The Neglected War Crime of the Nazi Book Thieves

Interview with Anders Rydell

/ by Daniel Lindvall

We are all familiar with the importance the Nazis placed on art, and the extensive confiscations and looting of paintings and other art works committed both before and during the war. Leading figures of the regime, with Hermann Göring the prime example, were obsessive collectors (i.e. art thieves). Most of us will also have heard of the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, which opened in Munich in the summer of 1937; an exercise in the cultural war, whereby the Nazis wished to establish official guidelines for what was good “German” and “Aryan” art, and what was, like modernism and cosmopolitanism in general, a “degenerate” product of the “Judeobolshevik” threat. We can also easily conjure up images of books pyres in German squares, accompanied by the sound of crackling flames and cheering Hitlerjugend. What is less known is the story of how the Nazis looted millions of books from public and private libraries around Europe, not in order to destroy them, but to create gigantic Nazi-controlled research libraries. The victims were naturally Jews and Jewish organizations, but also the Labor movement, freemasons and other oppositional groups. The aim, to control access to the written culture and turn it against its righful owners, and thereby to control the writing of history, in order to make sure that the Nazi crimes would be seen as justified in the eyes of future generations. In his latest book, The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, Swedish author and journalist Anders Rydell tells the story.


Daniel Lindvall: Would you mind telling us a little bit about your background?

Anders Rydell: I’m a journalist with focus on culture, history and politics. I graduated as a journalist 2005 and 2008 became editor-in-chief of the quarterly magazine Konstnären (“The Artist” – the periodical of the Swedish Artists' National Organization). Since 2015 I’m Head of Culture at the Swedish media group Hallpressen, where I’m directing the coverage of arts and culture in 14 newspapers. I have written seven books on various topics, but since 2009 mainly focused on the area of looted cultural property.

You have previously written a book about the much better known story of Nazi art theft. Where does your interest in the “cultural crimes,” if I may call them that, of the Nazis come from?

In 2009 I published a book about the Swedish Piracy movement (The Pirates – The Swedish File Sharers Who Plundered Hollywood). I think it started then. That same year an almost decade-long conflict about a Nazi-looted painting at Moderna Museet (the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm) was concluded. I realized that both these subjects at the core where about the same thing – who owns our culture?

For me, the looting during WW2 became a lens where existential questions about the meaning and importance of culture could be answered.

The Nazis stole art and burned books – at least, that’s what most of us have been led to believe. How did you become aware of this story of stolen books?

As often happens, I came on this subject doing research for my previous book, The Looters, which dealt with the Nazi art thefts. When I studied the two organizations that where most central for the cultural looting during the war, I realized that they weren’t really interested in the art. This was curious, because the looting of art has gotten so much attention in the last decades. But these organizations, the SS and ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), organized the large scale looting of art – but the works were either distributed to the large collectors, like Goering and Hitler, or sold. But the art had no interest for the SS or ERR – what they really wanted was books. This was interesting because these also were the central ideological organizations in the Third Reich. The other thing that got my attention was the sheer scale of the looting of books – that dwarfed the art looting. It is estimated that 100 to 200 million books where dispersed through the war.

In the midst of war, the Nazis diverted considerable resources to transporting millions of books from every corner of occupied Europe. Which were the driving forces strong enough to justify this?

Ideology – the same forces that made the Nazis organize the mass deportations and murder of millions of innocent people who constituted no military threat. The looting of books and archives was part of the ideological war the Nazis waged against all their enemies – but mainly the Jews.

The looting had mainly two purposes. On one hand, to “unarm” their enemies by taking the weapons of thought – books, libraries, archives. In Poland, the Nazis even looted books from schools – in a Nazi-dominated East, Polish children didn’t have any need for higher education as, in the future, they would be reduced to slaves under the master race.

The second goal was even more devious. By looting the libraries and archives of their enemies, the Nazis tried to take control over the memory and history of the victims. This was most important regarding the Jews. Alfred Rosenberg, who founded the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, was afraid that, even if the Nazis won the war, future generations would judge them for their crimes. Therefore, it was important to control the memory of the Jews, not as a way to eradicate the Jews from written memory – but to establish the Jews as an incarnation of evil for all future generations.

Given the enormous scale of the Nazi book thefts, why do you think we hear of this only now?

It has been known by researchers and historians in this area for a long time – but it has not reached the public. I think one reason is that it has been easier and more common for survivors and heirs to search for lost artworks. It’s easier to remember that painting hanging on your grandmother’s wall, than some books on her shelf. Artworks often have a documented provenience history, which books rarely have. And then it is more worthwhile to spend years of research and large sums to find an artwork than some books.

But another reason is that libraries haven’t really dealt with this question until recently. The same librarians who looted or bought looted books were still there after the war. Some of them were still working in the 1990s – and many of them tried to cover their tracks by destroying ex libris or counterfeiting catalogues.

That’s why these books only now get attention. There are millions and millions of looted books in libraries all over Europe.


Why do you think it is that the stories of the Nazi’s cultural thefts in general have been receiving more attention lately? I’m thinking, for instance, of film productions such as The Monuments Men (2014) and Woman in Gold (2015).

I would say that it really started in 1998, when the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art conference was held. There 44 countries agreed to start a new restitution process. After that a lot of cases, especially in the area of art, came up to the surface – more and more people started to look into their own family history. During the whole Cold War, this question really had been buried. In the 1990s, when the archives in the East opened up, there was a whole new history to tell, not only about the Holocaust but also about the looting.

Famous cases like the Republic of Austria v. Altmann trial (retold in The Woman in Gold) got this subject a lot of attention. I think we will see more movies, for example about the Cornelius Gurlitt case. Now people are also starting to realize that the Nazis not only looted art, but books, instruments etc. There is still much to find, and much to tell.

During your research, you visit the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where the Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzforschung is located. You mention passing the Babylonian Ishtar Gate. How do you think the Nazi culture thefts compare to the thievery committed by the European powers during the era of colonialism? 

You can compare them, but there are important differences. The looting during the colonial era was mainly the same kind of looting that empires had been doing for thousands of years – for imperial glory. The Nazi looting had this aspect too, especially in relation to art. But the important difference is that the Nazi looting also was part of the murder of millions of people. The looting was always an integrated part of the Holocaust. The looting not only made the victims helpless, it was a way to strip them of their humanity. Therefore, I think the looting during World War Two should be thought of and handled as a separate issue from crimes during the colonial era.

Finally, are you planning to do more work in the future on the Nazi culture crimes? Are you working on anything right now, as far as book and research projects go, that you wish to share with us?

Yes, I’m now working on the third and last book on this subject – the looting of music. The Nazis looted instruments, but also valuable original sheets of music etc. The story of the Nazis’ relationship to music is extremely interesting. If someone reading this is looking for their family’s lost music history, they are welcome to contact me. 

Daniel Lindvall

is editor of Film International magazine and is based in Sweden.