The greatest plunder

Journalist Anders Rydell documents the Nazis’ extensive, zealous book-theft campaign.

The Nazis stage a book burning at a public square in Berlin in 1933 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Nazis stage a book burning at a public square in Berlin in 1933
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Nazis burned books. Organized as celebratory events, the book burning in the 1930s targeted the works of communists, pacifists, writers and intellectuals from the Weimar Republic, Freemasons and, of course, Jews. University administrators, professors and students cleaned out libraries of “dirty literature.”
Less well known is the obsession of Nazis with collecting books. According to journalist Anders Rydell, their zeal to turn libraries and archives, and the history, legacy and memory of Jews against themselves “set in motion the most extensive book theft in the history of the world.”
In The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, Rydell documents the plunder of millions of manuscripts and texts, the vast majority of them by and about Jews, by Nazis throughout the nations of Europe they occupied during World War II. Conducted by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, sometimes in competition with Heinrich Himmler’s SS, Rydell indicates, the confiscations were designed to deprive Jews of their cultural heritage, to make it possible for the Nazis to conduct “Jewish Studies without Jews,” and to enrich their own ideology.
The scale and scope of the looting of the libraries, public and private, was breathtaking. In Germany, Rydell reveals, more than one million books in the “people’s libraries” of labor unions, socialist organizations, and Social Democrats were confiscated. In France, Alfred Rosenberg’s ERR took control of the collections of 723 libraries, containing more than 1.7 million books, antique and medieval manuscripts and incunabula, packed them on trains and shipped them to Germany.
In Rome, the ERR looted the Biblioteca della Comunita Israelitica, whose 7,000 volumes traced the 2,000-year history of Jews in Italy as well as material related to the beginnings of Christianity. In Thessaloniki, Greece, raids were carried out in synagogues, schools, banks, newspapers, book dealers and social organizations; 250 priceless scrolls and documents relevant to the economic networks of Sephardi Jews were seized.
About 15 million of Poland’s 22 million books, including virtually the entire collection of the Polish National Library, were destroyed, lost or looted.
To “prove” that the Masonic movement was created and controlled by Jews, the Nazis looted Masonic lodges and the Bibliotheca Klossiana in the Netherlands, which held the world’s largest collection of anti-Freemasonry literature.
Libraries containing works by Russian émigrés, Rydell points out, were of particular interest to Nazis, who sought evidence that Jews were behind the Bolshevik revolution. According to most calculations, Rydell writes, the loss of books in the Soviet Union was “almost astronomical.”
The theft and shipment of millions of books involved a considerable amount of people and resources. Rydell points out, moreover, that the “institutes” Rosenberg set up in Berlin, Frankfurt and Ratibor (a small town in southwest Poland) could not catalogue the massive “bounty,” a task that would have taken archivists and librarians decades to complete.
In any event, that this costly initiative was undertaken during a world war, and continued even when it was clear that Germany was losing, testifies to its importance to the Nazis. The archives were stolen, Rydell emphasizes, not only because they were “Jewish property,” but because they were thought to contain material supporting the existence of a global Jewish conspiracy, a conspiracy that Rosenberg traced, for example, not only to ancient times and the birth of Christianity, but to England in the Cromwell era and into the present, with the creation of a British secret service run by Jews.
Bolstered by the archives, this “project” would enable the Nazis to defend and justify the “final solution.” As Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry put it, at the center of world history was a struggle between Aryans and Jews, the incarnation of evil, corruption, degeneration, and fragmentation.
And after the Nazis exterminated the Jews, Rydell suggests, they aimed to “preserve” them in memory, to demonstrate that the German people had been “forced” into a merciless war against the enemies of humanity.
Although the book thieves were backed by the military might of the Third Reich, individuals throughout Europe risked their lives to hide library holdings. Herman Kruk is one of the many (heretofore) unsung heroes celebrated by Rydell. An organizer of the ghetto library in Vilnius, established in a beautiful red house on Straszuna 6 as a manifestation of the spiritual resistance of Jewish residents, Kruk faced a horrible choice: help the Nazis “save” the books or see them destroyed. Soon he and fellow members of “The Paper Brigade” found ways to smuggle out thousands of precious works, including a diary that belonged to Theodor Herzl, and hide them in the YIVO building. Transported to a concentration camp in Estonia in 1944, Kruk hid the pages of his journal in his clothes. On September 17, sensing that the end was near, he wrote that he had buried his manuscripts “in Herr Schulma’s barrack opposite the guardhouse.”
Kruk was murdered the next day, but a witness later returned to dig up the treasures in his secret bunker.
Rydell also introduces us to a more recent group of heroes, Jews and non-Jews who are working hard to identify books that became separated (or stolen) from their libraries – and overcome bureaucratic, legal and political obstacles to getting them returned to their rightful “owners.”
These men and women recognize that the megalomaniacal and murderous Nazis, with all their myths, misconceptions and historical fabrications, got one thing right: the past, present and future are shaped in no small measure on the basis of the written word.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.