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Warrior LibrariansNeal Ascherson
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Vol. 42 No. 13 · 2 July 2020

Warrior Librarians

Neal Ascherson

4003 words
Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers and Spies Banded Together in World War Two Europe 
by Kathy Peiss.
Oxford, 296 pp., £22.99, March, 978 0 19 094461 2
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Afewmonths after the end of the Second World War, Stephen Spender returned to Germany. His plan was to contact German intellectuals. This was not very fruitful: most were dead or in exile, and Ernst Jünger, whom he did meet, evaded his invitation to show unqualified guilt for the Nazi past. But then Spender was asked to reopen libraries in the British zone of occupation, having first purged them of their Nazi staff and Nazi literature. This was fruitless in a different way. The librarians gravely assured him that they had all been discreet opponents of Hitlerism. As for the books, they had mostly set about re-arranging their shelves well before the Allied troops arrived.

In his 1946 memoir, European Witness, Spender described interviewing a librarian in Aachen. ‘Please, don’t trouble, Mr Spender,’ she said:

We understand exactly what you want, and there is no difficulty whatsoever in carrying out your instructions. You see, throughout the Nazi regime we kept all the books by Jewish and socialist writers in a special cellar, under lock and key, as having only historical and scientific interest. All we have to do now is to take out these books and put them on our open shelves, while at the same time we lock up all the Nazi books, because now they only have historical and scientific interest.

Spender thought that was probably the least bad solution. If he destroyed this stuff, he would be mocked for copying the Nazi book-burnings of the 1930s. Anyway, it would be pointless. ‘The total effect’ of Nazi books, he wrote, had been to ‘discourage the reading habit among Germans, because, even for Nazis, Nazi literature is almost unreadable’.

This rather cynical pragmatism was very English. It was also very un-American. In most ways, occupation ‘discipline’ in the US zone (most of southern Germany, including Bavaria and Hesse) was more lax and humane than under the British; as Noel Annan wrote in Changing Enemies (1995), the Americans ‘ran their zone on the principles of common sense and flew by the seat of their pants’. But not where words and books were concerned. The American public seems to have been more profoundly shocked by the book-burnings in Berlin than the British or the French. Something about the bound and printed word was sacred. American money and architects twice rebuilt and restocked the great library at Leuven in Belgium after German soldiers burned it in 1914 and probably again (there’s doubt about the cause of the second fire) in 1940.

In Information Hunters, Kathy Peiss describes American assumptions about German libraries as the Allies closed in on Berlin in 1945. ‘On its face, the military government’s perspective was simple: Nazi books were akin to a virus or infestation. It required quarantine and elimination.’ And yet, for the American authorities, elimination soon came to mean transfer from the ‘wrong’ hands to the ‘right’ ones, rather than literal destruction. In the first years of the occupation, books and periodicals and official records by the railway wagonload left Germany to be shipped to the United States. Many of these libraries and archives had little or no connection with the Nazi era, but they had existed before Hitler came to power, and were therefore assumed to have somehow cultivated the virus.

Even before war broke out in 1939, American librarians had foreseen cultural disaster in Europe. With the backing of the Roosevelt administration, they sent out missions to copy or buy as much of Europe’s literary heritage as they could, aware how little of it could be found in American libraries. This concern had a history. The Lieber Code, an early attempt to codify the laws of war, passed by President Lincoln during the Civil War, had tried to ensure that captured Confederate documents and records were preserved. In the 20th century, the idea spread that information should be formally recognised as a national asset, and the New Deal recruited librarians to work on a Historical Records Survey. A World Congress of Universal Documentation was held in Paris in 1937, sponsored by the League of Nations and intended to study ‘methods of welding the intellectual resources of this planet into a unified system’. Behind this majestic rhetoric lay a new and crucially important welding tool: microfilm, a technique largely in the hands of American entrepreneurs that transformed the possibilities of cheap mass copying, information storage and retrieval. This was the tool American librarians took with them to Europe.

Archibald MacLeish, a well-known poet appointed Librarian of Congress by Roosevelt in 1939, was at the centre of these expeditions. He warned that time to save European culture was running out, ‘not like the sand in a glass, but like the blood of an opened artery’. The ‘common culture of the West’ was being destroyed by book-burning and the exile of European intellectuals. Librarians could no longer be merely custodians. War was being waged against ‘the records of the human spirit … the keeping of these records is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.’

The ‘missionaries’ set out to almost every European country to record and rescue, continuing after the outbreak of war, during the period when the US was not a combatant. José Meyer stayed on in Paris under German occupation, copying the earliest Resistance leaflets, among other material. Adele Kibre took 17 suitcases of microfilm out of Europe through non-belligerent Lisbon, before basing herself in neutral Stockholm for the rest of the war. Ralph Lutz dodged the authorities from Hitler’s Munich to Stalin’s Leningrad, through the Low Countries, the Balkans and Scandinavia, collecting and copying as he went. The mission in Britain, operating as libraries burned in the Blitz, shot five million frames of microfilm in the British Museum Library, the Public Record Office and other places.

The motives for their work became increasingly complicated over the next few years. At the outset, the primary intention was to save as much as possible of Europe’s recorded history and imagination from war, flames and dictators (this was a time when most Americans still assumed that, without that culture, there would have been no America). But a second cluster of motives were unashamedly nationalist. As Peiss puts it, summing up acquisition policy in conquered Germany, ‘in the name of national security and postwar intellectual leadership, these works were brought to the United States to build libraries’ international holdings.’ While those who ‘went abroad to acquire books and documents believed that they were safeguarding the records of civilisation … these altruistic aims mixed with an instrumental one: that collecting knowledge furthered American geopolitical power and cultural prestige.’ By the end of the war, the librarians and their assistants were collecting German patents and technical documentation for the benefit of American industry. Informally, the phrase ‘intellectual reparations’ was used for this. By then, the hunt for books and documents was converging with more notorious US government programmes, such as Paperclip, which allowed members of the Nazi scientific elite with priceless experience in long-range rocket technology and atomic weapons research to be brought to the US. Restitution was another motive: a determination to restore to their owners books, religious texts and historical archives looted by the Nazis from nations and communities throughout Europe – especially from Europe’s Jews. But all these intentions were subsumed in one overriding aim: to win the war.

In the spring and summer of 1941, MacLeish had a series of meetings with William (sometimes known as ‘Wild Bill’) Donovan, soon to become the founder and leader of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. MacLeish was a forceful and charming man from a privileged background (dealing with him was like ‘the brush of a comet’, one awed colleague said), while Donovan was a hard-bitten war veteran from a working-class Irish family. But their needs coincided. Donovan wanted America’s new foreign intelligence service to acquire publicly known information rather than experiment with espionage. Open-source intelligence meant foreign books, newspapers, periodicals and public records, the sort of material MacLeish’s teams were already collecting, copying and sending back to the US.

In the Library of Congress, MacLeish set up a Division of Special Information – ‘a reserve corps of American intellectuals to support the front-line troops of the Donovan organisation’, as he saw it. When America finally went to war in December 1941, Roosevelt and Donovan created the cumbrously named Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications (IDC for short), tasked to gather material abroad and microfilm it. The IDC remained an OSS body, but the work of MacLeish’s Library of Congress teams often merged and overlapped with it in the field.

This effectively put MacLeish’s overseas operators into uniform. By now, with Hitler’s conquest of Europe nearly complete, neutral nations were almost the only places where German written material could still be collected. In Stockholm, Kibre – working closely with British intelligence in Sweden – amassed a legendary hoard of Nazi documentation, both publicly available and restricted. A special IDC and OSS effort went into extracting German publications through neutral Lisbon. The IDC mission there included a young librarian called Reuben Peiss – an uncle of this book’s author. His colleagues described him as ‘a little wisp of a Jewish lad out of Harvard … a little 135-pound Spinoza scholar’. But Peiss turned out to have great drive and enterprise, as well as an acid wit which he used to describe the muddle and chaos around him. He found the Americans in Lisbon ‘innocents abroad’ compared to the agents of other countries in the city, but he and his colleagues continued to search diligently for German publications in Portuguese bookshops and on newsstands, with any discoveries microfilmed or sent back to the States (a PanAm clipper flew to New York once a fortnight). Peiss himself found two hundred German volumes on military and technical subjects ‘nestling in a bookstore’ and bought the lot. Money was evidently no object. Still, it’s fair to wonder about those books. Did they really help America defeat Hitler? Or did their weight mean that some desperate refugee couple were denied seats on the plane that would have taken them across the Atlantic to safety? George Kates, an IDC agent working in China, reflected later in the war that ‘much of this general plan for omnivorous and utopian book gathering … is on paper, and has no great bearing on the winning of the war.’

As the conflict moved back into Europe, the flow of German publications to Lisbon dried up. Peiss was transferred to Switzerland, where for a time he worked alongside Allen Dulles, then Swiss director of the OSS, later director of the CIA. By now, the warrior librarians were learning that information itself, not the publications that contained it, was what the OSS and the military wanted. Accordingly, they set about breaking down periodicals and books into ‘units of intelligence’, registered in a subject index that held 170,000 cards. Frederick Kilgour, a Library of Congress man who had recruited Peiss into the OSS orbit, commented that the IDC had changed ‘from an acquisition group to an active producer of intelligence’. This was still open-source intelligence, however: the IDC teams weren’t supposed to be spooks. But they found it increasingly difficult not to cross that line as they copied photographs of Axis agents, bargained for access to secret documents and maps, and drew up assessments of German public opinion.

By now, the scale of their operation was enormous, and the quantity of printed paper they were dealing with was threatening to become unmanageable. As the American 12th Army Group approached Paris in the summer of 1944, 1800 men and women in 15 different teams ‘representing 28 intelligence agencies’ prepared to scour the city for ‘materials to aid planners of the Allied occupation, provide evidence of war crimes, offer intelligence about the Japanese and Pacific theatre, and reveal Soviet postwar intentions’. Many of these teams were attached to so-called T-Forces ( ‘T’ for ‘Target’), essentially forward intelligence units of the army with no particular responsibility to the Library of Congress in Washington or its pushy rival, the Hoover Library in California. They found liberated Paris a happy madhouse overflowing with printed treasure.

One OSS collector reported that ‘whatever the Germans had not carried off, the French had already requisitioned’. But others were swamped by their discoveries: ‘The documents collected became an unsurmountable pile’; ‘We have had wonderful hauls especially in German documents and published material.’ One rich source for German and Vichy publications was the Paris branch of W.H. Smith – which Peiss describes as ‘the largest retail distributor of German material during the occupation’. One of the new book-hunters was an IDC recruit called Ross Lee Finney. In civilian life a composer and music teacher, he had studied in Paris under Nadia Boulanger; now back in the city, he enjoyed bursting into bookshops and libraries to confiscate whatever caught his eye: ‘I requisitioned a two and a half ton truck today. I needed a convoy of them, actually.’ In one place, he found a mass of French industrial patent abstracts to do with rockets and jet propulsion. He scooped them up too for America, apparently without considering whether they should be returned to the French authorities. As Peiss drily observes, ‘Finney had turned into an intelligence agent.’

By now​ , a ‘wild scramble for documents’ was developing, with the T-Forces racing into newly liberated cities, while a mob of competing civil and military bureaucracies fought for control of what they found. US army military intelligence, G-2, wanted the documents sent back to Washington or London for military evaluation. G-5, which dealt with ‘civil affairs’, argued that records should be kept in the place to which they were relevant, or at least where they were found. For G-2, books and general reading matter were a mere ‘by-catch’ of the hunt, which meant that they were willing for the IDC to become the main channel for books and periodicals. But the IDC had a further rival, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of G-5, known as ‘the Monuments Men’. The MFAA was the stepchild of a typical Roosevelt initiative, the 1943 Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. General Eisenhower, in Italy, told his men to respect the cultural relics and buildings ‘which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilisation which is ours’.

The Monuments Men were interested in stone, bronze and painted canvas; the IDC was hunting paper. Even so, the boundary between agencies, let alone between agencies and marauders, looters and desperate civilian squatters, was often unclear and disputed. In captured Strasbourg, one OSS officer confronted pandemonium: he had arrived to find half-eaten German meals and the teleprinters still running; French Resistance fighters were celebrating German defeat by ‘wrecking things [and] smashing pictures of Hitler’; billeted American infantrymen kept warm by burning documents in the fireplaces; French civilians wandered around looking for goods and paper to light their own fires. The ‘countless agencies normally attached to a regular T-Force’ had, he said, ‘more or less gone wild’. Each of them ‘bagged material for itself in the “first come, first served” manner … As a result, most of the targets here have already been pretty well combed and even ransacked in some cases.’ In Cologne, where the cathedral was almost the only building left standing in the city centre, the IDC collected ‘a tremendous mass of material … a magnificent fulfilment’. But this was conquered Germany, where – as Lieutenant Hankin of the IDC recalled – ‘the lid is off and almost anything goes.’ The Americans emptied bookshops and libraries; their ‘richest haul came from the university itself’. Peiss comments that ‘T-Forces felt little hesitation in taking material freely … delay meant destruction, and their instinct was to seize documents – company files, government archives, Nazi Party records and the like – because of their uniqueness, perishability and potential for intelligence analysis.’ In retrospect, Hankin had his doubts: ‘In evacuating these documents from centres where … scholars are apt to look for and expect them in the future, we may be doing a disservice.’ When his team reached nearby Bonn, he was relieved to find that Allied military government was in place and imposing order. ‘The period of the snatch is therefore past.’*

Max Loeb, a German-born book-dealer, took the 30,000 volumes and documents he found in the library of the IG Farben chemical group. In Leipzig, the traditional capital of German publishing, Reuben Peiss and others left the university library intact but seized the huge ‘scientific’ collection of the Nazi Institute for Racial Science. Peiss had no time to lose before Leipzig – captured by the Americans, but in the Soviets’ occupation zone – had to be handed over, but he managed to take the most valuable paper contents of the Institute for Foreign Policy Research and, in his words, ‘skim the cream of the collection while leaving the watery bulk to the Russians’. Later, in an interval of affable relations with the Soviet authorities, he was allowed to take a truck convoy from Berlin to Leipzig, load it with books and send it back to Berlin for onward shipping to the States.

For this consignment, the Russians were paid $106,000. It was one of the rare occasions when the IDC or Library of Congress paid serious money for what they were taking. The occupation rules forbade them to pay in local devalued Reichsmarks, while the official Library of Congress mission in Germany had a long bureaucratic struggle before managing to access the dollar account opened for it by Washington. Anyway, the real currency of the times was cigarettes and, a bit later, CARE packages (food relief). German and Austrian music published during the war was bought for cartons of cigarettes, while the wartime section of the Goebbels diaries, allegedly found by a junk dealer in the rubble of a Berlin ministry, went for five cartons to William Heimlich, a senior but shady American intelligence officer.

That particular deal was to ignite years of vicious litigation. Peiss tells the story fully and lucidly, if a tale whose every narrator is contradicted by everyone else can be lucid. The former president Herbert Hoover was in Europe, leading a relief mission, but with book and relic purchasers in his retinue (Reuben Peiss loathed Hoover, calling him ‘a mountain of hypocrisy’ accompanied by ‘scavengers’). Heimlich passed the diaries to Hoover for his library at Stanford and – a lot of money later – Doubleday set about publishing them. But then, in 1948, the Alien Property Custodian claimed the diaries as US government property, alleging that Heimlich and his associates had never had the right to dispose of them. In the end, Doubleday had to pulp 30,000 copies. Hoover said the APC’s claim was a Commie plot. Heimlich met the junk dealer again and gave him more cigarettes to shut up.

In July 1945, the senior IDC officials met in Paris and agreed to close the organisation down. But by now, as Peiss writes, all the Allies were coming across the underground hiding places in which the Third Reich had stashed its treasures and its plunder. ‘The Stassfurt salt mines contained two hundred carloads of materials; the Berlin University Library had been found in a coalmine near Vacha; 19th-century historical archives were hidden in an IG Farben potash mine. The salt-potash mine at Ransbach … also yielded up a large portion of the Prussian State Library, two million volumes in disarray, piled up in tunnels.’ All that summer, crates arrived by the hundred in Washington. After the IDC was wound up, the Library of Congress replaced it with its own mission, hoping to compete with the private book-buyers now scrambling into Germany. Luther Evans, the successor to MacLeish (who was representing the US at Unesco), set it a dizzy aim: to win ‘control of the total body of recorded knowledge that was deemed necessary or advisable for the best interests of this country’.

In May 1946, the Allied Control Council (still in theory governing all four occupation zones), issued Order Number 4, requiring all Nazi, racist and anti-democratic literature to be withdrawn from libraries and ‘placed at the disposal of the Military Zone commanders for destruction’. The Americans complied weakly, pulping rather than burning in order to reduce the mountains of worthless publications in their collection points. But there was an uproar back in the United States, as a bungled press conference in Berlin suggested that the American authorities were indeed about to burn ‘billions’ of books, just like the Nazis. (Peiss notes that an African-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, made the obvious comment: Americans should ‘do at HOME what we are doing abroad … there would be MOUNTAINS of books preaching racism and the inferiority of Negroes, eligible for the fire.’)

Information Hunters gives a whole chapter to the restitution of Jewish libraries and religious texts, seized by the Nazis all over Europe and dumped at more than eight hundred sites in the American Zone alone. Stored at first in the Rothschild Library in Frankfurt, a vast overflow of some two million volumes, as well as Torah scrolls seized from countless synagogues, soon built up in a warehouse at the Offenbach Archival Depot. In 1947, Joseph Horne, its director, took in twenty freight-cars of books and archives from Bavaria. Hannah Arendt and the Jewish historian Lucy Dawidowicz were among those who worked on the often agonising question of restitution. Where should the books go – to American Jewish institutions, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, or the surviving remnants of the Jewish communities in Europe who had once owned them? Peiss’s account suggests that the lobbying power of the first two claimants usually outweighed the third.

The Nazis’ cultural pillaging of Europe is well known. The looting of defeated Germany by the Allies is less recognised. The Soviet seizure of German art and archaeological treasures was spectacular (I remember coming across a library of German literature in superb gilded bindings, rotting in the damp and darkness of a Ukrainian cellar). But the amount stolen – ‘liberated’ – by individual American, British and French soldiers from museums, galleries and private houses will never be known.

The mass of the books and documentation indiscriminately seized (‘requisitioned’) by the IDC and the T-Forces and shipped to the US seems to have ended up in limbo. Few people wanted to consult them in later years; the most sensitive papers, such as the Nazi Party membership lists kept in the Berlin Document Centre, were barred to German researchers for decades. There was a revival of interest in the 1990s, when claimants to the assets of Holocaust victims began to ask awkward questions about those ‘Jewish’ books and documents and whether they had been acquired legally by the IDC and other units. According to Peiss, the final report, Plunder and Restitution (2000), ‘tiptoed around accusations of wrongdoing and culpability’. By then, a new generation of librarians had integrated the books into general collections, ‘where they could not be located’.

Summing up, Peiss admits that the moral balance of the librarian missions is ‘ambiguous’. They were healthy for America, contributing to a ‘growing orientation among American libraries towards internationalism, in which gaining foreign holdings was deemed essential to American global power … by 1990, two-thirds of the books acquired annually by the Library of Congress were not in English.’ On the other hand, for more than fifty years the American military blocked the Unesco directive that armed forces at war should include personnel trained in cultural protection – the consensus of the Roosevelt-Donovan-MacLeish alliance in the 1940s.

In 2003, museum directors, gallery owners and scholars thought they had convinced the Pentagon of the need to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage, before the Anglo-American invasion. But when it came to it, there were no Monuments Men to save Babylon, and there was no Reuben Peiss to stop the looters of Iraq’s libraries and the Baghdad Museum. In Donald Rumsfeld’s unforgotten words, just as in Leuven in 1914 or Berlin in 1945, ‘stuff happens.’

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