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From the Wikipedia list of libraries damaged during World War II, I learnt that millions of books stored in libraries were lost from bombings and intentional destruction by the Nazis, especially in Poland. However, in the list of literary works during the 20th century, we only see a few listings related to the war. So I wonder which one is more true: that we don't know what was lost among the millions of works which perished during the war, or that most of the books destroyed existed in many copies and are still extant?

Edit: This question has been closed and I am asked to clarify. So let's focus on the destruction of Warsaw. The argument makes sense that the Nazi book burnings in Germany would largely be inconsequential in terms of literary loss because the books targeted had been sufficiently widely published to avoid being completely wiped out. But this is what I've read about books during the destruction of Warsaw:

The Wikipedia article on the destruction of Warsaw:

Unlike earlier Nazi book burnings where specific books were deliberately targeted, the burning of those libraries was part of the general burning of a large part of the city of Warsaw. This resulted in the disappearance of many valuable old books and scrolls among about sixteen million volumes from National Library, museums and palaces burnt indiscriminately by Germans in Poland during World War II.

This article by the National Library in Warsaw:

The National Library lost at least 39,000 manuscripts – and most likely more, perhaps as many as 50,000 – along with some 80,000 books from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, 100,000 books from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, 60,000 drawings and engravings, 25,000 musical scores and 10,000 maps. The great family libraries were almost wiped out, such as the famous collection of manuscripts of the Krasiński Library, of which just 78 volumes survived out of more than 7,000. Few of the most valuable Warsaw collections could be saved. The nineteenth and twentieth-century collections of the National Library housed in the SGH building on Rakowiecka Street were somewhat more fortunate.

Obviously the loss was beyond devastating, no matter what. But my question is this: how much information loss resulted from the destruction? Sure, millions of books and tens of thousands of manuscripts were annihilated, but could we estimate how many among these were unique copies, the annihilation of which has resulted in irrecoverable information loss to the humanity?

Related: This document prepared by UNESCO in 1996 tries to list all the libraries and archives around the world destroyed in the 20th century.

This project by Dr. Krista A. Murchison at Leiden University attempts to document and recover the medieval manuscripts destroyed in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and the UK during WWII.

Two journal articles on the destruction of Jewish books in Poland: "Embers of the Soul: The Destruction of Jewish Books and Libraries in Poland during World War II", "The Destruction of Jewish Libraries and Archives in Cracow during World War II".

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  • You're right. I've amended the title. Thanks. Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 10:05
  • Then the answer would be a clear "yes". See history.stackexchange.com/a/55361/54724 Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 11:43
  • @SoquentiAsseurompe Except, post editing, neither the title or body questions are yes/no...
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 11:50
  • @CGCampbell: That was a response to MCW's suggestion. The answer to the question "is there any evidence that there was any literary loss from WWII?" would be a clear yes. Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 17:05
  • Do you mean loss of written information, or is your question also about illustrations?
    – Jan
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 7:49

1 Answer 1

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I have no factual elements to justify my answer, but I am pretty sure that an approach based on cultural events by that time is accurate. I mean:

  • St Exupery was published in the USA before his exile, and largely after
  • Agatha Christie was already world-wide known
  • American writers wrote about European events and vice-versa
  • Communism was notably spread through literary

All those elements describing the literary of the 1930s lead me to think that most manuscripts were duplicated enough to escape bombings, whose part of which were devastating was mainly concentrated in Germany.

About Nazi destruction of books, well... of course there were autodafes but targeted books were precisely those who were spred enough in Europe to be considered as a danger. So it's reasonable to say that those *autodafes" made books disappeared from Germany, but not from entire Europe nor world. During occupations, well similar logic could apply, except for specific Jewish texts that could have disappeared.

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    But given the scale of Nazi destructions - we're talking about 15 millions volumes in Polish libraries were burned, destroyed, or confiscated - even if one in a thousand of those volumes were unique copies, it means that 15,000 volumes of works are irrevocably lost. Consider also that works written in the Polish language may not be widespread throughout Europe, and that Poland suffered nationwide destructions. Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 21:25
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    I think the argument re. the mass market for books is sound, but this ignores unpublished works, e.g. by Bruno Schulz.
    – Jan
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 22:11
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    Bluntly: Nearly everything that is written and most of what is published is mediocre at best. (Sturgeon's Law applies, after all!) Doubtless much was lost, but because important works tend to exist in more copies, it's much less certain that many books worth saving were lost. And we don't know what they were, of course. (The much, much greater loss is the people who died and the works that might have been produced by them.)
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 12:28
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    @MarkOlson The point remains that 10% of millions is a large number. Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 17:25
  • @Carey Gregory Twenty is a large number in some contexts (e.g., how many kids did you have?) The question that is actually interesting is how consequential the losses were. Numbers alone tell us little, since books and manuscripts, unlike people, are not all created equal. (I fear that it's tempting to gravitate towards number of books burned since that's much easier to work out.)
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 19:41

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