"He is a very old man with whom you can't talk about politics," wrote an unnamed Nazi apparatchik after an early meeting with Otlet on October 31, 1940. "He has peculiar fantasies about world peace."
World peace was a distant dream. Europe was at war. Four months earlier, shortly after conquering Belgium on his way to France, Hitler had authorized a cultural task force to fan out across the occupied countries. Headed by his confidant Alfred Rosenberg - the recently appointed cultural czar and author of a great deal of seminal and toxic Nazi philosophy - the group operated under orders to seize any and all valuable books, works of art, or religious objects from museums, libraries, and universities, as well as from private Jewish and Masonic collections. Drawing on this vast library of impounded books, Hitler hoped to build a new university worthy of the Third Reich, to be called the Hohe Schule.
... The commission would ultimately confiscate millions of volumes - including prized first editions, rare illuminated manuscripts, and countless other, more prosaic works on every topic imaginable - as well as paintings, religious objects, and innumerable other cultural artifacts. For all their rapaciousness, however, Kruss and his staff proved quite discriminating in choosing what books to keep. Most were destroyed or discarded. At one point the German army paved the muddy streets of Ukraine with thousands of seized books to speed the passage of their military vehicles...
The Rosenberg Commission's campaign of literary plunder, appalling as it was, hardly marked the first time a conquering nation had instituted a program of violent cultural appropriation. When Kin Ashurbanipal consolidated power over the Sumerian Empire in the seventh century BCE, he impounded every book in the kingdom to fill his royal library. Four hundred years later, the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy I ordered his armed forces to search every incoming ship at the port of Alexandria and seize any books held onboard, thus populating the greatest library the world would know for another 2,000 years.
At other times, nations have simply chosen to destroy the intellectual heritage of the people they conquered. When Emperor Shi Huangdi consolidated power over the Chinese Empire in 213 BC, he commanded the destruction of every book in the kingdom to make way for a new library that better reflected his tastes. And when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Aztec kingdom in the fifteenth century, they promptly burned nearly all of the Aztecs' glyph-laden deerskin books - including treatises on law, mathematics, and herbalism (this destruction likely came as no great surprise to the Aztecs, who themselves had destroyed all the books of a previous conquered regime just a century earlier).
-Alex Wright, as excerpted from Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age