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1938: Political Abuse of the Library under the NS Regime


The annexation of Austria to Hitler’s Germany on 12 March 1938 marked the beginning of one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Austrian National Library. On 16 March 1938, Paul Heigl, a fervent National Socialist from the very outset and high-ranking member of the SS, was tasked by the Reich Deputy with the provisional management of the National Library. His predecessor, Josef Bick, was imprisoned. Heigl would remain in charge of the institution until his suicide in April 1945. Employees working for the library were dismissed on grounds of race, and Jewish people were forbidden to use the library. The objects kept in the State Hall and the special collections were evacuated and brought to underground depots.

His good relations with the Gestapo, the SS, and the SD facilitated Heigl’s aggressive acquisition policy: the old files of the directorate-general contain countless of Heigl’s requests to seize and process Jewish assets. The confiscated libraries not only came from private Jewish individuals, including, among others, Alphonse de Rothschild’s personal library, Gottlieb Kaldeck’s collection of musical artefacts, and Raoul Korty’s extensive collection of photographs, but also from such Jewish institutions as the Vienna Israelite Community, as well as organisations classified as hostile towards the regime, for example the freemasons’ Grand Lodge of Vienna.

The National Library proceeded with the loot allotted to it in various ways: parts were incorporated into its own holdings, other parts were transferred to libraries of the German Reich, and yet other parts were meant to be used for the Führer’s planned library in Linz.

In compliance with the 1998 Act on the Restitution of Art Objects, the Austrian National Library has sought to give back all of the works illegally acquired during the NS era and still in its possession.

Its » provenance report completed in 2003 lists more than 52,000 such objects, which meanwhile have almost completely been returned to the legitimate heirs, or, in case their previous owners are unknown, to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. Only by dealing with its own past in an exemplary, sensitive, and honest way can the Austrian National Library claim credibility as the country’s central memory institution.

See also » Provenance Research and Restitution

Hall, Murray G.: ... Allerlei für die Nationalbibliothek zu ergattern ...: eine österreichische Institution in der NS-Zeit / Murray G. Hall; Christina Köstner. Vienna [et al.]: Böhlau, 2006.

» 1945: The "Austrian National Library": A New Beginning in the Second Republic

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