Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Anders Rydell has done quite a bit of research into the literary ravages caused by the Nazis during the Second World War, and in The Book Thieves he goes above and beyond the call of duty when he finds himself entrusted with a book once pillaged from its rightful owners. Tasked with returning it where he belongs, Rydell takes one of many steps in restitution activism while taking the time to examine this strange microcosm of history.
Table of contents
Anders Rydell Restores a Piece of the Puzzle
Though they may have existed almost a hundred years ago at this point, the Nazis have left such a profound mark on Europe and history we are still feeling the effects of their reign to this very day. Not only are the entertainment industries using them as a backdrop for countless stories, but we are also still reeling in many ways from the sheer amount of damage they have managed to inflict upon the world, both physical and intellectual. While nothing much can be done about the former at this point, the latter is still very much in contention, and Anders Rydell takes one of many steps towards its restoration in his non-fiction work titled The Book Thieves.
As many of you are aware, the Nazis have deprived Europe from many great works of art, including exceedingly valuable paintings and family heirlooms. In addition to this, they also spent a great deal of effort on acquiring virtually any sort of literature they could get their hands on.
While most people remember the great book burning for how they treated works of writing, in reality Nazis have devoted a considerable amount of resources into stealing books from homes and libraries across Europe in an attempt to further fuel what they believed to be an ethnic superiority to the rest of the world. While most of those books held little monetary value, a lot of them are today the sole remaining possessions of Holocaust victims, and in general of those touched by the German war machine of yore.
As of now, there is an effort going on, at least in Germany, Great Britain and the United States, to scour the public libraries in an attempt to identify these stolen books so as to return them to the families of their owners. Anders Rydell, the author of our little excursion, actually had the great fortune of being entrusted with one such book, and as he journeys onwards to return it to its rightful place he takes us along for an unusual and eye-opening ride into a crime the scope of which most of us could have never imagined.
Chronicles of Pillaging in The Book Thieves
Personally-speaking I was already aware before going into this book of how much Nazis loved to burn knowledge away, as I am certain many of you are as well. However, I truly had no conception of the immense scope of the crime which followed after: the thieving and collecting of the books.
In The Book Thieves Rydell does an excellent job at explaining to the reader why the Nazis were trying to steal so much literature, what they were hoping to achieve in waging intellectual war on their countless enemies. If anything, to me it highlighted the pitiful depth to which they were willing to sink in order to justify beliefs about themselves they knew were incorrect deep down.
The author explains how the book raids started shortly after Hitler had ascended to power, how they continued through Germany and spread over to the rest of Europe after Germany began its great invasion. He shows us many of the stolen books came in fact from humble homes and small libraries, even taken if they could present no value in the Nazis’ intellectual war against the rest of the world.
While still remaining largely impartial and factual, Rydell does a great job at ensuring we, the readers, understand the full impact of what losing these books meant for the affected families. He takes us beneath the cover pages, so to speak, and gives us a few glimpses of the stories which can be learned from the retrieved books. They include many tales of children who were gifted books by their parents only to later be shot or gassed in the death camps, of poor families whose few possessions would forever immortalize them.
Restitution of Hope
We’ll probably never have a shortage of words for describing the absolutely despicable nature of what the Nazis did, it’s not as if we are simply forced to sit idly by and wait for history to consume everything into inexistence. Rydell discusses in-depth the modern efforts made by various governments to repair some of the damage the Nazis have caused in their actions.
He takes a look at the many researchers with the unenviable task of combing through countless books and libraries in an attempt to identify the knowledge lost to us. More often than not, these people work in a climate of general public indifference, and in some cases even hostility for the resources they are supposedly wasting and the dark past they can’t stop unearthing.
While it is certainly impossible to even come close to undoing what they have wrought, small efforts here and there serve as reminders of humanity’s undying hope for a better tomorrow, and one such effort consists of returning a stolen book to its rightful family. As mentioned above, the author himself was entrusted with such a book, and on his journey to returning it he drives the point home of how much it might actually mean to the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the people in question.
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In my opinion, it is now more important than ever to remind the world of undeniable facts and the horror which was the Holocaust. In an age where its last survivors are preparing to pass on to the next world soon, in a time where incomprehensibly dissenting voices claim the Holocaust never even happened, it has become primordially important to keep the painful memory alive… ultimately, this is one of those mistakes by humanity we cannot afford to learn nothing from.
The Final Verdict
The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell is, in my opinion, one of those books which cannot afford to be forgotten by the world. It covers in great depth, both from an intellectual and emotional perspective, perhaps the most destructive literary crime ever perpetuated in our short history. There will always be more to learn about the untold mountains of knowledge lost during the Second World War, and this is a very welcome step in the general direction. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an even remote interest in the Third Reich’s war on knowledge.
Anders Rydell is an editor, journalist, Head of Culture at a major Swedish media group, as well as an author of non-fiction books. In addition to overseeing the coverage of arts and culture in over fourteen newspapers, he has also written two books on the subject of Nazis, titled The Book Thieves and The Looters, however only the former has seen an English translation so far.