Books on the Battleground

An uncle’s secret history leads Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History Kathy Peiss to study what happened to millions of displaced books after WWII.
March 1, 2013

“People are dying. Should you care about a book?” asks Kathy Peiss, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History. She is exploring the meaning of print culture during World War II: how it was used for intelligence, and how the United States decided how to handle the enormous amount of material disrupted by the war and devastation in Europe.

Peiss’s interest was kindled when she learned that her uncle, whom she had never known, had served in the Office of Strategic Services during the war. “Because I’m a historian, I began researching him, and slowly pieced together his life,” she says. During the war, Reuben Peiss was one of what his niece calls “an amazing array” of people, from librarians to scholars to actors, recruited by the government as intelligence agents. A Harvard librarian, he went to Lisbon and Bern, where he monitored publications like magazines and newspapers, transforming printed matter into useful information.

After the liberation of France, he became attached to teams which followed the advancing army through France into Germany, “scooping up” printed material. Intelligence was the initial reason, but Peiss says the policy evolved over time, driven by the inconceivable level of cultural destruction and, just as surprising, how much had been saved. Collections from libraries and universities had been moved for protection and were found in castles and caves. At the same time, many individual owners were dead or missing, and precious manuscripts were being burned for heat or bought for a handful of cigarettes by soldiers or collectors. The Army was also seizing materials promoting Nazism, anti-Semitism, or militarism.

My work is very much about the everyday life of people, how people make decisions and so make culture.

The situation led to a complicated set of practical, strategic, and ethical decisions, made on the ground while the war was still being waged by ordinary GIs, military government officials, trained intelligence officers, and librarians. The results were and are debated; Penn’s own librarian Rudolf Hirsch refused materials without de-accession stamps. “One person’s preservation was another’s looting,” says Peiss. But the librarians associated with the mission, including her uncle, believed in what they were doing, defeating Nazism and preserving culture.

Peiss has previously written about leisure for working women in New York at the beginning of the 20th century, America’s beauty culture, and, most recently, the zoot suit. She says her current project is not quite as big a departure as it seems. “My work is very much about the everyday life of people, how people make decisions and so make culture,” she says. “And here you have these ordinary military figures faced with millions of books and objects. It’s a massive quantity of material that literally had been found underground, hidden in salt mines and caves. There was no expectation of this. So what do you do with all of this material, and how do you manage it?”

She believes that through the 1920s and ‘30s, the expansion of education and access to culture through WPA programs, the radio, and even the Book of the Month Club developed a constituency for thinking about the importance of culture during wartime. “What I find interesting is that within this context of tremendous devastation were people who felt the need to preserve the culture,” she says. “It meant something to them.”