Next to the horrors of the holocaust, books burning in great bonfires are one of the most common images that come to mind when recalling the Nazi regime. However, the best-known book burning wasn’t carried out by Hitler’s government.
On May 10, 1933, students at Wilhelm Humboldt University stormed their campus library to seize “un-German” publications—books by Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and others—all of which they tossed in a raging fire. The right-wing student organizations that carried out the burnings sang Nazi songs around the conflagrations, only pausing to listen to a speech by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
Goebbels congratulated the youth for their role in ending the era of “exaggerated Jewish intellectualism” and promised that the regime would educate them in the ways of the future German man: one who would “not just be a man of books, but also a man of character.”
As Goebbels’s speech suggests, the Third Reich had a more complicated relationship with books than what you might have been led to believe. A new title from Anders Rydell, The Book Thieves, reveals that the regime plundered, rather than burned, the contents of private libraries across Europe.
The thefts were massive operations, with German troops seizing thousands of books at a time under the auspices of Heinrich Himmler’s Reich Main Security Office, and Alfred Rosenberg’s Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce.
Himmler and Rosenberg’s organizations targeted Jewish libraries most frequently, followed by Freemason’s lodges, and to a lesser extent, Marxist-Leninist enclaves. The Reich considered the stolen books to be strategic assets that gave them a deeper look into the minds of their enemies, as well as a source of validation for their ongoing racial pogroms. The Nazis also saw seizing sacred texts as one more step toward erasing Jewish culture in total.
Following the end of the war, many of the books stolen by the Nazis found their way into private collections and university libraries as “donated” texts. Returning them to their owners, or their families, has proven to be extraordinarily difficult compared to similar efforts to repatriate paintings and other works of arts seized by the regime.
As Uwe Hartman, a historian working with stolen books at the Berliner Stadtbibliothek explained to Rydell, “Art often has a provenance. Old works can be found in exhibition catalogs, auction registers, or they are referred to by art critics. They can be traced. The same can rarely be said for books. If there aren’t any stamps in them, it becomes difficult. Books are rarely unique, after all. An enormous amount of work is required.”
Every day we lose more holocaust survivors, making it likely that only a small percentage of these books’ owners will live long enough to see their property returned. At least one librarian involved in the cause told Rydell that it will likely be the work of several generations. The Book Thieves ensures that the crime itself will not be forgotten.