Research of NS loot at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

Introduction to research of NS 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 research of NS loot

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)

NS loot at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

Research of NS loot at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

Virtual exhibition and short film

"The Alexander Dünkelsbühler case"

To the virtual exhibition
NS-Raubgutforschung | © BSB

Since 2003, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek has worked on identifying items in its collections which were disowned or looted during the time of the National Socialist regime. For this purpose, library employees initially formed a working group that was joined by volunteers. The support by the "office for provenance verification and research" ("Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzrecherche und Provenienzforschung") finally made it possible in 2013 to create an extra project for completing the search for Nazi loot at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Between 1933 and 1945, the holdings of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek were expanded by over 65,000 volumes. Since the register of acquisitions was lost at the end of the war, their provenance is partly hard to find out. A number of acquisition processes can be reconstructed with the aid of the files of the Directorate General of the State Libraries, which are kept in the Bavarian Main State Archive in Munich (collection "Generaldirektion der Staatlichen Bibliotheken Bayerns"). With respect to the majority of books, however, provenance researchers have to resort to looking for clues in the books themselves which indicate possible previous owners.

Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv  (Bavarian Main State Archive)

Such clues can be handwritten entries of ownership or dedications, exlibris or stamps. The names of the previous owners have to be verified. Important resources for doing so are biographic encyclopaedias, victim databases (such as the Memorial Book of the Federal Archives for the Victims of the Persecution of Jews under the National Socialist Tyranny in Germany (1933 – 1945), Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names), but also old city address books.

Memorial Book: Victims of the Persecution of Jews under the National Socialist Tyranny in Germany 1933 – 1945
Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names

In addition, also the former employees of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek have left important clues for provenance research. Publications that were not bought from book traders or antiquarian book shops came to the library in the form of donations or in the course of swaps. A number was allocated to each person or institution giving books to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and to each institution with which books were swapped. These numbers were noted on the title sheets of the volumes donated or swapped. The lists containing the numbers of the donors and swap partners have been preserved and permit at least a partial reconstruction of the books' history. When books bear the number "G.n. 14428", it is clear that they were "donated" to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek by the Secret State Police of Munich. When there are no further indicators of owners, however, it is very difficult to find out who the Gestapo had stolen the books from.

In a first, already concluded project from June 2013 to August 2016, which was supported by the "German Lost Art Foundation", the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek achieved to check all library-internal acquisitions of the NS time systematically for loot. In the course of the project, numerous stolen books could already be restituted to the heirs of the victims and also to successor organisations, wherever this was still possible.

German Lost Art Foundation

Further Nazi loot came to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek after 1945, when the US military government gave the book collections of National Socialist organisations to German libraries. The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek thus acquired around 30,000 volumes from the Nazi education center Ordensburg Sonthofen, among other things. In a successor project of three years, likewise supported by the German Lost Art Foundation, the suspicious acquisitions from the time after 1945 were examined between August 2016 and July 2019. In the time after the war, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek had taken over several libraries of former NS institutions, among them 36,000 titles alone from the former "Ordensburg Sonthofen" in the Allgäu region. With the aid of acquisition lists, the project team inspected numerous works which had been incorporated from these holdings. A project for the systematic examination of the manuscripts and music materials has started in May 2020. This project will be subsidised again by the German Lost Art Foundation and in addition by the Bavarian State Ministry for Sciences and the Arts. Moreover, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek also uses funds from its own budget.

The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek endeavours to return all Nazi loot to the rightful owners or their heirs or legal successors with the least red tape possible. In cases where the owners cannot be ascertained, the finds are documented in the Internet database "Lost Art" of the German Lost Art Foundation. Moreover, the books in question are also marked accordingly in the BSB's own catalogues.

Lost Art

Since the exhibition "Bücher im Zwielicht – Der Umgang mit zweifelhaften Erwerbungen der Jahre 1933 bis 1955" ("Books cast in a questionable light – Handling of dubious acquisitions of the years 1933 to 1955"), the employees of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek have reported regularly about the current progress of provenance research in the form of papers and articles.


Project structure

Project leaderDr. Claudia Fabian
Former project staff of the Bayerische StaatsbibliothekDr. Stephan Kellner, Dr. Paul Gerhard Dannhauer, Franziska Eschenbach M. A., Sonja Gall, Dr. Thomas Jahn, Roland Moosmüller B. A., Ingrid Pérez de Laborda M. A., Sebastian Peters M. A., Stephanie Roder B. A., Dr. Uta Schaumberg, Emanuel Steinbacher, Elena Velichko B. A., 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