The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell, Henning Koch (Translator)
Penguin Publishing Group: 2/7/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by
Anders Rydell, Henning Koch (Translator)
is a very highly recommended well researched account of the Nazis'
systematic pillaging of Europe's
libraries and the librarians that are now working to return the books to
their rightful owners or heirs. This is a well-written, fascinating
look at crimes of the past and how
some people are working to rectify them. Rydell visited many of the
libraries that are still in the process of sorting through the stolen
The Book Thieves is a story of the looting and dispersal, as well as
the burning and destruction, of of thousands of libraries and millions
of individual books during WWII. As the description of The Book Thieves says: "In this secret war, the
libraries of Jews, Communists, Liberal politicians, LGBT activists,
Catholics, Freemasons, and many other opposition groups were
appropriated for Nazi research, and used as an intellectual weapon
against their owners. But when the war was over, most of the books were
never returned. Instead many found their way into the public library
system, where they remain to this day."
Libraries that were built up over generations helped form "the
cultural, linguistic, and identity-defining heart of communities,
families, and individuals. Libraries that were irreplaceable in their
right - a reflection of the people and societies that once created and
nurtured them." When these collections were stolen, and dispersed or
burned, it was stealing the cultural identity of families and groups.
"Robbing people of words and narrative is a way of imprisoning them.
Books are rarely unique in the same way as works of art, but they have a
value that so many more people can understand. In our time, the book
has retained a symbolic value that is almost spiritual. Discarding books
is still considered sacrilegious. The burning of books is one of the
strongest symbolic actions there is, correlating with cultural
destruction. While mainly identified with the Nazi book pyres of 1933,
symbolic destruction of literature is as old as the book itself."
The Nazis understood that to control people and their beliefs, they
needed to control the literature. Mind control, the quest for a
hive-mind mentality, and punishing those who don't comply is nothing
new. In contrast, there were people who risked their lives to try and
save parts of their literary inheritance. They understood that "the
theft of their literary culture was a way of robbing them
of their history, their humanity, and, in the final analysis, any
possibility of remembrance." These people hid old manuscripts, important
religious works, and even diaries.
While this is about the history of the Nazis' looting, burning, and
control of millions of books, it is also a hopeful account about the
people who are currently trying to catalogue the vast number of these
stolen books and find a way to return those they can (because of
identifying marks, plates, notes, names, etc.) to their original owners.
It is a daunting task, especially since over the years it is clear that
librarians have cut out identifying pages or deface marks identifying
original owners. It was heartening to see that Google is helping this
effort - when people are searching for ancestors, they can come across
information about their family's confiscated books. Even though many of
the books have little monetary value, the personal value can be
My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House/Viking.