Translated by Henning Koch
“The image of Nazis as anti-intellectual cultural vandals has been persistent, possibly to some degree because it is easy to comprehend, and possibly because we would like to see literature and the written word as fundamentally good. But even the Nazis realized that if there was something that gave more power than merely destroying the word, it was owning and controlling it. There was a power in books.”
The image of Nazis burning books is a striking and pervasive one, because of course it is based in the truth of the pyres that were made in public squares across Germany as the Third Reich rose to power. But in The Book Thieves, Anders Rydell tackles and attempts to recontextualize that image by uncovering the extent to which the Nazis were collectors of stolen literature—not just of valuable manuscripts as you might already be familiar with from Monuments Men—but of books of all types, from all across Europe. Rydell, a Swedish journalist, follows the trail of the pillagers from Berlin to Amsterdam and Paris, and beyond to Vilnius and Thessaloniki, demonstrating the far reach of the Nazi looters. Entire libraries disappeared, sometimes untraceably, into the mists of the war. Rydell chronicles the actors who seized and dispersed the libraries, as well as the modern librarians who now face the unenviable task of uncovering and facing up to the origins of their collections.
For decades, German libraries have tried to ignore or hide the provenance of many of the items in their collections acquired during or as a result of the war. Fly leaves were cut out, and ex libris labels were scraped or torn away. Some libraries went so far as to forge a different provenance for their acquisitions. But a new generation of library professionals have refused to look away any longer, and “they are fighting a retroactive battle against their former colleagues, who for decades have been rubbing out, tearing off, or falsifying the provenance of these books—all to make them blend into the collection.” Without an ex libris, or inscription, most privately owned books are untraceable. But others come from famous libraries, some of which are now lost to history, and others which still operate despite their losses.
While some books were stolen outright from synagogues, libraries, and Freemason’s Lodges, or plundered from abandoned Jewish residences, others were obtained by coercion. Some very rare and valuable items were added to the Goethe Archive by means of an extortionate deal with a Jewish book collector who knew that he would not be able to flee the country with these famous national treasures, and so was forced to sell them for a pittance. Only in 2006 were his descendants compensated for the discrepancy between the value of the collection, and what was paid for it at the time.
The darkest twist in Rydell’s narrative comes in the chapters that address the Jewish scholars and intellectuals whose forced labour made the creation of the Nazi book depositories possible. In Berlin, they were required to translate and explain Hebrew and Yiddish texts for the SS, because there were not enough “Aryan” translators who knew these languages. In Vilnius, Belarus, a group of Jews were put to work sorting the plunder that would be sent back to Germany by the occupiers. This “intellectual slave labor” forced the prisoners into a terrible choice between consigning their books to the invaders and hoping that they would survive the war to perhaps be reclaimed, or keeping them from Nazi hands and seeing them destroyed. They also knew that when the work ran out and there were no more books to sort, they too would be sent to the death camps. A resistance of book smugglers nevertheless emerged in the group.
What is perhaps most interesting about The Book Thieves is trying to understand why the Nazis stole various texts and libraries. The desire for books by national heroes, or to control the image of famous literary Germans shaped some of their work at home. To this end, they also seized control of publishing, literary awards, and even book clubs. In the Jewish libraries, they were seeking an understanding of their “enemy” and searching for evidence of the great Jewish world conspiracy that drove their hatred. The Freemasons were suspect thanks to their international connections, but certain groups within the party were nevertheless desirous of their rumoured occult knowledge, and the libraries that supported it. In the occupied territories, even books that were of no interest for the purposes of Nazi “research” were taken, and often destroyed, in an attempt to crush the unique cultural identities of the people in those countries. In short, it was never as simple as just seizing and burning the work of undesirables, or asking Germans to purge their own collections to this end. Various groups within the party were at work to further the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich,” and books played a part in many of their plans.
The Book Thieves gives greater depth to our understanding of how the Nazis treated books and literature both before and during the war. I also felt it as a sort of professional call to arms, a reminder to librarians everywhere that we can and have been complicit in atrocities for which full restitution can never be made. And the end of the war did not end the thefts; the Red Army stole in kind, not just taking back stolen books, but laying claim to the Russian books that had belonged to an expatriate library in Paris. Individual soldiers also stole books, scattering some of the lost volumes across the world when the armies dispersed. And more than a million books were sent to the Library of Congress by a delegation sent from Washington, D.C. The problem of restitution is not merely a German one, and The Book Thieves is a means to understand both oppression and complicity in an ongoing tragedy.
You might also like In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson