For me, archival treasure does not mean the great historical scoop, although it is no doubt very satisfying if it happens. The true value lies in the accumulation of personal detail which illuminates a period. My first great lesson came in 1991 in the Archives Nationales in Paris. I was working at the time on a book which I wrote with my wife, Artemis Cooper, called Paris After the Liberation 1944-1949. After months of frustration, I had finally received permission from the Ministry of the Interior to examine the files of the French security service, the DST, for 1944 and 1945.
Among all the papers packed in the dust-impregnated â€˜cartonsâ€™, a short paragraph caught my imagination. It was a police report on arrests in the summer of 1945. A German woman, a farmerâ€™s wife, had been found in Paris among French deportees returned from camps in Germany. It transpired that she had had an illicit affair with a French prisoner of war assigned to their farm in Germany while her husband was on the Eastern Front. She had fallen so much in love with this enemy of her country that she had followed him to Paris, having somehow smuggled herself onto a train returning concentration camp victims. That was all the detail provided.