Review of “The Book Thieves” by Anders Rydell

October 24, 2018 |  Tagged , , | Comments Off on Review of “The Book Thieves” by Anders Rydell

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Movies like “The Monuments Men” and “Woman in Gold” engage viewers with their dramatized retelling of the histories of stolen art during WWII by the Naizs and how some of that art had tried to be protected or how it has now been returned. Anders Rydell, in his popular book, The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance” chooses instead to focus on the looting of libraries and archives. This book is both a personal journey of Rydell’s delve into lost libraries and the repatriation of stolen books, as well as a history of how these books and libraries came to be stolen in the first place.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Rydell is a Swedish journalist who uses his firsthand experiences visiting libraries in Germany, Netherlands, Paris, Rome, Thessaloniki, Vilnius, Theresienstadt, Poland, and Prague to compliment the history. Time changes between war-era events and Rydell’s present day researching. While visiting these places affected by the Nazi looting, Rydell meets with and interviews local librarians, historians, and archivists to learn about what books they still have in possession and what they are doing about provenance research. This journalistic journey can be viewed as a distraction from the history of the events, or one can choose to appreciate the interdisciplinary approach Rydell’s journalism background provides. The book was translated into English by Henning Koch, and it is a quick, engaging read. Rydell’s voice is both informative and evocative, providing the uniformed reader with both important facts from the events and interesting character descriptions of all the people he meets along the way.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 While Rydell’s use of historical sources might not meet the requirements of many academics, it is clear he has done his research. He draws extensively from Jonathan Rose’s edited collection The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation, which is compiled of both academic journal excerpts, firsthand accounts, and diary entries. Rydell’s use of primary sources, like memoirs and diaries, provides a sincere and intimate point of view of the history. He does an exemplary job of reviving the voice of victims of the Holocaust as well as adding context to the history. Rydell chooses to focus mainly on the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), “Special Task Force”, which was headed by Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler’s main men. The ERR was one of the most ruthless and effective groups tasked with the plunder of Jewish and other ‘undesirable’ texts and books. Rydell uses Rosenberg’s own written work and documents produced by the ERR during the war to try and piece together the logistics of why and how these historic and precious libraries came to be destroyed.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The historical events, for example the story of the ‘Paper Bridge’, the group of individuals tasked by the ERR in Vilnius to ‘choose’ which books should be saved, are described to the reader in a very journalistic style; each chapter adds a piece to the mystery which Rydell is encouraging you to go on with him. The historical events are not provided in a chronological order; instead the book follows the order of when Rydell visited each city. The style of writing is far from what is considered traditional within the academic field but this book is far from academic. I would argue, however, that its’ lack of academic-ness is what makes it a great book. I would encourage the student of history to take a closer look at the footnotes and bibliography so that one could find some more serious secondary sources for further research, but I believe Rydell’s book is a great jumpstart to a topic that is not very well known or discussed.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 If one is expecting The Book Thieves to be a hard-nose history, they will be disappointed. Rydell is not a historian but he writes an engaging history of how the systematic looting of European libraries and archives during WWII altered the course of Jewish history and culture. The individual who will enjoy this book will possess an open mind and a passion for the literary world. Rydell highlights how Hitler and the Holocaust sought not just to control the individual, but also the structure of knowledge itself. To quote the book’s Foreword, “Whoever owns the word has the power to not only interpret it, but also to write history.” The Book Thieves should be encouraged reading for anyone looking to gain a deeper appreciation for libraries and the individuals who run them as well as a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the Nazi plan to destroy and control history.


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