On general issues of movement of books in Czechoslovakia after World War II

Published on 12 April 2017

After World War II, extensive unprecedented transfer of cultural assets took place in Czechoslovakia. Besides art objects, this included at least 16 million documented volumes of books. The identification and classification of these books is difficult: After the liberation, foreign book collections were found in Czechoslovakia. Some were brought from Berlin libraries to then safer Sudetenland due to air-raid precautions, others came from large-scale post-war seizure and confiscation of property under the Presidential Decrees. Before the confiscation of property as a result of WWII was even finished, another wave of property confiscation hit the communist Czechoslovakia, this time concerning the property of emigrants and the "enemies" after February 1948. These events peaked with the pitiful treatment of monastery libraries, after the dissolution of monasteries in 1950.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933 in the neighbouring Germany, large transfers of books took place due to the change in the political situation. Besides the infamous book burning, libraries of people persecuted by the Nazis were gradually confiscated. These were transported to the new SD library in Berlin, established in the buildings of former Masonic lodges. When in 1939 the security services were reorganized, Amt IV (or the Seventh Office) of the newly created Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA – Reich Main Security Office) was assigned to handle the ideological research and evaluation. The former teacher at the Berlin University, Franz Alfred Six, was appointed to head the office.

The library of Amt VII was divided into three large sections. The first included the category German Reich and professional literature, the second section was held the literature of political opponents and the third section consisted of foreign language books. The opponent’s literature was further divided into four sections: 1. Church and pseudo-religious groups, 2. Theosophy, 3. Free-Masonry, 4. Marxism and Judaism.

In August 1943, after heavy air-raids on Berlin, the evacuation of documents from the Amt VII library to safer places was ordered, to several castles in Sudetenland and Silesia - Wölfelsdorf (Wilkanów), Niemes (Mimoň), Hauska (Houska), Neu Peerstein (Nový Berštejn), Neufalkenburg (Nový Falkenburg) and Theresienstadt (Terezín). After the liberation, the books evacuated by RSHA were gradually discovered at the castles in North Bohemia by the Czechoslovak authorities, and a portion of these collections remains in the National Library of the Czech Republic to this day.

In May and June, various people and commissions were authorized to secure the cultural monuments in the area of Sudetenland. Only in summer 1945 was the National and University Library in Prague authorized to secure all the book material. The task that awaited the library staff at these four North Bohemian castles was enormous.

A sort-out of books at these castles began mostly in the autumn 1945. Bad accessibility caused by the coming winter delayed the work at the Houska castle to the following spring. The aim of the sorting was to divide the foreign property from the property of demonstrably Czech origin (for example, books with bookplates of the Emmaus Monastery were found). Unmarked material was sorted out by language. The reports about the end of works at the North Bohemian castles by the library director, Josef Bečka, inform us about the numbers of books stored: Mimoň: 256,626 volumes, Nový Falkenburk: 93,624 volumes, Nový Berštejn: 59,927 volumes and Houska: 98,356 volumes. Altogether, this made over half a million books. In most cases, books without ownership mark were in minority. These were prepared for transportation to Prague. Books of foreign provenance, i.e. the books that came from the allied countries were prepared for restitutions. We have information about books being returned to France, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland and Switzerland. Books that came from the German Reich were transported to Prague. These included libraries of hundreds of masonic lodges from all over Germany and have been processed within this project, starting in January 2015. While processing masonic books, several individual books were found, which do not meet the criteria of the definition of German Reich property. Possibly the best documented example is the Norwegian Masonic lodge, Den Norske Store Landsloge. The 19 pressmarks that are nowadays found in the reserve fonds of the National Library are most likely an example of human error. The transcription of the library’s stamp: „D. N. St. Landsloges Bibliothek”, must have inevitably led to its confusion with German Reich property.

In addition to the mentioned four castles, the Terezín ghetto was also used as location for gathering of books, with 200 thousand volumes passing through it throughout its existence. The library of the Terezín ghetto (Ghettozentralbücherei nebo Zentralbücherei Theresienstadt) was put together out of several sources. Its gradual expansion went hand in hand with the progress of the Nazi campaign through Europe. In addition to books confiscated from the deported people on their arrival to Terezín, books were sent to Terezín from the dissolute and banned organizations in the Reich. A portion of these books came from Masonic lodges and Catholic and Evangelic organizations. Therefore, in their structure, these fonds did not differ significantly from the depots at the North Bohemian castles.

100,000 volumes survived the end of the war. These books were transported to Prague in the summer and autumn of that year. They were stored in the reopened Jewish Museum. A significant portion of the books taken over by the Jewish Museum was returned to their rightful owners between 1945 and 1948. Some of them were given to the restored Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia. There is still some confusion about the part of the library that was to be handed over to Israel.

As a result of anti-air-raid measures, 400 thousand volumes were evacuated from the Preussische Staatsbibliothek to the monastery in Teplá. Books were transported here in 23 freight cars from April to May 1944. After this library was secured, the books were to be transported to Prague. The situation changed when on 8 August the district administrative commission rang the Ministry of Education, informing them that the secured Prussian State Library was being taken away by the American army, and asking for intervention. Despite all efforts, the Americans transported the library to Munich and subsequently it passed into the possession of Federal Republic of Germany.

Besides Preussische Staatsbibliothek, 28 boxes of books from the Stadtbibliothek Berlin were found in freight cars near Šumperk. These books were stored at the State Research Library in Olomouc. These books were identified during the sort-out of the reserve fonds. In 1964, the library complained to the Ministry of Education that these books were a burden for them due to lack of space and asked the Ministry to arrange their speedy hand-over and transport. Other fragments of Berlin libraries were found in Olomouc - Deutsche Lehrerbücherei and also the Preussische Staatsbibliothek. Export permits for these books were issued in early 1957. It concerned about 215 boxes of books; the Stroux library stored in the library of the Pedagogical Faculty in Olomouc was specified in more detail. It included 2 thousand books.

A portion of the Berlin municipal library was found in Frýdlant castle. It consisted of seven freight cars of books and archive materials, almost 100 tonnes. In 1952, approximately 500 boxes were sent to East Germany. The books were transported from 2 to 9 October 1952, with the cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Education and Interior and the director of the State Research Library in Liberec.

Out of other libraries that ended up in Czechoslovakia towards the end of the war, let’s name the medical library (Deutsche Ärzte Bücherei) found in Český Dub. It became a part of the library of the newly established branch of the Faculty of Medicine of the Charles University in Hradec Králové. The last on our list, but not unimportant among the libraries found in Czechoslovakia, is the Berlin pedagogical library found in Blankartice near Děčín.

Under the Decrees of the President of the Republic, the property of politically unreliable persons was seized and confiscated. The National and University Library was tasked with securing these libraries. Let’s summarize only the basic facts, as this chapter is a main topic of the monograph Books Discovered Once Again.

The local authorities stored the books in suitable buildings. Most commonly, the transports were directed to schools and the buildings of relevant authorities. For sorting out books at the places of collection, librarians from the National and University Library and from other Czechoslovak research libraries were called upon, to sort out valuable and professional literature. The rest was left in place to be sold. The sale was organized by the National Restoration Fund. Over 15 million books were sold out. Often, they went to foreign markets. Subsequently, scientific literature was distributed among the research libraries in Czechoslovakia. The National and University Library alone passed literature to 195 institutions. The National and University Library staff alone sorted out 12 million volumes, of which 50 thousand was originally the property of “enemies” after 1948. 1.8 million volumes were brought to the Clementinum. However, no documents show how many of these books got to the library’s collections.

During the night of 13 to 14 April 1950, the first stage of the dissolution of male monasteries took place in Czechoslovakia. Altogether, the operation “K” affected 219 monasteries; 2,376 monks, of which 2,201 were sent to concentration monasteries and the 175 highest-ranking monks were taken to the internment monastery in Želiv.

Their buildings were seized by the army and the Ministry of Interior. In the emptied religious buildings, much of the inventory was left, which besides artistic objects, included numerous libraries. After the books and art objects were collected from monasteries, two kinds of technical groups were set up – for gathering of books and collection of cultural objects. The first group was run by the National Library. The person responsible for the gathering was František Horák. The second group was established as a part of the Museum of Applied Arts and the National Gallery. Only 19 libraries were to remain in the original places. The others were to be removed gradually – altogether over 1.2 million volumes. The transportation of books certainly was free of problems. For example, in monastery in Kadaň it was found that: “…many valuable books, irreplaceable in terms of cultural heritage, are stored in totally atrocious conditions, being in grave danger of destruction. The majority of material, which includes incunabula and other irreplaceable prints is stored without order and unsorted, in the damp and mould, thrown on heaps, torn in places, with the individual leafs fallen out of books. In the monastery yard, among rubbish and other disposed things, broken books, torn musical material and other written documents were lying. These books, other printed material and manuscripts are left exposed to weather, soaking wet and condemned to destruction. “

In Prague neither did the securing of monastery libraries go well. The Emmaus Monastery was visited by the staff of the National Library and the National Museum in Prague in late June 1950. The books were collected in two rooms in the central part of the monastery. The representative of the monastery was asked by F. Horák to close the rooms and leave everything as it was until the books were collected to be transported to the relevant institutions. The Emmaus Monastery was listed as last in terms of urgency. Therefore, the clearing works were to begin only in late August 1950. However, when the staff turned up on 30 August, they found that the building was already handed over to the Ministry of Health to become a State Faculty Hospital. Meanwhile, out of the two rooms that were to remain secured and inaccessible, tables and bookshelves were removed and the books were thrown on the floor. Among other books lying in rubbish, the Amsterdam edition of 1634 of Pavel Stránský's Respublica Bohemiae was found. The complaint about this treatment said, quite rightfully, that the books were treated in “the way undignified for a cultural society”.

These lines aim to introduce the basic mechanisms of treatment of books as cultural assets in the post war period. It is clear that despite numerous sales, a large number of cultural assets were saved for research institutions. Our future task is to analyse the issue even deeper and to join the European-wide trend of researching book provenance and in doing so to facilitate the identification of pre-war book owners.