Where the Books Come From

Profil (06/11/2007)

The University of Vienna is investigating its role during the NS era. One aspect of it consists of making an inventory of their books stored in the book stacks.

What gave provenance research of Austrian libraries a push was the Federal law passed in 1998 regarding restitution of art objects. The Austrian National Library (ÖNB) led the way by searching through their book stacks for looted books. At the end of 2003 the National Library delivered a report, which contained the precise list of almost 150,000 books in print and over 11,000 objects from collections regarded unlawfully acquired in accordance with the law governing art restitution and left no doubt that the National Library had enriched itself “by depriving those persecuted or forced to emigrate of their property on a large scale.” In the meantime, one knows that the number of unlawful acquisitions is greater than previously assumed. “Meanwhile based upon the files of the National Library, some 300,000 suspected cases need to be researched, and the total number could increase to 500,000, says Christiane Köster, who has worked on researching the systematic looting of books during the NS era.

The National Library, under Director General Paul Heigl, a fervent supporter of the NSDAP, made particularly aggressive efforts to acquire “secured” holdings of books. At the same time, other libraries filled their book stacks gladly with books in print which were seized by the Gestapo. Vienna’s city and regional libraries have already scanned their bookshelves for holdings having suspected origins.

The University of Vienna took a somewhat longer time. “Legally, we are not obligated but certainly morally,” says Vice Rector Johann Jurenitsch. Not until the fall of 2004 was there any available funding, and the provenance researchers set to work also on the Alma Mater Rudolphina. Now, that the books have been made accessible, said library director, Maria Seissl, we will not stop “until we really have researched everything.” Critical inventory is one aspect of the research work regarding the history of the University of Vienna during NS times and will last until next year. In March 2008, a conference entitled, “Libraries During the NS Era,” will present the results.