The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell: A Review

I didn’t expect I would like The Book Thieves so much. I can’t resist books about books, especially if they’re about World War II, but most of the time they present their content in a very dry, academic way (something that I hope my blog is avoiding). By contrast, Rydell blends together history, travelogue, interview and pure bibliophilia into a mixture that keeps you hooked until the end. However, from the beginning, he is faced with a major problem. We are used to thinking of Nazis as destroyers of books, starting with the bonfires of 1933 and culminating in the destruction of several major European libraries, such as the one in Louvain and most of the great libraries of Warsaw. If instead of this one talks about how Nazis stole books for their own collections, wouldn’t that improve the image that most of us already have of them, and appear as a sort of vindication?

Rydell’s answer to this is somewhat disingenuous. Destroying books might be bad, he contends, but using them against their writers and owners is even worse. Of course, he has a point here. In many cases when the Nazis stole books from groups they hated, such as Jews, Slavs and freemasons, the purpose was to create special research libraries; foremost among these was the string of organizations led by chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, such as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce) and the Hohe Schule der NSDAP (Advanced School of the NSDAP). Such institutions would serve as an ideological weapon, allowing Germans to know their enemy in order to fight him all the more efficiently. Especially in the case of Jews, these libraries would also serve as a sort of retroactive justification of the Holocaust. After all the Jews would be gone, their books would continue to serve as evidence to future generations of the need for exterminating Jewry, or so at least the Nazis thought. Indeed, when ransacking libraries in occupied countries, a central preoccupation was finding “evidence” for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For example, when a special commissioner was sent to the library of the masonic lodge in Amsterdam, he was instructed to pay special attention to any documents indicating Jewish influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and on the creation of the British secret service, events that Nazi ideologues considered part of the Jewish plot for world domination.

At the same time, isn’t gathering books in order to refute them what most intellectuals do, most of the time? If you want to understand a topic, you need to familiarize yourself with all the viewpoints on it, including the ones you oppose. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco who commented that reading and collecting books which contain the truth is boring, the interesting books are the ones which are full of falsehoods… It wouldn’t harm Rydell’s narrative to simply admit that while burning books is even worse, stealing them is still bad, especially if you kill their owners in the process. Most of the books stolen by the Nazis weren’t really connected with ideology, they were just regular book collections which were taken from owners as the latter were sent to the camps. These books were then sold or turned over to local libraries, where a number of them still are, and in many cases the profits were specifically earmarked to fund the Holocaust. The number of books collected in this way was even advertised publicly as a measure of the Nazis’ respect for popular education, as described in another book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Götz Aly.

In occupied Prague, the Nazis looted books from Jews and sent them to libraries back home. The poster boasts: “1.362.945 books have already been gathered. This is enough to fully equip 2.600 libraries.”

The project of returning these books is probably the most interesting of all the stories Rydell presents, and I’m really impressed by the effort German libraries have invested in identifying stolen books, photographing them and setting up databases with thousands of indexed items. (Searching for a stolen book yourself? You can check the database here.) Of all the stories presented, this one is also the most uplifting, as we encounter Holocaust survivors and their descendants around the world who are improbably reunited with their books after many decades of separation.

The other stories are gradually less cheerful. Many of the trails of lost libraries lead to Russia, and most of these trails reach a dead end. During and after the war, the Red Army confiscated millions of books which were considered compensation for books destroyed or looted by the Nazis after their invasion of the USSR. I don’t understand this at all: why would they want to fill Soviet libraries with books in German, many of which were highly foreign to the Soviet worldview, if not literally Nazi? Apparently, most local librarians didn’t understand it either. The majority of these books ended up rotting in huge warehouses or were discarded and pulped after it turned out that nobody in town was interested in reading German folk songs or guides to Frankfurt. Even when the books acquired were in Russian, they didn’t necessarily fare any better. After the Turgenev library of Paris, founded and run by Russian émigrés, was removed by the Nazis in 1940, it eventually found itself in the USSR after the war. Even though most of the books were in Russian and politically unproblematic, they were put into storage at a military base where they were eventually almost all burned for heating. Many others of these so-called “trophy” books are still scattered around the former Soviet Union, but locating them is difficult and their return is unlikely.

As it goes on, the book becomes increasingly depressing, since it is hard to discuss the topic of books separate from the wider context of the Holocaust. Of the two major Jewish libraries in Rome, one was mostly returned after the war, while the other one disappeared without a trace. So did most of its readers, who were rounded up in 1943 and sent to the camps after having been promised freedom in exchange for 50 kilograms of gold, which they duly gathered and handed over. While the stolen books from Rome at least had somewhere to return to after the war, this wasn’t the case with the Jewish community in Vilnius. Survivors coming back to the newly-Lithuanian town would discover that the Soviet occupiers had little use for Yiddish books, and intended to pulp even the small number of books that had survived until 1944. In any case, the number of surviving Jews was very low and most of them made off to other countries as soon as they could. As a result, the remainders of the pre-war Jewish libraries of Vilnius are now mostly located abroad.

A pile of books looted by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in Riga, Latvia, in 1943.

Lastly comes the most depressing of these stories, from Salonika in Greece, where Nazis and Greeks together obliterated almost every trace of Jewish presence, down to bulldozing the cemetery. Nowadays it takes an archaeologist to recognize traces of what used to be one of the largest Jewish communities in the world just a century ago. Here, Rydell wanders somewhat off topic, as only a small part of the chapter is actually spent discussing books, but I can’t blame him since Salonika is probably the least-known of all the Jewish pre-war cultural centres, and deserves more publicity.

This still leaves out several countries which Rydell does not mention at all, among them Yugoslavia. Bosnia in particular had a notable Jewish community, and it would be interesting to know what happened to their books and where they ended up. I plan to get around to this on the blog, once I’ve collected enough material. If the review concludes with wishing that the book had been longer, this is very faint criticism indeed.

At the end of the day, the main reason why I liked The Book Thieves so much is that Rydell displays a genuine love of old books. He doesn’t care just for incunables and rare collectors’ objects, but also run-of-the-mill books, 19th century books on law and economics and textbooks which, apart from the fact that they were stolen from their owners, are otherwise completely unremarkable. On occasion this love even appears hopelessly naive. At the same time that German public libraries are restituting thousands of pre-WWII books to their owners, many millions of similar books are being weeded and discarded by libraries all over Europe, in some cases cut apart in order to be digitized and the originals discarded, and in other cases just sent to the paper mills directly, on account of their “outdatedness” and libraries’ “lack of space”. I was sometimes surprised while reading The Book Thieves that so many of these books had survived on the shelves long enough to await the beginning of the restitution process.

Of course, even if Rydell is aware of these modern book purges, he can’t afford to discuss them in the book, or else it would appear that Nazi librarians were actually better than their modern-day counterparts. Yet despite this noble lie, I have some hope that by pretending society already cares about old books, The Book Thieves might actually get people to care about them more. The main lesson of these three hundred pages is that books can be valuable even if their market price isn’t very high, what makes them valuable is the people and places they used to belong to, and the long path they have travelled to reach the present day. Such a sentiment is very close to the philosophy behind this blog.

Sources:

  • Aly, Götz. “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.
  • Rydell, Anders. “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance.” New York: Penguin Books, 2015.

Father Marko Pohlin Warns Against Bibliomania

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, bibliomania is an “extreme preoccupation with collecting books,” and the Oxford English Dictionary is more judgmental in defining it as “a rage for collecting and possessing books.” In a recent Guardian article, it stands as a synonym for compulsive book buying, and indeed in modern usage, the term is often medicalized. Thus, Wikipedia begins its eponymous article with the explanation that bibliomania “can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” followed by links to articles describing the condition from a medical perspective. In popular usage, though, bibliomania retains a positive or at least a self-ironic connotation, with many a blogger, redditor or instagrammer describing themselves as bibliomaniacs next to a picture of their latest book-haul or their finest shelfie.

Wikipedia attributes the word to the physician John Ferriar, who is supposed to have coined it in 1809. This is misleading; Ferriar might have introduced the present spelling into English, but the word itself had been around for some time. It had been used in French at least since 1734 as bibliomanie, and the Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage in English, with the French spelling, in 1750. At the same time, the word was used in Latin as bibliomania already in the 18th century, so Ferriar wouldn’t even have to modify the spelling.

If Ferriar didn’t exactly invent the word, though, he definitely helped to popularize it. In his 1809 work The Bibliomania; An Epistle to Richard Heber, he poked fun at his friend Heber, the most prodigious book collector of the time, who ended up filling eight houses across Europe with a total of more than 100,000 books. Later in 1809, an even more influential book would come out from under the pen of reverend Thomas Frogdall Dibdin. Bibliomania; or Book Madness, a mock-pathology of this strange new condition, helped to cement the term into the English language. Dibdin’s treatise served as an inauguration of the golden age of book collecting, which was embodied by the Roxburghe club of bibliophiles, founded in 1812. Even today, the term bibliomania is often used to refer specifically to this period of high prices and extravagant collectors in early nineteenth century Britain.

Title page of the first edition of Dibdin’s Bibliomania.

While British booklovers received a warning against the excesses of collecting in 1809, the Slovenian public was forewarned six years earlier, with the publication of Bibliotheca Carnioliae or Carniolan Library in 1803. Bibliotheca was written by the Augustinian monk Marko Pohlin, a prolific writer who churned out dozens of religious tracts, primers, historical works and dictionaries in addition to his monastic duties. However, his biggest claim to fame is the Kraynska gramatika or Carniolan Grammar, the first real grammar of the Slovenian language, which came out in 1768. Summarized as a “pretentious oddball” by a later biographer, Pohlin is nonetheless safely established as one of the pioneers of Slovenian culture. A recently published history of Slovenians in the modern era bears a well-chosen title: From Pohlin’s Grammar to an Independent State.

Father Marko Pohlin inviting you to inspect
a book in the Glagolitic alphabet.

Among Pohlin’s projects was a bibliography of Carniola, something that had never been attempted before. To make himself understood to a wide audience, the author decided to write in Latin this time. Despite the regional title, he made it clear that his focus was the entire Slovenian territory and its people, be they from the heartland region of Carniola or the linguistically mixed regions of Styria, Carinthia, Gorizia, and wherever else Slovenians may live. The books included in the bibliography had been written in Latin, German, Italian, and Slovenian, as well as in other Slavic langauges, and Pohlin also included any translations that had been done by Slovenians, to make the list as complete as possible. The work had a clear agenda: “I want this library to demolish the common reproach aimed at Carniolans by other, more presumptuous nations […], that our homeland bore none or very few scholars, either for lack of talent or capability or patronage…

To rebuke these foreigners, Pohlin not only lists the numerous Slovenian authors and their books, but indeed proceeds to construct an entire library. The “bibliotheca” in the title is literal, as books are ordered not by letters but by imaginary bookcases, with the first one named Alphitheca, followed by Bethitheca and so on, with the Quitheca and Ypsilontheca unfortunately remaining empty due to lack of Q- and Y-initialled writers. It is hard for a collector to leaf through the pages and not fantasize about assembling the collection in reality. Of course, most of the volumes discussed inside are now vanishingly rare, but a few dozen of the most famous classics were eventually reprinted, including Kraynska Gramatika and the Bibliotheca Carnioliae itself. Perhaps a shelf or two could thus be filled with bits of the Carniolan Library without having to scour through Europe and going bankrupt in the process.

Pictured: a tiny part of the Carniolan library.

Here is where bibliomania comes in. Pohlin isn’t very excited about collectors using his book as a shopping list for rare volumes which will then remain forever unopened:

Even if I didn’t want to, I know all too well that Bibliomania is the weakness of the majority of educated people or rather those of them who want in this age to appear educated and learned on account of possessing a large number of books. One who suffers from such a weakness tries to achieve happiness and consolation and glory primarily through the possession of numerous copies of books, not to be used, but rather to be owned, to faithfully serve as decoration of the room and to give the impression of erudition.”

He goes on to chafe at collectors who prioritize rarity over content and who praise curious old volumes that nobody would ever want to actually read. Such enthusiasm is its own punishment, as booksellers dupe their hapless clients into paying high prices for books without any intrinsic worth. For Pohlin, the verdict is clear: a library where most books are seldom or never used is a worthless library.

Pohlin himself died in 1801, before he would have managed to publish his manuscript, and it had to be brought out posthumously in 1803. Any correspondence with readers that might have followed the book’s publication thus did not happen. Consequently, we also don’t know what the local book collectors thought about the author’s pronunciations on collecting. Were his quips aimed at someone specific? Even today, it is joked that everyone in Slovenia knows each other, and in Pohlin’s day that was close to the literal truth. Was there a Slovenian version of Richard Heber, a book-glutton filling out several houses with volumes? It feels unlikely that history would have forgotten such a figure. Then again, someone who merely bought and collected books, and never did or published anything, would easily have been ignored by historians regardless of the size of his/her library. Perhaps there is an interesting story of Slovenian bibliomania still waiting to be written.

Title page of the 1862 edition of Bibliotheca Carnioliae, which was the second edition of the book and the first to be published as an independent volume.

Now that I’ve summed them up, how do I answer the good father’s warnings? With my enthusiasm for old and rare editions, uncut and signed copies, and curious works that have been forgotten by history, I appear almost a spitting image of Pohlin’s undesirable bibliomaniac. To this reproach, I suggest two answers. First, Pohlin lived at the dawn of the great age of paper, and in his day, books were still fairly expensive commodities. As a consequence, amassing books and not reading them felt uncharitable, equivalent to taking education from those who need it and hoarding it away. In the meantime, however, the world has been flooded with books. Nowadays there are more than enough books in existence for everyone to own a large and quality library, and since fewer and fewer people desire one, warehouses of second-hand sellers tend to be filled to the brim and tons of books end up recycled daily. In such a world, owning more books than one can hope to read feels like a venial sin at worst.

Second, while a collector will seldom read all their books, there is more than one way in which books can be perused. Pohlin presumably did not read all the books he cites, but by looking them up and noting their bibliographical details, he put them to good use. A collector is similar: by comparing editions, scanning for inscriptions and dedications, and scrutinizing details such as dust jackets and bindings, the collector acquires knowledge which might be orthogonal to the content of the book, but that does not mean that it is irrelevant. By drawing attention to the physical book, the collector also promotes the book as text and prolongs its survival. To quote from Pohlin, when he sought to provide justification for his undertaking: “I want the works of domestic writers, which are becoming increasingly rare […], to be stored with greater care than previously and for them to inspire certain trust in doubters.”

The take-home message from Pohlin’s criticism in Bibliotheca Carniolica is that a good library is one that is put to good use. However, this is not an insurmountable challenge for the collector or even for the bibliomaniac. One way to put books to use is to write about them and thus share a collection with the public. In this way, more people can behold an interesting volume than even in the busiest library. Despite his criticism of bibliomania and its adherents, I trust father Pohlin would approve of my little blog.

Sources: