Research of Nazi loot at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

Introduction to research of Nazi loot

Historical background

During their twelve-year-long dictatorship, the National Socialists persecuted diverse groups of people, who did not conform to their ideology in matters of race, politics, religion or worldview. As a result, individuals as well as organisations lost their entire or partial property – for it was confiscated by state and party offices, for they were forced to sell it or had to leave it behind while seeking a safe haven abroad. In the case of culturally relevant assets taken from their rightful owners, such objects are classified as Nazi-looted cultural assets or NS loot.

Museums, archives and libraries profited from such confiscations and forced sales. Diverse paths led to the arrival of Nazi loot in libraries: The Secret State Police ceded looted collections to libraries as a "gift", the Reichstauschstelle (Reich’s Exchange Office) Berlin and the Bücherverwertungsstelle (Book Exploitation Office) Vienna also assigned them books. The libraries cheaply purchased looted prints and manuscripts from antiquarian booksellers or accepted them into their collections in exchange with other libraries. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Nazi regime extended the persecution and looting to the occupied territories and thereby once more allowed the libraries to profit. Nazi-looted cultural assets continued to enter library collections well after the end of the Nazi dictatorship on 8 May 1945: For instance, the US military government delivered collections once in the hands of Nazi organisations to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, which included looted literature.

Foundations of Nazi-loot research

On 3 December 1998, at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era assets, the Federal Republic of Germany as well as 43 other countries endorsed eleven agreed principles "for dealing with art confiscated by the National Socialists." With the voluntary Washington Principles they committed to identifying Nazi-looted art, which had not yet subsequently been restored to their owners, to identifying pre-war owners or their heirs as well as to achieving a just and fair solution. Subsequently, on 9 December 1999, the Federal Government of Germany and the Länder as well as the national associations of local authorities passed a policy statement "on cultural objects which as a result of persecution under the Nazi dictatorship were relocated, moved or seized, especially from Jewish owners". This declaration served to confirm their intention to implement the Washington Principles.

Washington Principles
Common Declaration of the Federal Government, the Länder and the national associations of local authorities

In this context, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs made far-reaching decisions: With effect from 1 January 2001, they increased the range of tasks of the Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg (Coordination Office Magdeburg) for the documentation and loss of cultural assets. The coordination office runs the Internet database Lost Art, which documents news in relation to searches for and discoveries of cultural assets confiscated as the result of Nazi persecution and relocated, seized or moved during the Second World War. By 2013, more than 1,000 private individuals and institutions from home and abroad had provided detailed descriptions of about 120,000 single objects. Add to these several millions of cultural assets were registered summarily. With effect of 1 January 2008, the Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzrecherche und Provenienzforschung (Office for Provenance Research) was established at the Institut für Museumsforschung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin (Institute for Museum Research of the Berlin State Museums) on the initiative of the Federal Minister for Culture. The office assists – technically and financially – public institutions that preserve cultural assets to identify Nazi-looted art in their collections and holdings.

Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs
Lost Art Database
Office for Provenance Research

Early in 2015, the former Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg and the Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzrecherche und Provenienzforschung were combined to found the German Lost Art Foundation as a foundation under public law. This new established institution based in Magdeburg continues to fulfil the tasks of its two predecessors and expands its range of activity.

German Lost Art Foundation

Beyond that, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs published guidelines, which offer orientation to museums, libraries and archives, whilst identifying cultural objects looted by the Nazis as part of systemic persecution, as well as in the course of deciding about the possibilities of restitution.

Guidelines  (in German)  (PDF, 417 KB)

On 30 June 2009, 46 countries, among them the Federal Republic of Germany committed in the Theresienstädter Erklärung (Theresienstadt Declaration) to continue their support of the Washington Principles.

Theresienstadt Declaration  (in German)  (PDF, 111 KB)

Nazi loot at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek started to search its collections for Nazi-looted assets in 2003. For this purpose, library staff at first formed a working group, to which voluntary helpers were later added. In 2013, the assistance of the Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzrecherche und Provenienzforschung (Office for Provenance Research) finally made it possible to create a dedicated project in order to complete the research on Nazi-looted cultural assets at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek increased its collections between 1933 and 1945 by more than 65,000 volumes. Since the acquisition list was lost at the end of the war, their provenance cannot be traced easily. In some cases the acquisition procedure may be reconstructed with the help of records of the Generaldirektion der Staatlichen Bibliotheken (Directorate General of State Libraries), which are now preserved in the Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv (Bavarian Main State Archive) in Munich (portfolio "Generaldirektion der Staatlichen Bibliotheken Bayerns"). In the case of the vast majority of the books, provenance research depends on finding references to their potential former owners in the books themselves.

Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv  (Bavarian Main State Archive)

Such clues may consist of handwritten owners’ marks or dedications, of bookplates or stamps. The names of the former owners need to be checked. Important tools are biographical lexica, victims’ databases (for example, the "Gedenkbuch des Bundesarchivs für die Opfer der Verfolgung der Juden unter der nationalsozialistischen Gewaltherrschaft in Deutschland 1933 –1945" or the "Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names") as well as old address books.

Gedenkbuch: Opfer der Verfolgung der Juden unter der nationalsozialistischen Gewaltherrschaft in Deutschland 1933 –1945
Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names

In addition, the then members of staff at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek left behind important clues for future provenance research. Publications not bought in bookshops or from antiquarian booksellers, arrived in the form of gifts or in exchange for other objects. Every person or institution that left books to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and every institution with which the library engaged in bartering books and other objects, was allocated a number noted down on the title pages of the donated or exchanged volumes. These lists with the numbers of donors and exchange partners are still preserved. They allow tracing the books’ previous history at least in part. Whenever books bear the code "G.n. 14428", it is clear that they were "gifts" of the Geheime Staatspolizei Munich (Secret State Police) to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Unless there are no further codes referring to their former owners, it is, however, very difficult to find out who had been robbed by the Gestapo of the object under consideration.

Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation), logo

German Lost Art Foundation

Additional Nazi loot arrived at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek after 1945, when the US military government handed over the book collections of national-socialist organisations to German libraries. This way, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek received among other things about 30,000 volumes of the NS-Ordensburg Sonthofen. Since August 2016, a two year follow-on project, has been dealing with the reappraisal of the accessions of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek after the war. Here the focus lays on the Sonthofen holdings. The funding by the German Lost Art Foundation allows for the review of the post-war accessions as well as the accessions obtained between 1933 and 1945 so that the BSB’s internal revision can be brought to a conclusion in 2018. 

Whenever Nazi loot is discovered, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek intends to return to the rightful owners as well as to their heirs and the legal successors as unbureaucratically as possible. If they cannot be traced, the library arranges for the findings to be documented in the online database Lost Art, which is run by the German Lost Art Foundation. In addition, the library marks the books concerned in its own catalogues. In the OPACplus/ BSB catalogue Nazi loot as well as suspicious cases can be searched by entering "BSB-Provenienz: NS-Raubgut" (BSB provenance: Nazi loot). Further information can be found in the category "More title information" under "Note".

Lost Art
BSB-Provenienz: NS-Raubgut  (display in the OPACplus/ BSB catalogue)

Ever since the exhibition "Twilight books – Dealing with dubious acquisitions between the years 1933 to 1955", members of staff of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek have regularly reported about the current state of provenance research at the library in papers and essays.


Project structure

Project leader Dr. Stephan Kellner
Project staff and contactRoland Moosmüller B. A., Franziska Eschenbach M. A., Elena Velichko B. A.
Contact:  +49 89 28638-2756
Former project staff of the Bayerische StaatsbibliothekDr. Paul Gerhard Dannhauer, Sonja Gall, Dr. Thomas Jahn, Sebastian Peters M. A., Emanuel Steinbacher, Dr. Susanne Wanninger
Former volunteersAgnes Bujak, Dr. Paul Gerhard Dannhauer, Dr. Sybille Dürr, Almut Hielscher, Sabine Jung, Dr. Elisabeth Jüngling, Eva Klaputh, Gerd Laven, Dr. Dorothee Piermont, Karl-Heinz Riesenbeck