Ceremonial book burnings and the theft of precious art works are well-known elements of Nazi Germany’s rampage through Europe. In The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, Swedish journalist Anders Rydell tells the less familiar story of how two Nazi agencies—the intelligence wing of the Schutzstaffel (SS) under Heinrich Himmler and the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce headed by Alfred Rosenberg –competed to plunder Europe’s libraries until the regime’s fall in 1945.
The Nazis’ motivation for the theft and dismemberment of libraries was different from that which inspired the looting of precious artworks from museums and private homes. The stolen books were intended to supply Nazi “research” libraries with the raw material for an intellectual war between Nazism and its enemies. Jewish libraries, public and private, were the primary targets, but the agencies also attacked libraries dedicated to Freemasonry, socialism and the occult. Plunder was followed by destruction. Collections were divided up between different research institutes and warehouses. Books that were not deemed valuable, whether for their rarity or for research, were often destroyed.
The Book Thieves is written in the form of a quest. Rydell travels across Europe, visiting the remains of plundered libraries and the institutions that still hold many of the stolen books. He talks to librarians who are engaged in the overwhelming task of identifying stolen books and their owners, those attempting to rebuild lost collections, and those who mourn the libraries that are lost without a trace. In the process, he tells the story of how the collections were built and the heroic attempts to protect them, creating a vivid and heartbreaking picture of lost communities and lost knowledge.
A version of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.