IN OUR LIFETIMES, we will see the passing of the last Holocaust survivors and the remaining witnesses of World War II. Once they are gone, their personal possessions will be the last physical reminders of what they endured. Among the lost belongings of the survivors and witnesses of the war are books and archival collections, and these are the subject of Anders Rydell’s latest work, The Book Thieves. Rydell’s tale is a fascinating blend of intellectual history, detective story, and “restitution activism” that cannot help but inspire its readers.
In his book-length debut in English (translated by Henning Koch), Rydell, journalist and Head of Culture at a Swedish media group, traces the Nazi looting of books and archives throughout Europe. On his quest to find books the Nazis plundered, Rydell also wonders why they stole them. Nazi book looting primarily targeted Jewish, Freemason, and dissident intellectual communities. The reason Nazis looted from these communities was to steal their history, their memories, and, ultimately, their humanity. As he pursued the books, Rydell “realized that these memories are central, they were the very reason for the book plundering. Robbing people of words and narrative is a way of imprisoning them.”
Following the trail to various libraries and archives, Rydell discovers information about the owners and archivists once responsible for the collections. He also investigates those accountable for the looting, including elite Nazis like Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler, and how the ideological underpinnings of National Socialism fueled their particular obsession. Yet The Book Thieves isn’t merely the story of stolen books and book looters during the war, it is also a tale of postwar book restitution. Spoiler alert: This is not the happy ending many readers might expect.
Rydell divides his narrative into three parts: Nazi domestic book theft, the international looting of German occupied territories, and the state of book and archive restitution today. Structurally, The Book Thieves parallels Rydell’s journey to the dispersed collections of Europe, from their places of origin to their destinations. Rydell challenges the reader to experience book theft how the Nazis carried it out — while their activity was at first improvised, it was characteristically thorough by its final stages.
Rydell begins his account of this relatively overlooked Nazi operation with a discussion of book burnings in Berlin. Authors whose works challenged National Socialist ideology, such as Lenin and Walter Benjamin, were the main targets of the burning. Contrary to expectations, Rydell proves that the burnings, often led by students, were more symbolic than comprehensive, representing the destruction of unwanted cultures; in fact, the Nazis dedicated their time to obsessively collecting books in order to learn about their enemies.
During his visits to Berlin, Weimar, Munich, Lake Chiemsee, and Frankfurt, Rydell explores libraries and archives to learn about how the book looting process touched these regions. The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich houses some of the first books ever stolen by the Nazis, many of which were once part of Heinrich Himmler’s collection focusing on “political undesirables.” Rydell often broadens his analysis to chronicle the ideological development of the leading looters — Himmler and Rosenberg. He notes how the regions in which they lived and operated might have influenced them ideologically. While many people assume German Romanticism and National Socialism were polar opposites, in fact, they both stemmed from similar roots: a rejection of Enlightenment ideals.
Rydell’s exploration of Alfred Rosenberg’s life and beliefs is particularly fascinating. He comes across stories of Rosenberg during his travels and learns of the Nazi ideologue’s education at a university in the Soviet Union, his stay in Munich where he joined far-right circles, and later, his competition against Himmler to obtain the most valuable book plunder. Rydell provides more than just a narrative of Rosenberg’s life; he intervenes in the historiographical debates on the amount of influence Rosenberg had on Nazi ideological development.
At times, however, Rydell’s portrayal of National Socialism blurs into historical generalities. For example, his discussion of the role of women in the Third Reich neglects the advances women made throughout the war years. He explains that “the Nazis also opposed women having access to higher education, which, it was believed, might lead to demands for equality. In the Nazi worldview, the role of women was mainly about producing children for the new ‘master race.’” While Rydell’s focus is not on gender, this aside oversimplifies the position of women under the Third Reich. Out of wartime necessity, women served in new positions in the workforce and also became beneficiaries of welfare programs formerly off-limits to them.
After exploring the role of Himmler’s and Rosenberg’s book theft operations in Germany, Rydell explains how the looting expanded beyond German borders. The theft of books became an international mission, with raids of Jewish and non-Jewish libraries in Amsterdam, Paris, Thessaloniki, and Vilnius, among other cities. The aim was to allow the Nazis, particularly Himmler and Rosenberg, to grow their collection of literature on Jews, Freemasons, and other political opponents. Rydell reveals the staggering scale of the project. In Poland alone, he estimates that 90 percent of the collections of schools and public libraries were lost or destroyed, while 80 percent of the country’s private and specialized collections disappeared. Rydell fastens on some of the crueler elements of the looting operations. For example, German occupiers made Jews in Vilnius and Theresienstadt sort through and select the most valuable books from their libraries. As Rydell explains,
[T]hey were forced to select and catalog the books of greatest “value” in the collection, and in doing so they would be contributing to research, which would fundamentally have the intention of justifying the Holocaust. The alternative was hardly any better, because books that were not selected were sent to a nearby paper mill, where they were pulped.
The moral dilemmas of the Jews in Vilnius and Theresienstadt parallel similar stories about the Jewish Councils forced to decide which local Jews would be deported to concentration camps where they often faced certain death.
Rightly perplexed by these dilemmas, Rydell stakes out a clearer moral position on postwar restitution efforts. Restitution cases
have often involved dirty games between museums, governments, and profiteering lawyers at the expense of the legitimate demands of survivors and descendants […] It has not been unusual for the voices calling for an end or ‘deadline’ for restitution to be one and the same as those who carry some moral blame in these cases: art dealers, museums, and governments.
Rydell places particular blame on the one government that he thinks impeded and continues to block restitution efforts: Russia.
The final section of his book is a plea for things to change, and for restitution to be focused on individual descendants rather than compensation exchanges between institutions. It is also a wake-up call about how immense the problem of book restitution is, which I discovered for myself at George Washington University’s I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection. I was looking for documents or other copies of a book I had recently read — The Life of Glückel of Hameln. When I asked the archivist about Glückel’s papers, I could not have been more surprised by her answer. It turned out that the Kiev collection had a Glückel manuscript from 1800 that belonged to Bertha Pappenheim, Glückel’s distant relative and founder of the Jewish feminist movement. The provenance of the book, however, was shaky at best. The archivist believed it was part of the Offenbach Depot’s restitution project, in which I. Edward Kiev, the collection’s original owner, participated. Unfortunately, she could not verify that assumption, and has little hope that the book’s true provenance will ever be discovered. I cannot help but be frustrated and angered that there is nothing we can do for this book, or, as Rydell emphasizes, for its lost memories. The remnants of what used to be brilliant European collections, intentionally destroyed by the Third Reich, are now scattered throughout the world. Let us hope Rydell’s clarion call awakens us to what we have lost, and to what can be done to set things right.