The Book Thieves

Anders Rydell; Hen­ning Koch, trans.
  • Review
By – February 6, 2017

The search for stolen art work and its return to their Jew­ish own­ers has cap­tured the inter­est of the world-wide media — many are famil­iar with pop­u­lar books-to-films like Mon­u­ments Men and Woman in Gold; less known, how­ev­er, is the effort of the Nazis to steal the lit­er­ary works of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties through­out Europe.

The famed book burn­ings of Jew­ish, com­mu­nist, lib­er­al and oth­er oppo­nents of the Nazis in 1933 were not, in fact insti­gat­ed by the Nazis but rather from the anti­se­mit­ic and anti-intel­lec­tu­al Ger­man Stu­dent Union. As Anders Rydell informs read­ers in The Book Thieves: The Nazi Loot­ing of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Lit­er­ary Inher­i­tance, the Nazis saw them­selves not as cul­tur­al bar­bar­ians” or even anti-intel­lec­tu­al. Rather, they intend­ed instead to cre­ate a sort of intel­lec­tu­al being, who did not base him­self on val­ues such as lib­er­al­ism and human­ism but instead on nation and race.

Rydell, a jour­nal­ist, the head of cul­ture at major Swedish media groups, and the author of The Loot­ers and the book under review — his first work pub­lished in Eng­lish — tells the untold sto­ry of how the Nazis ran­sacked Europe’s libraries, homes, and book­shops for the pur­pose of sup­ply­ing its research libraries with books to wage its intel­lec­tu­al war to reshape lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry in its own Aryan image. Books by Jews but also the libraries of Left­ists, Freema­sons, and oth­er oppo­si­tion groups were stolen to jux­ta­pose Aryan suprema­cy with the deca­dent works of their ene­mies. As Rydell writes, “ The Nazis want­ed to defeat their ene­mies not only on the bat­tle­field, but also in thought…It was not by destroy­ing the lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al her­itage of their ene­mies that the Nazis intend­ed to pre­vail- rather by steal­ing, own­ing and twist­ing it, and turn­ing their libraries, and archives, their his­to­ry, inher­i­tance, and mem­o­ry against them­selves.” To cap­ture the right to write their his­to­ry, mil­lions of books were stolen that set in motion the most exten­sive book theft in history.

Over­looked in most accounts of Kristall­nacht, for exam­ple, are the more than 300,000 books from sev­en­ty dif­fer­ent con­gre­ga­tions were con­fis­cat­ed and tak­en to Berlin. While Nazis dragged out Torah scrolls, the Tal­mud, and prayer books into the streets, tore them, stomped on them, and burned them,” a num­ber of espe­cial­ly valu­able archives and libraries were removed amid the exten­sive destruction.

It is only in the past few years that efforts are being made to cor­rect these injus­tices. Orga­ni­za­tions through­out Europe are work­ing to repa­tri­ate loot­ed books and libraries. The author him­self has been entrust­ed with the task of return­ing recent­ly iden­ti­fied vol­umes. The Book Thieves: The Nazi Loot­ing of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Lit­er­ary Inher­i­tance fills in an often neglect­ed aspect of the Holo­caust, the destruc­tion of lit­er­ary mem­o­ry. Read­er-friend­ly and a riv­et­ing account, the book deserves a large readership.

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Anders Rydell

The Paper Brigade of Vilnius

The Return of Stolen Property

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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