the War Office and the Treasury, and in numerous local archives, businesses and homes across Britain.
Yet military action was not the only thing that threatened Britain's cultural inheritance in wartime. Large numbers of books, as well as business correspondence, personal papers and government records, disappeared in British ‘wastepaper’ drives between 1939 and 1945. The historical documents at greatest risk of being recycled were not those held in archives but rather ones in houses, businesses and government offices. W.C. Berwick Sayers, elected president of the Library Association just before the war, estimated that in 1943 alone Britons contributed 600 million books for recycling – thirty times as many volumes as the Luftwaffe destroyed during its most intensive year of raids against Britain. This chapter examines how wartime paper recycling, although promoted as an embodiment of thrift and efficiency, functioned as a form of unsustainable consumption. While fighting to save their civilization, the British people paradoxically destroyed vital parts of their nation's heritage.
Through an escalating process of exhortation and compulsion, government officials worked hard to promote ‘salvage’, and for the most part they succeeded. Never had the British people recycled materials with so much zeal or thoroughness, and no comparable recycling effort has taken place in Britain since then. In their attempt to maximize the use of domestic raw materials in the war effort, Britain's leaders sought to redefine all ‘unnecessary’ items as devoid of value. Once deemed useless, these ‘wastes’ could be recycled into weapons or other necessities.