Provenance Research and Restitution

The historical heritage of the Austrian National Library is not free of injustice and guilt. That is true in a particular manner of the period of National Socialism. Led by a fanatical National Socialist, Paul Heigl, the National Library was an active participant on a grand scale in the systematic robbing in the first place of Jewish citizens, but also of other victims of the Nazi regime. Despite considerable restitutions in the post-war years major portions of the looted collections remained in the Library. So the earliest possible restitution of those holdings to their legitimate possessors is for the Austrian National Library not only a duty under law, but also a moral question. With the Federal Law on Restitution of Art Objects in 1998 (Kunstrückgabegesetz, BGBl. I, 181/1998), the basis, long since necessary, was created.

In December 2003, after careful examination of all relevant holdings, the Austrian National Library completed its report on provenance according to the Law on Restitution of Art Objects of 1998, and handed it over to the Commission for Provenance. The essential findings are lists of illegal acquisitions during the Nazi period which are still in the possession of the Austrian National Library. Since then the Austrian National Library has taken pains to find the legitimate owners or inheritors, so as to give back the objects as quickly as possible. Since December of 2003 a total of 32.937 objects have been restored to their lawful owners.

However, by the standards of the latest research, approximately a third of the objects taken illegally can be described as “without inheritors”. The objects in question are – mostly printed works – such as give no indication of their former possessors. The 25.506 shelf maks listed in the Report on Origins include 52.403 individual objects – books, photographs, negatives, autographs, hand written texts, maps and music items – of them about a third, 15.958 objects, are to be considered as without inheritors. Those objects, in accordance with the regulations in the Law on Restitution of Art Objects, should be handed over to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism.

A large percentage of the lawful inheritors was tracked down through intense research with the dedicated support of the Israeli Cultural Community in Vienna and to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. But still the efforts of the Austrian National Library are directed at finding the lawful inheritors.

In 2006 a database of objects to be restored but without inheritors was set up by the Israeli Cultural Community and  National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. The online presentation should allow the inheritors the chance to identify and lay claim to looted objects. The Austrian National Library has joined that initiative ( and hopes that that will reduce the number of uninherited objects marked for restitution in favour of definite recipients of the restored objects.

Apart from the quickest possible restitution according to the law, the Austrian National Library is aiming today at  the greatest transparency possible with regard to its Nazi past. That is meant to give a clear signal, in contrast to the often hesitant and placatory library policies of the first post-war years. For the purpose of achieving a publicly effective, unreserved examination of that dark period, an exhibition was stages with the title “Looted Books. The Austrian National Library Examines its National Socialist Past” in 2004/5. Likewise a research project completed in 2005 on the history of the National Library 1938-1945 (Hall, Murray G.: ... Allerlei für die Nationalbibliothek zu ergattern ...: eine österreichische Institution in der NS-Zeit / Murray G. Hall ; Christina Köstner. - Wien [u.a.] : Böhlau, 2006. - 617 S. –All sorts of things for the National Library to grab … an Austrian institution in the Nazi era), and a further exhibition in February of 2008 on the expropriated photograph collection of  Raoul Korty.

Only by an exemplary, sensitive, and honest dealing with its own past can the Austrian National Library lay claim to credibility as the central memory institution of this country.


Follow up information

The whole report on provenance of holdings in the Austrian National Library can be found on a CD-ROM in reading room 3:

Bericht der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek an die Kommission für Provenienzforschung  (Provenienzbericht) / bearb. von Margot Werner. - Wien, 2003
Shelf mark: ZNEU AV 1035-CDR (Report of the Austrian National Library to the Commission for Provenance … ).

The Austrian National Library is as well quite ready to answer all questions asked in this context regarding missing or looted libraries.

If you have questions, please turn to:

Mag. Margot Werner
Tel: (+43 1) 53 410-204

last update 10/3/2013