Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 14, 2019

The Book Thieves (2013), by Anders Rydell, translated by Henning Koch

The Book Thieves was an impulse loan from the library.  I’d heard a lot about the Nazi theft of artworks and their burning of books, but I knew nothing about the systematic theft of books…

But it takes only a moment’s thought to realise that of course there would have been precious collections of books all over Europe, and of course they would have been looted by the Germans, just as the precious artworks and other collectibles were.  Invaders have always looted the possessions of the vanquished, and all the major museums of the world have treasures that originally belonged elsewhere.  In some cases, perversely, that’s turned out to be a good thing: many of Afghanistan’s ancient treasures were smuggled out of the destructive hands of the Taliban and even if they’re in the hands of private collectors now, at least they still exist.  OTOH in the case of the Baghdad Museum, there are irreplaceable losses because the US failed to put a strategy in place for the protection of the collection.  All over Europe, there are heroic stories of collections being hidden away from the invading Germans in WW2, but many treasures fell prey to the looting all the same. (Geraldine Brooks wrote a book about an example of saving a precious book: it’s called The People of the Book. I read it before I started blogging, but Ursula Le Guin reviewed it here),

However, the German plunder was not confined to collections in museums and art galleries.  The Nazi regime systematically dispossessed Jews of everything they owned as part of their genocidal intent, and that included stealing books in private collections.  But book theft also applied to any of the ideological enemies of the Third Reich— Communists, Freemasons, Catholics, Roma, Slavs and dissidents.   And what is not widely known is that there were two purposes for the theft of books.  The obvious reason is that ancient texts, manuscripts, first editions and complete collections of serialised books are valuable both from a monetary point of view and for their historical and cultural importance.  The less obvious reason is that the Nazis had a more malevolent purpose: the systematic extinction of anything that was in opposition to their ideology so that they could rewrite history and culture according to their own warped beliefs.

The Nazis were not going to destroy their enemies by eradicating the literary and cultural inheritance of Communists, Social Democrats, liberals, homosexuals, Jews, Rom, and Slavs.  Nazis were not, properly speaking, the sort of “cultural barbarians” they were purported to be, nor were they anti-intellectual.  They intended instead to create a new sort of intellectual being, one who did not base himself on values such as liberalism and humanism but rather on his nation and race. (p.12)

The chapter titled ‘Goethe’s Oak’ explains the complex process by which Germany’s most esteemed writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, came to be used to bolster Nazi ambitions.  Anders then goes on to tell the story of one very special remaining tree after a forest was cleared to build the Buchenwald concentration camp.  It was the tree under which Goethe was said to have written some of Faust.  There were beliefs that this tree represented Germany’s destiny and that the nation would endure for as long as the tree lived.

… the oak eventually took on two entirely different symbolic realities, one for the SS guards who had decided that the oak had to be preserved, and another for the prisoners of the camp.  For the SS, the oak was a link to a great Germanic cultural tradition, of which they felt they were the true inheritors.  […]

For many of the camp prisoners, this oak, in the middle of this infernal world, took on a representation of dreams, fantasies, and hopes that were still keeping them alive.  For prisoners who were rooted in German culture, the tree symbolised another, bright, and more enlightened land than the one that kept them incarcerated.


For [camp survivor] Ernst Wiechert, Goethe personified the true German cultural tradition, like a beautifully illuminated path, although the people had lost their way and strayed into darker parts of the forest. […]

Not everyone shared Wiechert’s perspective.  Rather, they viewed the oak as a symbol of the inherent evil of Germanic culture, of oppression and cruelty.  These prisoners kept alive the myth of the oak being tied to the fate of Germany.  And it gave them hope.  The oak in the camp started slowly withering and dying.   (p.38-9)

Rydell (who is Swedish) explains in some depth this paradox, describing it as the Janus face of Germany.  

Some have wished to see these two sides of German culture as wholly separate, in order not to besmirch the radiance of the classicist’s era.  This has been the predominant approach in Weimar for most of the postwar period.  Others maintain that this is a historical simplification, even a falsification, for the plain reason that these two sides are interlinked by cultural, philosophical, and literary roots.  Not directly related, perhaps, yet National Socialism grew and mercilessly exploited some of these ideas, which sprang from the same root: German nationalism and the rejection of Enlightenment ideas.

High German romanticism was strongly resistant to the emotional paucity of the Enlightenment era.  (p.41)

As Anders says in the introduction:

In this war, books would be not so much a casualty as a weapon.  The Nazis wanted to defeat their enemies not only on the battlefield but also in thought.  This victory would endure long after the grave, after the genocides and the Holocaust.  Not only to wipe out, but also to justify their actions.  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 by turning their libraries and archives, their history, inheritance, and memory against themselves.  To capture the right to write their history.  It was a concept that set in motion to the most extensive book theft in the history of the world. (p.13)

The identification and repatriation of books to their owners or their descendants is much more difficult than returning artworks. The sheer scale of numbers is one thing: there are a quarter of a million books in one library in Berlin alone.  But locating the owners is another: while some valuable books have beautiful book plates inside, other more ordinary books have only the sort of inscriptions that gift-givers write, or no trace of ownership at all, other than, sometimes, an arcane library accession notation or something like that.  And while Anders gives examples of descendants cherishing the return of what is perhaps the only memento of a loved one, there was also a photo of a book stamped with Nazi insignia:

On the flyleaf of a book entitled Polnische Juden (Polish Jews) I find black-stamped text: “Reichsinstitut fur die Geschichte des neuen Deutschland” (National Institute for the History of New Germany, headed by the historian Walter Frank).  This text runs around the Nazi state crest, an open-winged eagle with its talons gripping a wreath decorated with swastikas. (p.60)

Would a survivor or descendant want the return of a book mutilated like that?  Even if the page were torn out, the memory of seeing that stamp would be indelible.  Nevertheless that decision should be the survivor or descendant’s choice.  So while it is a mammoth [and probably expensive] task, IMO it is a good thing that there are attempts at restitution.  Dedicated teams are working diligently to try to trace the provenance of the books and to offer them for return.  Each book can take months of painstaking research, and there are libraries all over Europe that house these millions of books.

The Book Thieves is extraordinary in its entirety, but the chapter about Paris deserves special mention.  It wasn’t just Jewish books that were stolen, but also what Rydell calls émigré libraries.  Political immigrants from the east during the entire revolutionary period that began in the 1800s set up libraries which eventually became centres of exile, organising readings, concerts, exhibitions and celebrations.  The Turgenev library became a nursery for several generations of Russian revolutionaries and had an extraordinary collection of works representing the full spectrum of political opinion, from revolutionaries, to White Russians and Socialists, Communists and Social Democrats who were exiled once the Bolsheviks took over. (Lenin worked there for a while).  It was one of the world’s leading Russian libraries, and it also had prized possessions such as first editions of Voltaire, and Tsar Ivan IV’s lawbook from 1550.  There was also an émigré Ukrainian library and one for the Poles.

These libraries also symbolised an alternative version of written history.  They pointed to the other Russia, the other Poland, and preserved the stories that would otherwise have been lost.  In the exile libraries, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian literature could keep evolving and be read, debated, and criticised.  For the poets, authors, and journalists that had not only lost their home countries but also their readers, this was especially important.  Yet a catastrophe lay in wait for Paris’s flourishing émigré communities, and it would come from an enemy that did not merely intend to stifle and censor Russian, Polish and Ukrainian culture, but raze them to the ground and utterly extinguish them  (p. 147)

The Book Thieves is a comprehensive and detailed account of the history of the book theft, and the efforts to redress the wrong.  The translation is fluent, and Anders begins his chapters gently, as if to remind the reader that we live in the present before encountering the perfidy of the past:

With a soft swaying shudder the ferry leaves its berth in the harbour below the village of Prien.  I have taken a seat at the far end of the stern, on the sundeck, so I can get a good view.  The deck has quickly filled with retirees in neon-coloured clothes and school-age adolescents sitting on top of each other, vying to get a place in the sun.  Hundreds of small white dinghies on the lake are doing their best to catch the faint breeze.  (Ch 5, en route to Chiemsee in Bavaria, p.71)

Wout Visser carefully places a small brown box on the table and opens the lid, then takes out a light brown, leather-bound book with worn edges.

The cover, decorated in a printed pattern of foliage within a rectangular shape, reveals little about its contents.  It looks like a small and not especially rare book from the turn of the last century, something that could be fairly easily be found in a secondhand bookshop—apart from the distinguishing feature of an almost half-inch hole near the top left corner of the book. (Ch 6, in Amsterdam p.93.  The hole was made by a bullet, the slug still inside the book).

From the bridge I can see the light brown backs of the fish against the sandy bottom.  From time to time one of them swivels, turning its scales toward the sun and projecting a silvery reflection. On the other side of the bridge I see families with children, lying on an exposed sand spit reaching into the river Ohre.  It is high summer and the water level is low.  The children throw themselves into the current and let themselves be pulled along to a calmer section.  Farther down, where the trees along the riverbank stop, the ashes of 22,000 camp prisoners were dumped in the river.  (Ch12, at Theresienstadt, p. 218)

This is an impressive book, and I suspect that the author felt that documenting this story thoroughly was vitally important.  I agree: at the very least, the original owners and their descendants are owed that.

In 2018 the Library of Congress hosted a talk by Anders Rydell, about this book, and it’s available on You Tube.  (There’s also a nice homage to the importance of libraries in Sweden). But right at the very end (45:30, before the questions) he explains the importance of returning a book that has no monetary value.  He tells the story of the book’s owner and how the book now in the hands of his granddaughter is the only evidence she has that he ever existed.

Author: Anders Rydell
Title: The Book Thieves, the Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance
Translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House), 2017, first published as Boktjuvarna in 2015, 352 pages
ISBN: 9780735221222
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. You can’t believe that people might want to destroy history and culture and yet it happens in every conflict, and under every dictator. Imagine the records that Peter Dutton would prefer destroyed. Not that great masses of people people aren’t perfectly able to ignore those elements of history and all other collections of facts that they find inconvenient.


  3. It’s not just books either. It’s not so long ago that the ABC had a purge of content on its website (under Guthrie).


  4. I want to read this and don’t at the same time. It’s vital we hold onto culture as an attempt to combat the horrors of the modern world. But reading about the destruction of books gives me the shivers…


    • Yes, me too. I felt like that when I read The Burning of Books as well. But what bothers me too is that in the US and the UK they are closing down libraries for budget cuts, and the thing is, they wouldn’t do this if they thought people would make a fuss. People aren’t making much of a fuss… and that means that people don’t care enough about their culture or history to stop it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The Book Thieves, by Anders Rydell, translated by Henning Koch […]


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