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.”
I opened “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 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-in-hand 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 19th-century 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.
By Anders Rydell
Translated by Henning Koch
Viking. 352 pp. $28