Provenance research and restitution
The historic heritage of the Austrian National Library is not without injustice and guilt. This applies particularly to the era of National Socialism. Led by a fanatical National Socialist, Paul Heigl, the National Library played an active role in large-scale and systematic theft from, mainly, Jewish citizens, but also from other victims of the Nazi regime. Despite extensive restitution that took place in the immediate post-war years, significant parts of these looted collections remained in the library. The earliest possible restitution of this material to its legal owners is therefore not only a legal obligation on the Austrian National Library but also a question of morality. The 1998 Federal Law on the Restitution of Works of Art (Federal Law Gazette I, 181/1998) constituted a long overdue legal basis for the process.
In December 2003, after careful checking of all its relevant holdings, the Austrian National Library completed its Provenance Report in accordance with the Art Restitution Act 1998 and handed it over to the Commission for Provenance Research. The report consists mainly of lists of the illegal acquisitions from the Nazi period which are still held by the Austrian National Library. Since then, the Austrian National Library has been endeavouring to identify the legal owners or their heirs, in order to return the objects to them as soon as possible. Since December 2003, a total of 46,866 objects have been returned to their legal owners.
However, as the research currently stands, about a third of the expropriated items are described as “heirless” property. These are items – mostly printed material – for which no evidence can be found of their former owner. The 25,506 indexed items listed in the Provenance Report comprise 52,403 individual objects – books, photographs, negatives, autographs, manuscripts, cards and sheet music – of which nearly a third – 15,958 objects – are regarded as heirless. In June 2010, the first and largest batch of heirless books (8,363 individual volumes) was handed over to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, in accordance with the terms of the Art Restitution Act, and then, under subsequent legislation, repurchased at a market price set by an independent expert. In the interests of the greatest possible transparency, each of these books was listed in the catalogue with a note indicating the history of the volume in question.
However, following intensive research with active support from the Jewish community in Vienna and the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, the majority of the legal heirs have been identified. The Austrian National Library continues to direct its efforts towards tracing the heirs and concluding all the as yet unresolved cases.
In 2006, the Jewish community in Vienna and the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism set up a » database of heirless objects for restitution. The online format should give heirs the opportunity to identify looted objects and claim them. The Austrian National Library supports this initiative and hopes that, as a result, the number of heirless objects for restitution will be reduced, to the benefit of confirmed recipients.
In addition to trying to process questions of restitution as quickly as possible, in accordance with the 1998 Art Restitution Act, the Austrian National Library today also strives for maximum transparency in relation to its Nazi past. It hopes to send a clear signal that the often reluctant and conciliatory library policy of the earliest post-war years has changed. Projects supporting this aim of addressing that dark era in a more open, unconditional manner have included the exhibition called “Looted books. The Austrian National Library confronts its Nazi past” in 2004/05, a research project on the history of the National Library 1938-45 (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. 617 p.) that was completed in 2005, and another exhibition on the appropriated photographic collection of Raoul Korty, held in February, 2008.
Only by addressing its own past in an exemplary, sensitive and honest way can the Austrian National Library credibly lay claim to be this country's main memory institution.