‘The impression I gained from the tour is that although the institute may not be fervently pulsing with life, it is administered in a dignified and proper – albeit tired – manner.’ (NLA WO, 12 Neu 13 Nr. 24911)

The report in November 1946 to the board of the Museum and Library Foundation of the House and Land of Braunschweig, to which the Herzog August Bibliothek belonged from 1927 to 1949, spoke of a sleepy institution, but one whose building and collections were mostly undamaged. Since 1927 and throughout the Nazi era right up until 1948 it had been overseen without interruption by librarian and archivist Dr Wilhelm Herse (1879‒1965). In terms of its staff, budget and the development of its collections, the Herzog August Bibliothek was truly best described as a small library. During the Nazi era, a total of four to six full-time staff members were employed in the Wolfenbüttel library. Its acquisitions budget, quite small when compared to similar institutions, amounted to an average of 4,000 Reichsmarks a year during the 1930s and sometimes went as high as 5,000 Reichsmarks during the 1940s. The accession books, all of which survived the war, list a series of 10,791 entries for the years 1933 to 1945.

Fig. 1: Accession book of the Herzog August Bibliothek for the years 1939 to 1950, HAB: BA I, 1109.

Systematic examination of the accession books and the surviving library files not only grants us a glimpse of the library’s activities and operations in Nazi Germany but has also uncovered a number of peculiarities. Several specific events make it clear that despite the rather small size of this former state library of the Free State of Braunschweig, the Herzog August Bibliothek was fully involved in Nazi library policies. For example, beginning in 1939 the Wolfenbüttel library served as a storage place for politically undesirable books about the French Foreign Legion, after the Reich Ministry of Science, Education and Culture had ordered their removal from the school libraries in the region. As evidenced by the accession book for the following year, thirteen of these works were integrated into the library’s collection. The remainder of the books that had been reported but not requested by the Herzog August Bibliothek were to be destroyed.

After the Nazis seized power, their ideology seemed to call for the purchase of Nazi literature, but no money was available in the library’s regular budget, and it had to draw upon special assets in its so-called Dublettenfond. The first acquisitions were made in October and November 1933. Among the selected works were two books by the politician Dietrich Klagges, the chief minister of the Free State of Braunschweig appointed by the Nazis, and Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture Walther Darré. Additionally, copies of Werner Beumelburg’s Sperrfeuer um Deutschland (Barrage Fire Surrounding Germany) and, later, Walter M. Espe’s Buch der N.S.D.A.P. (Book of the NSDAP) were purchased.

Fig. 2: Entries for works by Dietrich Klagges, Werner Beumelburg and Walther Darré,, HAB: BA I, 1108, 1933, Nr. 986–991.

Otherwise, the library was generally able to continue to develop its collection without interference. The main acquisitions were books of regional and literary history, relevant periodicals and general reference works and further volumes within existing series. The combination of these two acquisition agendas could lead to rather unusual constellations in the accession book entries. For example, on 14 June 1934, the most recent volume of Martin Buber’s and Franz Rosenzweig’s translation of the Bible and Erich Unger’s bibliography Das Schrifttum des Nationalsozialismus (The Writings of National Socialism) – which in that same month had been positively reviewed in Alfred Rosenberg’s Nationalsozialistische Monatshefte (National Socialist Monthly) were both integrated into the collection. Up until 1938, the Herzog August Bibliothek also received regular copies of the magazine Der Morgen (The Morning), a donation from the Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel branch of the Central-Verein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith).

Most importantly, however, the accession books recorded activities and objects that clearly involved Nazi looted assets. For example, on 1 November 1939, three fragments from Hebrew scrolls whose provenance remains unclear – a gift of the leadership of the Nazi Party region, Gau Southern Hanover-Braunschweig – were inventoried (now Cod. Guelf. 187–189 Noviss. 2°). Five additional Hebrew scrolls, a few ritual objects and a number of books on Jewish history and Hebrew belonging to Wolfenbüttel’s Jewish community must have already been held in the Herzog August Bibliothek’s collection at the time. According to library correspondence dating to after the war, the objects were handed over to the library for ‘safekeeping’ – most likely after the destruction of the directly adjacent Wolfenbüttel synagogue during the November pogroms of 1938 – and they were returned to a representative of the re-established Jewish community in 1948. However, they do not appear in the accession register for 1938. A historical Lessing edition owned by Gustav Eichengrün (1864‒1943), a Jewish resident of Wolfenbüttel who was deported to Theresienstadt and murdered there, met a similar fate when it was acquired from the Wolfenbüttel tax office on 3 June 1943. It was later returned to a representative of Eichengrün’s grandson, who had emigrated to the UK.

Fig. 3: Entries for the fragments of three Hebrew scrolls acquired from the leadership of the Nazi Party region, Gau Southern Hanover–Braunschweig, in November 1939, HAB: BA I, 1109, 1939, Nr. 643–645.

An examination of the accession books from the years of the Nazi dictatorship and the post-war era (some 14,000 sequential numbers for the years 1933 to 1949) is the focus of the project ‘Assets looted by the Nazis among the Herzog August Bibliothek’s acquisitions made between 1933 and 1969’ (2022–2024), funded by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation). Insights into the results of research into Nazi looted property at the HAB are provided by the virtual exhibition Spurensuche: NS-Provenienzforschung in der Herzog August Bibliothek (Looking for Traces: Nazi-Era Provenance Research at the Herzog August Bibiothek).

The author

Christine Rüth was a research associate at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel until May 2023. She coordinated and worked on the project ‘Assets looted by the Nazis among the Herzog August Bibliothek’s acquisitions made between 1933 and 1969’ funded by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste. This text is a shortened version of the text ‘“Nicht von glühendem Leben durchpulst …”: Impressionen aus der Herzog August Bibliothek in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus’ (Not Fervently Pulsating with Life: Impressions from the Herzog August Library during the National Socialist Era) published by the author on Retour: Freier Blog für Provenienzforschende (Retour: The Open Blog for Provenance Researchers) on 12 April 2023.