Inside The Anti-Fascist Library That's Been Fighting Nazism Since WW2

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 17 months ago

Last Updated 20 December 2022

Inside The Anti-Fascist Library That's Been Fighting Nazism Since WW2

This article contains some images of an anti-semitic nature.

The Wiener Library holds a remarkable amount of archive material centred around Nazism and anti-semitism. Image: Londonist.

Behind the doors of a handsome Georgian townhouse overlooking leafy Russell Square is the world's oldest collection of material on the Nazi era.

This is the Wiener Holocaust Library — an immense archive tracing the rise of the far right and its heinous crimes, from the time Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party assumed power in Germany in 1933.

Dr Alfred Wiener in his office at The Wiener Library in Manchester Square, London, c.1950. Image: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Here, in thousands upon thousands of boxes in its basement — and on the shelves of its Wolfson Reading Room — are pamphlets promoting far right rallies; some of the earliest accounts from survivors of the Holocaust; and countless photos, diaries and correspondences from the persecuted.

The library also holds propaganda aimed at children. Der Giftpilz, or 'The Poisonous Mushroom', for example, is an anti-semitic children's book. Its abhorrent 'lesson' is that, just as it is difficult to tell a poisonous mushroom from an edible mushroom, it is difficult to tell a Jew apart from someone else.

An album of photos taken by a couple travelling around early Nazi era Germany, highlighting a number of anti-Jewish signs. Image: Londonist.

Born in Potsdam in 1885, Alfred Wiener served in the German army during the first world war, before moving to Berlin, where he quickly became concerned about the amount of anti-semitic rhetoric.

One paranoid suggestion being bandied around was that the Germans' failure in the war had come from the inside, specifically communists and Jews. "It was a dangerous myth, and it took hold to some extent," says Dr Barbara Warnock, senior curator and head of education at the library.

The Wolfson Reading Room. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

As early as 1919, Wiener published a pamphlet, Vor Pogromen?, warning how the swelling wave of anti-semitism might lead to an orchestrated attack on the Jews. Wiener was far-sighted. He persuaded a Jewish cultural organisation he was working for, to set up a form of bureau that monitored anti-semitism. It gathered together a collection of election posters, pamphlets, books and reports of fascist meetings.

"I think a lot of people perhaps, didn't necessarily see the risk as clearly as Wiener," says Dr Warnock.

Dr Barbara Warnock. Image: Londonist.

By the early 1930s, Wiener was well known as an anti-Nazi campaigner, and when Hitler came into power, Wiener relocated himself and his family to Amsterdam. Here, his work continued apace under the Jewish Central Information Office (JCIO). But a few years down the line, Amsterdam was no longer safe either, at which point he moved to Britain.

His collection was shipped over to Manchester Square, the first London home of the library. It opened on 1 September 1939, the same day the Nazis invaded Poland.

"During the war, the organisation was increasingly known as 'Dr Wiener's Library', says Dr Warnock. "It was funded by the British government to gather evidence about the position of Jews in Europe and German occupied Europe and, of course, that then became the Holocaust."

A image showing child survivors of the Holocaust disembarking in Britain. Image: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Much of the the library's content is, unsurprisingly, heartbreaking. In a Red Cross-stamped letter, a girl, Alice Redlich — who'd fled Berlin on the Kindertransport — writes to her Jewish parents and brother, still in Germany, asking how they are. The same piece of paper was returned to Redlich, on which the family write back saying all is well. It wasn't, of course, and they soon after perished in the Holocaust.

Staff at work at The Wiener Library, c. 1940s or 1950s. Image: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Other personal stories are documented almost chapter by chapter. Warnock shows us an album in which German Jew, Ludwig Neumann, poses proudly in his uniform from the first world war. Post war, he is the proud owner of a successful fabric business. But then photos start creeping in of swastikas in Neumann's factory. Letters from officials arrive, announcing that, from now on, the business will only employ Aryans. Neumann was sent to Dachau, but was fortunate enough to be released weeks later; another photo captures him at this moment, with his head shaven, looking disheveled and exhausted.

Ludwig Neumann shortly after his release from Dachau - with his head shaved, looking exhausted
Ludwig Neumann shortly after his release from Dachau. Image: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Woven into such desperate narratives are strands of hope. Neumann was able to obtain a British visa for himself and his ageing mother, and he ended up serving in the Home Guard in Merseyside. A photo in which he grins, wearing a 'Dad's Army' uniform, is really quite extraordinary.

A diary by a British Jew deported from the Channel Islands to camps in Europe. Image: Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Elsewhere in the library's archives, we witness the pluck and ingenuity of the anti-fascist resistance. 'Tarnschriften' were a specific kind of anti-Nazi propaganda pamphlet; one of them is concealed inside a packet of tomato seeds; another in the packaging of a Lyons tea bag; a third is stashed away in a crossword puzzle.

A 'Tarnschriften' concealed in a packet of tomato seeds. Image: Londonist.

Following the second word war, the Wiener Library launched one of the earliest research efforts to gather eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust from across Europe. This helped form cases against the accused at the Nuremberg trials.

In more recent years, the library's team has worked hard to translate many hundreds of these eyewitness accounts, resulting in the Testifying to the Truth collection.

The defendants in the dock, guarded by American Military Police
Following the second word war, the Wiener Library launched one of the earliest research efforts to gather eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. Image: public domain.

Wiener himself experienced tragedy at the hands of the Nazis; although he managed to procure visas for his wife and children to travel with him to London, they weren't able to use them in time, and ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Right at the end of the war, they were released in a prisoner exchange. Sadly, Wiener's wife Margarethe, died the same day.

She's remembered on a plaque on the wall, among many names associated with the library over the years.

A memorial wall on the library's staircase. Image: Londonist.

Wiener himself passed away in 1964, but the work of his library has continued ever since, with everyone from historians to scholars to members of the public, benefitting from the astounding array of materials. "We still get inquiries from people every week, wanting to trace their own story or that of family members," says Warnock.

an advert for oswald mosley at the albert hall
The insidious nature of the right wing is brought to life with a poster for a fascist rally at the Royal Albert Hall. Image: Londonist.

Exhibitions are hosted here too; the current one, This Fascist Life: Radical Right Movements in Interwar Europe, highlights the terrifyingly insidious nature of the right wing. It includes a poster for a fascist rally with a talk from Oswald Mosley at the Royal Albert Hall, and photos of a Blackshirt rally at Olympia in 1934 (the rally was interrupted by anti-fascist hecklers, and turned into more of a mass brawl).

The timing is no coincidence; the exhibition reflects a world that's recently seen a global rise in nationalism, outspoken racism, and anti-semitic attacks in London not experienced since the 1980s.

the georgian frontage of the library
The Wiener library is open to the public on weekdays. Image: Londonist

The Wiener Library continues to expand. While many delve into the riches of the collection, others add to it; every week, families offer to donate documents relating to the experiences of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi persecution or came to Britain after the Holocaust.

Some 20 staff members — plus volunteers — keep the good work of Alfred Wiener going, with projects ranging from a Refugee Map; to an ambitious five year plan to digitise a third of the collection. If ever you needed to see the world-changing power of a library, this is it.

The Wiener Library is open to everyone Monday-Friday — with the opportunity to read books and explore archives, and exhibitions. Entry is free.