The regime that ruled over Germany from the 1930´s to the 1940´s, led by Adolf Hitler, did many horrible things that changed the 19th century´s history, and the whole world history. Many consider Adolf Hitler one of the main, if not the main, cause for the start of the gruesome Second World War that happened between 1939 and 1945. One of the many negative things that the Nazis did, and one that is not very common to talk about is the fact that the Nazis seized millions of books.
The term “Nazi plunder” refers to the art theft that resulted from the looting of attacked European countries. The regime even created special military units that controlled the process of stealing and gathering the objects. The Kunstschutz stole many art pieces, gold, cultural items, religious treasures, and of course, books. Many of the stolen books were then recovered by the allies, but there are still many other out there, lost, unidentified.
The hunt for the stolen books has been pursued for many decades after the war, and until the present day. Recently, researchers from America and Europe have intensified the search, with the help of technology, they have created a “sort of a road map” to track the books, which many of them are scattered in different libraries across Europe. Their work has been helped by the internet, and many European librarians that have turned the search for these lost books a top priority.
Even with the progress made and with the help of researchers, the task of finding and retrieving the books remains enormous. The problem is that a large portion of the books in many German libraries are suspected to be books stolen by the Nazi regime. So, the challenge is getting the books back to the owners, or their heirs. According to Milton Esterow, “In the last 10 years, libraries in Germany and Austria have returned about 30,000 books to 600 owners.” So there has been progress. These books can mean a lot for the families that owned them, and for society.
Nazis targeted families, libraries and institutions of Jews, but also Catholics, Communists, Slavs, Masons, etc. were targets. Many of the books that the Nazis seized where burnt, because they were against them, but others were kept. Nazis hoped to study them, because they contained valuable information of the cultures that were their enemies.
The USA has been an important factor in getting back the stolen pieces. After WW2, the Monuments, Fine Artes, and Archives unit of the USA Army, the “Monuments Men” saved millions of art pieces, and books.
Researchers said that many stolen books are residing in Russia, who took them from the Nazis, but it is believed that the largest portion of the stolen books are scattered in libraries in Germany. Many of the stolen books were marked by the Nazis with the letter J, which was an abbreviation for Judenbücher or Jewish books,” a researcher said. “These were erased after the war and replaced with the letter G, as in Geschenk — gifts.” Progress in getting the books back has been aided by the German Lost Art foundation, funded by the federal government.
These lost books are important for society, but they hold also significant value for the families that owned them.
Maria Kesting, a researcher from the Hamburg State and University Library, said: “Reaching out to the heirs is always a sensitive issue. For the heirs, it very often is painful to be confronted with their family history, a history of persecution and death and loss. For us as provenance researchers, restitutions are always very special and moving moments.”
The Nazi regime caused a scar in World history, and to fully recover from it, tasks, that may seem meaningless (such as getting back books to the owners), must be done by organizations to repair the damage that the Second World War caused.
Written by: Pedro Amezcua