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.