To re­write his­tory, Nazis de­stroyed books

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Michael S. Roth is pres­i­dent of Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity. His most re­cent books are “Be­yond the Uni­ver­sity: Why Lib­eral Ed­u­ca­tion Mat­ters” and “Me­mory, Trauma and His­tory: Es­says on Liv­ing With the Past.” RE­VIEW BY MICHAEL S. ROTH

Iopened “The Book Thieves” with a fair amount of skep­ti­cism. There are by now many thou­sands of stud­ies of how the Nazi regime de­vel­oped its mer­ci­less ma­chine of human destruction. We know about Nazi sci­en­tists and artists, about cen­sor­ship and mis­in­for­ma­tion, about the loot­ing of mu­se­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tions, and about the many ways the to­tal­i­tar­ian Ger­man state at­tempted to re­make the cul­tural land­scape of Europe. As I be­gan read­ing An­ders Ry­dell’s ac­count of the Nazis’ con­certed ef­fort to de­stroy book col­lec­tions on Ju­daism, Freema­sonry and Marx­ism, my skep­ti­cism only deep­ened. Of course the Nazis at­tacked these el­e­ments of Euro­pean cul­ture and pol­i­tics. When or­ga­nized mur­der­ers de­stroy a group’s places of wor­ship or assem­bly, when they kill in horrific ways, there is noth­ing sur­pris­ing about their also de­stroy­ing prop­erty, in­clud­ing books.

But Ry­dell makes the im­por­tant point that books are not just prop­erty, they are “keep­ers of me­mories.” He sees them as mes­sen­gers from an all-but-van­ished past that can be re­united in the present with the de­scen­dants of those per­se­cuted by the Third Re­ich and its al­lies. Com­pared to the valu­able paint­ings stolen by Nazis from their Jewish own­ers, which af­ter the war be­came fa­mous cases of resti­tu­tion, books are much qui­eter mes­sen­gers. They are of­ten not worth much to any­one ex­cept the family mem­bers of those who were killed. But books per­sist as traces of the lives of those who once pored over their pages, and they re­call com­mu­ni­ties of read­ers who are no more.

How­ever fa­mil­iar, the sheer scale of the Nazi ef­fort to de­stroy the lit­er­a­ture of their en­e­mies is stag­ger­ing. Tens of mil­lions of books were in­cin­er­ated, buried or sim­ply left to rot in the base­ments of of­fi­cial build­ings. From Am­s­ter­dam to Rome, from Warsaw to Paris, sol­diers of the Re­ich hunted down pub­lic repos­i­to­ries and pri­vate col­lec­tions. The in­ten­sity of destruction was great­est in Poland, where there was a con­certed ef­fort to ex­ter­mi­nate the en­tire coun­try’s lit­er­ary her­itage. Ac­cord­ing to Adolf Hitler’s doc­trine, Poles were sub­hu­man. When Pol­ish Jews could be tar­geted, Nazi of­fi­cials were par­tic­u­larly mo­ti­vated. “For us it was a mat­ter of spe­cial pride to de­stroy the Tal­mu­dic Academy,” a Nazi sol­dier noted, “which has been known as the great­est in Poland.”

In un­easy co­ex­is­tence with the cam­paign to de­stroy the books of the Jews was the push to study their “se­crets” and those of other en­e­mies of the Re­ich. Al­fred Rosenberg, one of Hitler’s chief ide­ol­o­gists, led a team of re­searchers bent on rewrit­ing the his­tory of the Jews from the Na­tional So­cial­ist perspective. “Jewish Stud­ies without Jews” was the goal. Rosenberg had com­pe­ti­tion from Hein­rich Himm­ler, whose SS had spe­cial squads to tease out hid­den mes­sages from myths and oc­cult texts that might be use­ful for the creation of the new Aryan sci­ence. Jewish schol­ars were re­cruited by the SS

A crowd watches thou­sands of books, con­sid­ered to be “un-Ger­man,” burn in Opera Square in Berlin in 1933. The Nazis de­stroyed tens of mil­lions of books, es­pe­cially ones on Ju­daism, Freema­sonry and Marx­ism.

as a Tal­mud­kom­mando group — they were to spell out Jewish es­o­teric wis­dom be­fore they them­selves would be mur­dered. The schol­ars worked as slowly as pos­si­ble.

The Nazis were bent on cre­at­ing new knowl­edge and not just on de­stroy­ing their en­e­mies. This was not an is­sue of mere facts. To para­phrase a cur­rent Amer­i­can com­men­ta­tor on dem­a­goguery, Nazi ide­ol­o­gists didn’t want to be taken lit­er­ally; they wanted to be taken se­ri­ously in their quest for pro­found truths. “What is more fright­en­ing,” Ry­dell asks, “a to­tal­i­tar­ian regime’s destruction of knowl­edge, or its han­ker­ing for it?”

Ac­tu­ally, the Nazi “han­ker­ing” for knowl­edge was far less fright­en­ing than its ca­pac­ity for destruction. Ry­dell notes that the Third Re­ich did pseudo-re­search on witch­craft and witch-burn­ing for its pro­pa­ganda value in jus­ti­fy­ing at­tacks on the Catholic Church. While the re­search was ridicu­lous, the grimly ef­fi­cient en­gine of an­ni­hi­la­tion wrecked havoc across the world. That havoc has been de­scribed and an­a­lyzed by numer­ous his­to­ri­ans be­fore, and Ry­dell adds lit­tle to their con­tri­bu­tions. The ef­fort to save books, par­tic­u­larly Jewish books, has also been told be­fore — Aaron Lan­sky’s pow­er­ful “Outwit­ting His­tory” (un­men­tioned by Ry­dell) is a stir­ring ac­count of a young Amer­i­can go­ing to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to save Yid­dish books. “The Book Thieves” does have its own story to tell, but it would have been more ef­fec­tively told, say, in a long magazine ar­ti­cle than in a book -length project.

Still, there are mov­ing mo­ments in “The Book Thieves,” as the “peo­ple of the Book” are hunted down along with their ven­er­ated ob­jects of study. “The de­ten­tion and mur­der of aca­demics, teach­ers, writ­ers, jour­nal­ists, and priests,” Ry­dell un­der­scores, “went hand-in­hand with the plun­der of li­braries, uni­ver­si­ties, churches and pri­vate col­lec­tions.” De­spite it all, Jews con­tin­ued their de­vo­tion to texts even as the stran­gle­hold on their com­mu­ni­ties tight­ened. In the aw­ful Vil­nius ghetto, for ex­am­ple, a teenage boy wrote: “Books give one a feel­ing of free­dom; books con­nect us to the world.” That’s the chief rea­son, af­ter all, that au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes and dem­a­gogues at­tack books and read­ing.

Ry­dell says more than once that the Nazis were en­gaged in a bat­tle for me­mory as well as for phys­i­cal dom­i­na­tion. “The Book Thieves” is an ef­fort to en­sure that his­toric con­nec­tions to com­mu­ni­ties of study and learning are pre­served. He quotes the fa­mous line of the 19th­cen­tury poet Hein­rich Heine: “Where books are burned, in the end peo­ple will be burned, too.” No longer a new in­sight, but still some­thing very much worth re­mem­ber­ing.


THE BOOK THIEVES The Nazi Loot­ing of Europe’s Li­braries and the Race to Re­turn a Lit­er­ary In­her­i­tance By An­ders Ry­dell Trans­lated by Hen­ning Koch Vik­ing. 352 pp. $28

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