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.


  • 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.

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