The ProsenPeople

The Return of Stolen Property

Thursday, February 09, 2017| Permalink

Anders Rydell is the author of The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance. We couldn’t resist drawing readers’ attention to the Paper Brigade of the Vilna Ghetto, for which Jewish Book Council’s annual print journal is named! Anders will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


My interest in looted cultural property during World War II started around 2009, with a masterwork hanging at the walls of Modern Museum in Stockholm. ”Blumengarten”, painted by the German expressionist Emil Nolde, had been bought by the Museum’s founder in the 1960s from an art dealer in Switzerland.

For forty years, no one bothered to dig into the history of this painting until the Museum received a letter in 2001, sent by an heir to the Jewish-German businessman Otto Nathan Deutch, who had been forced to flee Nazi Germany with his family in the 1930s, ending up in Amsterdam. But his large art collection, which was sent with a German transport firm, never arrived. After the war, some of the surviving family member tried to investigate the fate of the family collection but were informed by the transporter that the warehouse where their prized possessions had been held was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid. The family later received a small symbolic compensation from the German state.

Almost a half century later, it was revealed that the collection had in fact never been destroyed. The Emil Nolde painting that was hanging on the walls of Sweden’s most prestigious museum had been part of Otto Nathan Deutch’s collection.

The letter from the heir to Modern Museum was not the end of this tragic story, but the unfortunately the beginning of a new one. The Modern Museum refused to return the painting to its rightful owners until 2009. The reasoning behind the Museum’s claim to the painting changed over time. They argued that they had purchased the painting in “good faith” and that that there were no legal grounds to force a return of the painting, despite the fact that Sweden had signed the Washington principles. The Museum even proposed that, if the painting should be returned, the heir should compensate the Museum for having kept if safe.

These arguments where both groundless and absurd to anyone with any knowledge of the restitution issue. Finally, after additional pressure from the media and international organizations, the Museum was forced to return the painting.

The tactics of the Modern Museum in Stockholm were not uncommon. We have seen this play out again and again in civil cases between heirs and museums and sometimes even states. The most well-known case is probably The Republic of Austria v. Maria Altmann, adapted into several books and recent feature film starring Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren.

In my first book on this subject, I investigated restitution cases by focusing on museums and art. It wasn’t easy to get behind the thick walls of our museums. Few wanted to talk about the conflict and the response I got was often hostile and suspicious, whether I was in Budapest, Berlin, Paris, London or New York. I came to realize that these institutions, mostly founded during the nineteenth century, were ill-suited to handle the complicated issue of restitution. They were built on collecting—often in a time when this meant looting or even buying from black markets in the colonial world. It was in their DNA to take, not to give back. In fact, the reaction I often got was that restitution of a certain painting was just the first straw, and that the museum would soon cease to exist. This was of course ridiculous.

When I started working on my second book, The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, I expected the same response from libraries and archives. But as I traveled around Europe visiting libraries in Berlin, Weimar, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Thessaloniki, Prague, and Vilnius I was surprised by the response I received. I wasn't just invited, I was encouraged to help in the restitution process. And here I found something that I rarely came across in the world of museum—institutions that wanted to return part of their collections. In a library in Berlin, where there is thought to be 250,000 looted books, I found a small group of librarians that had taken on the task of returning as many of these books as they could. They had started the immense process of going through a collection of seven million books.

Why was the philosophy towards restitution so different in the library world? I think it has something to do with the libraries themselves. Libraries have always been more open institutions. While in museums the public has to stand behind a rope, in the library the public participate: they request and contribute books to be part of the collection.

But most importantly, a library is about sharing information. Openness is a hugely important part of this philosophy.

Another reason that should not be overlooked, is that books rarely have an economical value comparable to that of art. Money, as always, complicates things. But this doesn´t mean that returning these books is any less important. The restitution issue is not just about economical compensation; it’s about memory and history. To restore something, even a little piece, of lives lost, cultures destroyed and history forgotten.

I met a new generation of librarians that realized this. Their biggest concern wasn't that they would lose part of their collections; their greatest concern was how to find the original, and rightful owners of these books. As one of the librarians in Berlin told me, “These books are ghosts, if we don’t return them they will haunt us forever.”

Anders Rydell is a journalist, editor, and author of two nonfiction books on the Nazis, which have been translated into 16 languages. The Book of Thieves is his first work published in English.

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