It isn’t every day that the French president and the bishop of Rome are accused of trafficking in stolen goods, but that is precisely what happened earlier this week. During an hour-long Oct. 24 private audience in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, President Emmanuel Macron and Pope Francis met to discuss “matters of an international nature, starting from the conflict in Ukraine, with special attention to the humanitarian situation,” whereupon the two figures extended to each other the usual gift-giving diplomatic courtesies. Macron received a marble-framed bronze medallion depicting St. Peter’s Basilica, to go with the Saint Martin medallion he had been given during a 2018 summit. The supreme pontiff, in return, was handed a relatively pristine 1796 French translation of Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, its leather binding in wonderful shape, its pages not overly marked by cellulose oxidation. It was quite a thoughtful gift, all in all, a touch cerebral but undeniably relevant to the deliberations at hand.
Diplomatic gifts have rather fallen off lately. The Byzantines once lavished official visitors with bolts of silk, jewel-encrusted manuscripts, and marvelous automata, the Ottomans furnished 88.7 carat diamonds, massive inlaid chests, and the occasional giraffe, while the House of Habsburg favored ornate clocks and music manuscripts. These days we find Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner presenting George W. Bush with 300 pounds of frozen lamb meat, and Elizabeth II and Barack Obama exchanging a framed portrait of Her Majesty for an iPod pre-loaded with 40 show tunes. So the French president and his diplomatic protocol officers must be given a few points for trying, although they could hardly have foreseen that, within a matter of mere hours, the gift to Pope Francis would find itself at the center of a roiling controversy — in distant Poland of all places.
When Le Croix Vatican correspondent Loup Besmond de Senneville posted images of the book, keen-eyed Polish Twitter users immediately picked up on something unusual. On the title page were, as expected, arranged the words:
Projet de Paix Perpétuelle
Traduit de l’Allemand
Un Nouveau Supplément
Chez Frédéric Nicolovius
But, at the bottom of the page, there had been stamped more text, which in a fading shade of Prussian blue read:
The Czytelnia Akademicka, or the Lwów Academic Reading Room, was a Polish cultural organization located in what is now Lviv, in western Ukraine, but at the time of its founding in 1867 was part of Austrian Galicia. A center of academic, cultural, and social life, the reading room was first located on Chorąszczyzny (now Dudayeva) Street, before moving to tonier digs on Łozińskiego (now Hertsena) Street, and served as a lively focus of Polish intellectual life, just as the Druzhnyi Lykhvar (“The Friendly Usurer”) and the Akademicheskii Kruzhok (“The Academic Circle”), both founded in 1870, served the respective needs of Ukrainophiles and Russophiles studying at Lviv National University. The Lwów Academic Reading Room was a welcoming place where Polish academics could hold readings, debates, and chess matches; by 1896, the Czytelnia Akademicka was publishing its own periodical, first called Czasopismo Akademickie (The Academic Journal), and later Teka (Portfolio). The Polish-speaking literati gathering there would, over the decades, engage in heated discussions of the works of romantics like Longfellow and Coleridge, decadents like Baudelaire and Wilde, and modernists like Hamsun and d’Annunzio. The library was well-stocked with volumes of Montaigne and Diderot, Goethe and Fichte, John Henry Newman and Walter Pater, as well as, evidently, a 1796 edition of Kant’s Perpetual Peace in French translation.
Bear in mind that the Polish government is currently seeking reparations from Germany for damage inflicted during the Second World War — €1.3 trillion should just about do it — and it was inevitable that the surprise appearance abroad of a well-preserved first edition of one of Kant’s most famous works, which had once been part of the Lwów Academic Reading Room collections, would send politicians and pundits in the Rzeczpospolita into paroxysms of righteous indignation. Sławomir Dębski, head of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, stated that “the case requires verification. The book could have been exchanged before WW2 (as a duplicate), for another book from the collection of some other library. However, the Germans were massively plundering Polish libraries/archives, so this is still the most likely source of origin.” His colleague at the institute, the former diplomat Robert Pszczel, called the gift “embarrassing,” while journalist Stanisław Janecki concluded that “the Academic Reading Room in Lviv was established in 1867, so either the Germans, the Russians, or one of the French Waffen-SS units stole this work. Anyway, congratulations to President Macron for receiving stolen goods.”
There was indeed a great deal of looting when Lwów first fell to Soviet forces on Sept. 22, 1939, and subsequently when the Nazis seized the city on June 30, 1941. The Academic Reading Room was liquidated in 1939, alongside other institutions like the Ossolineum, and while the Ossolineum lives on as a repository of Polish culture through the Wrocław-based National Ossoliński Institute and its Lviv satellite branch, the Czytelnia Akademicka we Lwowie simply vanished into thin air, and it is little wonder that Poles today are sensitive about such a painful topic. It would be scandalous indeed if the French government were to be found in possession of Polish cultural property stolen by the Nazis. Yet there are other possible explanations for the book’s disappearance. Russian officers and civil servants used Lwów reading rooms and university libraries during their occupation of the city during the First World War as well. Christopher Rick, writing in Lemberg, Lwów, L’viv, 1914-1947: Violence and Ethnicity in a Contested City (2016), noted that “seventy-nine volumes, most of them books that had been borrowed and not returned by their Russian readers prior to the precipitous retreat of the Russian troops.” Maybe it was stolen at an even earlier date. The image of a French Waffen-SS member making off with looted books from Polish cultural institutions was, however, too vivid and disturbing for Dębski, Janecki, et al. to ignore.
The Parisian book dealer Patrick Hatchuel, who sold the volume to the Élysée Palace for around €2,500 so that it could then be delivered to the pope, was soon starting to feel the heat. Fortunately, he was in possession of a solid alibi. His sale listing for the Kant translation had the usual condition descriptions — “cartonnage frotté, coiffes usées. Piqûres éparses. Bon exemplaire, dans sa première reliure” (“rubbed cardboard, worn caps. Scattered punctures. Good copy, in its first binding”) — but also a bit about its provenance. Elsewhere in the book, but not visible in the first photographs to be published, was a pasted label bearing the words:
The Librarie Lucien Bodin was, at the turn of the 20th century, located at 43, Quai des Grands-Augustins, in the Parisian quartier Monnaie, and specialized in books relating to the occult sciences — alchemy, extrasensory visions, and the like. How Kant’s political treatise fit into such offerings is unclear, but the bookplate enabled Hatchuel to propose the following chronology: the book was in the possession of the Czytelnia Akademicka as early as 1867, but in Monsieur Bodin’s shop circa 1900, and then Hatchuel purchased the volume from “the son of a private collector who had owned it for half a century,” all of which meant that “there is no doubt that this book was already in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. There can be no question of plunder.”
Polish Cultural Minister Piotr Gliński was inclined to agree, declaring that the volume “is not a Polish war loss. Contrary to the claims of some media, everything indicates … [that it] was in France at the start of the 20th century.” (However, Gliński did not pass up the chance to remind the French government that Jan van Goyen’s landscape painting The Dutch River Bank, looted from a Wrocław collection during the Second World War, remains in the Louvre Museum despite repeated requests for restitution). The Ossoliński Institute agreed, accepting the French version of events, and the matter was considered settled. Something of a damp squib, all things considered.
That said, it is not wholly outside the realm of possibility that a plundered book could have a misleading plate affixed to it, the better to throw off the scent of those searching for war loot. “Systematic recurrences of inadequate provenance certitude,” wrote Patty Gerstenblith in her 2019 article “Provenances: Real, Fake, and Questionable,” “are symptomatic of the larger problem of methodology and standards of evidence in claiming documented provenance.” We have no reason, however, to doubt the authenticity of the Bodin label, and if the Polish Ministry of Culture and the Ossoliński Institute are satisfied with Hatchuel’s explanation, that should probably be sufficient, even though I am not sure that is the end of this story. The parties involved seem decidedly incurious as to how this precious antiquarian book would have traveled from the Academic Reading Room in Habsburg Galicia to a creepy little bookshop in fin-de-siècle Paris. There are no marks on the tome indicating that it had been withdrawn from circulation, and it seems unlikely that the library would have disposed of such a valuable volume, let alone in such a way that it would end up where it did. If we are to accept Hatchuel’s chronology, then we must consider the possibility that the copy of Perpetual Peace was purloined after all, just at an earlier date than previously supposed, and not within the context of world war and genocide. The pope’s gift may not have been war loot, but it might be stolen goods all the same.
READ MORE BY MATTHEW OMOLESKY: The Spiritual Mob
The journey of this particular copy of Kant’s masterpiece has been long and meandering. Printed in Königsberg, it helped line the shelves of a Lviv reading room, before making its way to Paris, where it spent decades in a private collection, only to find itself in Vatican City, where it would attract unprecedented attention. Perhaps the Vatican will at some point send the volume to Wrocław or Lviv, where I suspect it belongs. In any event, this leather-bound volume has certainly retained its relevance over the centuries. This particular book reminds us of that lost Habsburg era when reading rooms and self-help societies proliferated throughout Poland and Ukraine. “My former home, the monarchy, was a large house with many doors and many rooms for many different kinds of people,” wrote the novelist Joseph Roth, who was born in Brody and studied in Lviv. “This house has been divided, broken up, ruined,” just like the Academic Reading Room. It reminds us of its content, with its theory of perpetual peace predicated on republicanism and universal hospitality, and its rejection of the notion of a world government, which would only lead to tyranny. Kant insisted that “no independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion of another state by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or donation,” but the year that Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch was published — 1795 — was the year Poland suffered its third and most disastrous partition, the year when the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was dissolved forever. Today, as Russia seeks the partition of Ukraine by force, we see how clear-eyed Kant was, but how far we have to go to achieve his worthy goals. And it reminds us of the lasting importance of books, even in our digital age, and how, in the words of Nicolás Gómez Dávila, “serious books do not instruct, but rather demand explanations.”