Steal This Book

Review of Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves, The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance

/ by Izidor Janžekovič



A common translation of this Latin proverb is “books have their destiny.” It comes from a philologist Terentianus Marus, who wrote it in a book De litteris, De syllabis, De metris in the second or third century AD. But the verse 1286 is somewhat longer and the fuller quote reads as pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli – “according to the capabilities of the reader, books have their destiny.” In this extension the phrase is understood by Umberto Eco (in The Name of the Rose) as “books share their fates with their readers.”


This is also the main (red) thread of Anders Rydell’s book The Book Thieves. He fittingly uses a quote from Heinrich Heine: “Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned too” (Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen). This line of dialogue comes from his tragedy Almansor (1820-22) and describes the relation between the destination of the (plundered) books and the destiny of their readers/owners; it is an intimate link between cultural destruction and the Holocaust.


But as Rydell points out, by focusing on this (burning) aspect of the Nazis’ attitude to the books and culture, we could miss the larger point. It could obscure something perhaps even more sinister: “The desire of totalitarian ideology to rule not only over people, but also their thoughts.” It is easy to accuse Nazis of being barbarians and uncivilized destroyers of culture, but this is defeating the purpose. They were driven, maniacally, to confiscate and collect these “polluted” books with a specific mission in mind.


On the one hand Nazis wanted to understand their enemies; on the other hand, they were seeking and “found” legitimacy for their actions and, in their opinion, defensive war. Rydell set out on mission to research this under researched story about the books plundered during the reign of National Socialism (1933-45). His journey took six months and led him all over Europe, from Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris to Thessaloniki, Vilnius, and Prague. He consulted with librarians and archivists who sifted through the libraries and archives that were plundered or destroyed at that time.


Sheer scale of these activities was unprecedented – tens of millions of books disappeared and many are still missing today. The targets of this plunder were the ideological enemies of the movement – Jews, Communists, Freemasons, Catholics, regime critics, Slavs. Libraries, archives, and private collections were looted by the most important ideologues of the Third Reich, by organizations led by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler (RSHA – Reichssicherheitshauptamt), or the party’s chief ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg (ERR – Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg); sometimes they were even direct rivals.


Rydell shows how we are actually focused on the stories of the Nazis' art thefts and spectacular cases of plundered art. Even author himself admits to being an accomplice to this “crime” – he also wrote a book about it. There are probably many (psychological and sociological) reasons for that, e.g. works of art are unique and practically priceless while books (usually) aren’t. But as Rydell justly shows, “these books are keepers of memories,” about their owners and society. The process of returning them can be really emotional.


In the last couple of decades, more and more information about these scattered books are coming out. Restitution project will go on for decades, perhaps even generations; no one knows for how long. Finding the owners is detective's task and takes a lot of time and (limited) resources. Some libraries have established public databases where one can follow the progress and the books that were processed. But because there is less interest for plundered books, there is also less political interest and public pressure (and consequently public funds) to tackle this issue.


So why should we even tackle this issue? There is or at least should be an innate moral obligation to right a wrong, however old it may be. Rydell presents how the “approach to restitution of scattered trophy treasure seesawed between animosity, indifference, and a spirit of cooperation.” He personally delivers a book to one of the descendants of the owner of a book. Reading the book, one realizes why one should return the books, is not the right question, but just how we are going to do it.

Izidor Janžekovič