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Restitution of Nazi-Looted Books

Between 1933 and 1945 the Nazis expropriated people and institutions within the reach of their power by the millions. The confiscations were directed against Jews, Sinti, Roma, as well as members of other religious or ethnic minorities, political opponents of Nazism, among which parties, unions, but also artists, intellectuals, homosexuals, etc. Expropriations affected German Reich citizens, but took place within the Nazi-occupied countries as well. The expropriated objects are collectively referred to in German as "NS-Raub- und Beutegut," i. e., goods robbed and looted by Nazis. The term can be extended to include objects that the victims themselves sold – being forced to do so. Particularly books were very frequently expropriated or sold under pressure. Both books from private property, even in small numbers, and entire libraries were stolen or taken from their owners in forced sales. One notorious element in this context is the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (Einsatzstab Alfred Rosenberg → Wikipedia), which systematically raided invaded countries in order to seize cultural property and brought books from Jewish libraries to Germany in huge numbers.

The stolen books were taken to depots to be routed to various destinations, such as the Hohe Schule, a projected Nazi élite academy, never completed, which was supposed to build its library from the expropriated books. To some extent, books ended up in the hands of high-rank Nazis, others were sold through antiquarians to private collectors, others again were sold or distributed to libraries in the Reich (a task coordinated by a bureau at the Interior ministry, the Reichstauschstelle). The millions of confiscated books were thus dispersed all over German Reich territory. However, the scattering did not end with German surrender in May 1945; rather, once set in motion, it has continued and still continues across all continents. Even libraries that were founded only after the war, were affected and still are, as they eventually acquired, and to this day may acquire, looted materials from various sources as donations or as purchases from antiquarians, for instance.

In 1998 und 1999 the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and the Declaration by the German Federal Government, the länder and the municipal associations concerning the identification and return of cultural property seized, especially from Jewish owners, in the context of Nazi persecution established the basis for today's efforts by public institutions to identify Nazi-looted objects and restitute them to their present-day legitimate owners. The Bureau for Nazi-looted materials at the Freie Universität Berlin University Library, like many other institutions, relies on those documents in its work.

Nazi-Looted Materials at the Freie Universität Berlin University Library

In 1948, Freie Universität Berlin was founded as a University for the three western sectors of Berlin. At first, acquisition of books and journals was carried out by a coordination office (officially called Bibliotheksleitstelle), which was developed into a University Library and renamed accordingly in 1952. So soon after the war, building academically relevant holdings not only of current but also of earlier literature was difficult despite many donations. Today the University Library holds some 250,000 printed books published before 1945. Regrettably those holdings have included and still include books that were expropriated under the Nazi regime.

Nazi-Loot Investigation Bureau

Since 2012, following finds of books with evident provenance marks, the Freie Universität Berlin libraries have been intensifying their efforts in identifying Nazi-looted materials in their holdings. In October 2013 the University Library installed a bureau charged with clearing cases. Freie Universität members can report suspicious finds here. It is the aim of the bureau to construct a Library-System-wide infrastructure for recording and restituting looted materials.

In June 2014 the Freie Universität Berlin University Library was granted project funding by the Bureau for Provenance Investigation (Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzforschung) at the German Lost Art Foundation (Stiftung Deutsches Zentrum für Kulturgutverluste). That support has made it possible for the first time to systematically screen a significant portion of the University Library's holdings and return books identified as loot to their owners. From April 2015 through March 2017, the University Library's acquisitions from 1952 through 1968 will be investigated. Extension of the investigation to cover acquisitions of 1969 and later is envisaged.

For more information concerning the German Lost Art Foundation, please turn to its official press release.

The Provenance Database Looted Cultural Assets

The success of efforts to restitute Nazi-looted property depends quite strongly on networking with other projects. Exchange of information and documents, collaboration in research, and regular sharing of experience make continuous improvement of methods and practices possible. Starting from that idea, the Freie Universität Berlin University Library, together with other Berlin and Brandenburg libraries, documents all provenance cases pertaining to its holdings, including the respective research results, in a common provenance database Looted Cultural Assets. All provenance cases are included irrespective of the particular provenance, the objective being not only to provide information on Nazi loot, but also on looted materials from the Soviet occupation zone and the GDR, respectively, and also such provenances with no expropriation background at all. Anyone interested can access the involved projects' research results freely and very easyly on the Internet. To this date (December 2015), more than 28,000 provenance cases have been entered into the database.

Short Chronology Concerning Nazi Loot in the Freie Universität Berlin Libraries

1950 The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction addresses a request to the deparment in charge of libraries (Abteilung Volkswesen und Büchereiwesen) within the Magistrate of West Berlin, asking for information on the fate of Jewish libraries in Berlin. In April the heads of the Freie Universität Berlin libraries reply that they have no such holdings.
1970s At the Library at the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem, 500 books originating from Belarus are discovered. Attempts at restitution fail.
1980s H. D. Heilmann, a University Library user, discovers several hundred volumes that have to be considered as looted materials. They were part of a collection of literature relevant to the historical research on Socialism that was acquired in 1979 ("Bibliothek Alfred Weiland"). It has been possible to restitute only a part of those books to their legitimate owners or their heirs.
1991 One of the department libraries (Bereichsbibliothek Erziehungswissenschaft, Fachdidaktik und Psychologie) acquires three journal volumes that had belonged to the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin, closed by the Nazis in 1938.
1992 The University Library restitutes first books from the Weiland collection to the Sozialwissenschaftliche Studienbibliothek der Kammer für Arbeiter und Angestellte in Vienna, Austria.
2010 Restitution of 500 volumes discovered in the 1970s to the National Library of Latvia by the Library at the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem. 23 books from the Weiland collection are restituted to, among others, the Masonic Lodge Apollo Leipzig, the Masonic Lodge "Zur Freimütigkeit am Rhein" (Frankenthal), and the Deutscher Freidenker-Verband (German Freethinkers' League) by the University Library. Other owners reject the offer of having books restituted to them.

Restitution of nine books to the Russian Federation by the Library at the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem.


The University Library installs a project office charged with coordinating finds of Nazi-looted materials with the objective of offering all Freie Universität Berlin libraries a consultation service concerning treatment of loot cases.


With the University President's Office's support the University Library is successful in gaining funding from the Lost Art Foundation (Stiftung Deutsches Zentrum für Kulturgutverluste) for a two-year project. Thereby, starting April 2015, parts of the University Library's holdings can be systematically screened for looted materials. Moreover, negotiations are taken up with the Berlin Central and Regional Library (Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin, ZLB), concerning the joint use of the provenance database established there and cooperation in dealing with Nazi-looted materials.


The Nazi-loot project at the University Library is converted into a bureau. The six-strong team's work is thereby established as a regular service for the Freie Universität Berlin libraries. The provenance database developed by the Berlin Central and Regional Library (Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin, ZLB) is moved to the Freie Universität Berlin University Library, where it will be administrated. It is renamed Looted Cultural Assets (LCA). At the same time cooperation in the shared cataloguing and treatment of Nazi-looted objects is extended beyond Berlin to include the land of Brandenburg and now involves: the library at the Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin – Centrum Judaicum; the Freie Universität Berlin University Library; Potsdam University Library; and the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin. Thus, for the first time a large-scale integration of information from different projects on the library level is achieved in Germany. Since 1 December 2015 Looted Cultural Assets can be accessed freely on the Internetby anyone interested.

Over the year, more than 90 books are restituted, among which a book from Social Democrat Karl Kautsky's library and 38 from the Library of Saeima Latvia (the Latvian Republic's Parlament Library).

Project management

Ringo Narewski
Tel.: (030) 838-574 70


Freie Universität Berlin
Stabsstelle NS-Raub- und Beutegut
Garystraße 39
14195 Berlin

E-Mail: restitution@ub.fu-berlin.de
Tel.: +49(30) 838 71568 / 71764
Fax: +49(30) 838 454224

Further Reading

  • Hambura, Jan: Wir haben eine besondere Verantwortung; in: Der Tagesspiegel 22.02.2014, S. B4; Url: http://www.fu-berlin.de/presse/publikationen/tsp/2014/ts_20140222/tagesspiegel-20140222-41/index.html; last accessed: 24. Feb. 2014
  • Hansen, Melanie: Zurück in die Heimat. Campus.leben 25.10.2010.
    Url: http://www.fu-berlin.de/campusleben/campus/2010/100525_buchrueckgabe_botanischer_garten/index.html, last accessed: 24. Oct. 2013.
  • Heilmann, H. D.: Die Bibliothek in Zeit und Räumen I. In: Bibliotheksinformationen der Universitätsbibliothek der Freien Universität Berlin. (1988), Nr. 18, p. 2-10.
  • Heilmann, H. D.: Die Bibliothek in Zeit und Räumen II. In: Bibliotheksinformationen der Universitätsbibliothek der Freien Universität Berlin(1992), Nr. 24, p. 7-8.
  • Heilmann, H. D.: Die Bibliothek in Zeit und Räumen III. In: Bibliotheksinformationen der Universitätsbibliothek der Freien Universität Berlin (1993), Nr. 25, S. 11-13.
  • Heilmann, H. D.: Die Bibliothek in Zeit und Räumen IV. In: Bibliotheksinformationen der Universitätsbibliothek der Freien Universität Berlin (1994), Nr. 26, p. 14-23.
  • Sylvia Kubina: Die "Sammlung Weiland" in der UB der FU Berlin.
    In: Bibliotheksinformationen der Universitätsbibliothek der Freien Universität Berlin. Nr. 27
  • Sylvia Kubina: Die Bibliothek des Berliner Rätekommunisten Alfred Weiland (1906-1978).
    Berlin: UB der FUB, 1995. - 135 p., ill.
    (Veröffentlichungen der Universitätsbibliothek der Freien Universität Berlin ; 4)
    ISBN 3-929619-07-5
  • Narewski, Ringo: Raub- und Beutegut in den Beständen des Bibliothekssystems der Freien Universität Berlin. In: Bibliotheksdienst 2013; 47(6): 408-425
  • Welt Online: In den Bibliotheken lagern Tausende Beute-Bucher. In: Welt Online (2008), Url: http://www.welt.de/regionales/berlin/article2444882/In-den-Bibliotheken-lagern-Tausende-Beute-Buecher.html, last accessed: 24. Oct. 2013.