Michael Shaughnessy reports the untold story of Frieda Thiersch—and the mysteries of her life, her motives and her books
Handcrafted bookbinding is an art that continues to this day. Though mechanical presses took over most production more than a century ago, artists still train to craft singular works of art by hand. The fetishism surrounding hand-bound volumes was also a part of the Nazi search to redefine a cultural aesthetic, and the party commissioned works from a variety of artists. But it was one woman, Frieda Thiersch, who made some of the most revered volumes—and gained the favor of the highest members of the Nazi party.
Her life and artistic output were full of tragic twists and exploitation, which culminated in her working in cooperation with the Nazis towards a new aesthetic surrounding paper ephemera and hand-bound volumes. And, unlike some Nazi artists, she died in poverty, alone, surrounded in mystery, with much of her work destroyed and her life forgotten.
A Rough Beginning
The early life of Frieda Thiersch (1889-1947), daughter of the renowned Munich architect, Friedrich von Thiersch, was a life of privilege and art. In the shadow of her famous father, she served as a model for a statue of Athena, which stands watch on the Maximiliansbrücke in Munich.
This detail, like many in Frieda’s life, has been obscured, if not forgotten, since the bridge is a masterpiece of the father. Indeed, even Thierschstraße in the old part of town reminds us of the father, though it is also known for an Austrian painter / politician who resided there from 1920-29. The limited number of articles about Frieda, written mostly during the Nazi dictatorship, invariably begin with a description of her father’s accomplishments for two reasons. At the time when there was an obvious focus on the supposed genetic superiority of the “Germanic people,” a reference to her lineage was crucial. Furthermore, and perhaps more important for the span of her life, it seems as if Frieda was always in someone’s shadow and actively sought to be recognized. Despite the press she received during her lifetime, in death she remains the forgotten female of bookbinding.
In her famously artistic family, art was encouraged as a matter of course. Frieda was a talented sketch artist and was given many opportunities to explore artistic endeavors --including the opportunity to learn to play the piano. In one of many instances where she would be exploited in her life, her artistic venture in piano led her to fall victim to a Don Juan style bet. Her family commissioned the renowned tenor and composer Ludwig Hess (1877-1944) as Frieda’s private tutor. Simultaneously, he was challenged by his friends to seduce the young Frieda. He succeeded in his wager, impregnating her and bringing on a series of events that would shape Frieda’s life in ways she could not have imagined.
Upon learning of his daughter’s pregnancy, Frieda’s father refused to speak to her as she had brought shame upon the family. She didn’t see her “piano teacher” again, and was subsequently sent away to France for “the cure” or a chance to bring her child to term without anyone in Munich society knowing. After the birth of her child, whom she would not be allowed to see for ten years, she was sent away again to England to learn a practical trade. She ended up at the bindery of the Scottish master Charles McLeish in London. From 1910 to 1912, she learned the art of bookbinding and was so adept that the master binder wrote of her:
“While with us Miss Thiersch worked the full workman’s time to become very efficient in her craft, both book binding and design.
We have no hesitation in saying that Miss Thiersch became the most skillful pupil we ever had and we considered her, at the time of leaving us, equal to any professional. We understand that she became professional at Münich, & her Exhibition of bindings held in London a few years ago was very much admired for the excellence of work & design. We consider also that Miss Thiersch would make an excellent Teacher of the Craft.
Chas. X McLeish for Mc Leish & Sons.”
In 1913, Thiersch returned to Munich with the intent of applying her newly acquired skills as a bookbinder, only to have her artistic career interrupted again by the war. When WWI started, she enlisted and served as a nurse.
After WWI, she started working for the Bremer Presse, the premier bookbinder in Germany and one of only two in Germany considered to be a world-class bookbindery.
She quickly demonstrated her exceptional talent for the Bremer Presse in Munich, and infused her own style on the bindings, one of simplicity as opposed to ornate illustrations.
Her works had developed such a reputation that in 1930 (other sources say 1931) she received a special rush order from the Vatican for a copy of Missale Romanum, the instructions and prayers for celebrating mass to be used by the Pope. The order came in at 10 a.m. and was to be finished by four the following afternoon. According to Fritz Krinitz, who worked for years with Thiersch, she worked through the night to bind the book. Pope Pius XI sent Thiersch a letter of thanks saying he used the book on a daily basis. The book is presumably in the Vatican archives today. Frieda would often photograph the covers of her books for her records. The few photos that have survived are housed in a private collection in a Munich apartment.
The owner of the Bremer Presse hampered Frieda’s success and recognition. According to Tierch’s family members, he recognized and exploited her talents, taking both the credit and financial gains for her work on projects. Perhaps as a result of the owner’s exploitation and harassment, Frieda chose to strike out on her own and sought independent contracts for bookbinding and leatherwork.
The 1920s and early thirties were tumultuous and violent times in Munich and Frieda was still searching for her place in life. She was shamed by her family for being seduced by her teacher and remained undervalued despite being one of the top bookbinders in Europe. As a freelance contractor in Munich in the early thirties, she was bound to know of the rise of the Nazi party and know many of the members who also circulated in the artistic social circles. She was after all, a member of the German Artist’s Federation and exhibited her work whenever she could. She was said, however, to shun the societal aspects of the Nazi establishment, but pursued it due to her own quiet ambition for recognition as a bookbinder.
From Obscurity to The Inner Circle
What happened next is a bit unclear and written documentation is scarce. At some point, Frieda worked her way into the inner circle of evil leadership; she took on contract work for the Nazis. The earliest known contracts for the Nazis are her handmade certificates and binders granting honorary citizenship to the Free State of Bavaria presented on April 20, 1933 to the following dignitaries: Franz Ritter von Epp, Reichspräsident von Hindenburg, and Adolf Hitler. (The certificates were presented on April 20, 1933.)
It was the first time the government celebrated Hitler’s birthday as a national holiday and oddly enough there appears to be no evidence of the citizenship being revoked as it has been elsewhere.
Perhaps because of her work on the earlier certificate, Frieda’s name was suggested for a special commission in 1937. Gerdy Troost, art critic and wife of Paul Troost, one of Hitler’s personally chosen architects, knew Frieda well enough to suggest her for a commission to make a certificate and award for Benito Mussolini during his visit to Munich.
The red leather cover of the book commemorating Mussolini’s visit features an embossed eagle with gold leaf accents. Frieda’s design led to the creation of the special Knight’s Cross Eagle, which was used for the first time here in 1937, and became a standard Nazi award insignia thereafter.
Hitler wanted to offer his special friends elaborate certificates with leather-bound box enclosures and in this case, on Gerdy Troost’s recommendation, Hitler personally commissioned Frieda Thiersch.
This 1937 book highlighted the city of Munich and the new national socialist aesthetic. The small hand-colored sketches in the book show a city covered in flags. Viewing these images it is not hard to imagine why, to this day, Germans are uneasy with the display of flags in their cities.
Later that same year, she bound the text to Hitler’s opening speech for the House of German Art and helped design exterior ceiling motifs that are still visible.
The German Question:
There are many “German” questions that also pertain to Frieda’s life: how and why did she decide to sign up with the Nazis? The available records haven’t revealed the full timeline of her involvement, only snapshots of her rise to prominence within the Nazi party. Was Frieda an opportunist or an artist desperately seeking her justified recognition? Was making Nazi certificates and adapting Swastika motives more significant to her than binding books?
Her long time co-worker Fritz Krinitz appears to be the only person to ever write in detail about Frieda. His article focused primarily on her artistic work, but when addressing her reasons for working with the NSDAP, his statement obscures and relativizes the close work she did with the Nazi leadership.
“Frieda Thiersch’s workshop in Munich was, like many other important workshops of craftsmanship in the years 1933-1945, called upon for public commissions.”
The obscurity of language in the quote indicates a post-war view that artists were somehow forced into work with the national socialists, when in many cases it was the work with the Nazis that brought them fame and prosperity.
The only documented quote from Frieda during the Nazi Regime indicates that she was not forced, but given the opportunities she specifically sought.
“The new era, that has done so much for many art academies and has a great deal of understanding for handcrafted work, will create a lot of work. … A new audience is growing that will again have a personal relationship with the master book binder.”
Whatever her reasons, recognition came swiftly and resolutely. As of 1939, she was working steadily with Gerdy Troost on commissions as the bookbinder for the Third Reich. Her commissions were therefore numerous and high level. She handcrafted
Adolf Hitler’s signature leather books such as his personal guest book at the Braunes Haus in Munich. (Pictured Below)
Hitler’s Private Library of German Genius
In the Third Reich, she stumbled into a central role with the top leadership through her artistic talents of bookbinding. She made certificates and the cassette to grant Hermann Goering the Großkreuz, and also the national prize for art and science to Gerhard Troost, and also was commissioned to bind “works of German genius” for Hitler's private library at Obersalzburg.
Her work was described in the following way: “Probably no one up until now has dealt with the motif of the Swastika so naturally, completely, and thoroughly as Frieda Thiersch.”
Timoty Ryback wrote a recent book about Hitler’s private library which housed many of Thiersch’s bindings. The guest book from the Berghof, pictured below, according to Rybeck, was confiscated by a French soldier.
The true extent of her commissions for the Third Reich may never be known, since most of her works and records were destroyed in 1944.
What remains are the books, bound by her hands, most of them prior to the Nazi dictatorship. The only known archive of Thiersch materials is privately held. Other items show up here and there at book auctions, some fetching high prices. There are expensive Tiersch-bound editions of Shakespeare prized by collectors and valued up to $20,000.
There are also the numerous bindings related to the NSDAP prized by people who fetishize such objects not for their artistic value, but for their objet d’art connection to the Third Reich.
One such work, that sends shudders down the spine, is an “SS Fotoalbum” with the inscription:
“In Memory of my training at the NCO Leadership School in Dachau.” SS officers, housed at the concentration camp just outside of Munich, were presumably given a hand-bound photo album to commemorate their experiences training in the infamous camp.
Thiersch’s works for the Nazi machinery in many ways overshadow her earlier works -–hand bound volumes of world literature prized by collectors of a different ilk. Book collectors know a different story. The state library in Munich exhibited her works in 2006 and the University of Hamburg has a standing collection of important books including one of her bindings. In 1984, a large-scale auction of her works in London offered only her works prior to 1933. If you can find them, her early bound books typically sell for thousands of dollars. Currently, you can pick up a copy of Sappho’s poems in Greek , A German Edition of Robinson Crusoe , Dante’s the Divine Comedy, or a signed Thomas Mann Novella . Verification of the work is fairly easy. If she made the book herself, she would print her entire name in the binding or on the final pages. If the book was hand made by one of her assistants, under her supervision, it would only read F.TH.
That very little has been written about her makes some sense. Here was a very successful female artist in an obscure medium that at some point decided to cash in her talents and conncetons for association with the powerful. She wasn’t the only artist to do this during the Nazi dictatorship, but her meteoric rise to the highest circles of the Third Reich and contemporary obscurity is extraordinary considering her reputation with Hitler, rare book collectors, and even the Pope. Her commissions to make Hitler’s personal library of German literature have gone completely unnoticed by experts in German literature. Perhaps this is all due to the fact that the value of her bookbinding and certificate making quickly became superfluous when the tide of the war turned. As the poet Friedrich Hölderlin said, “Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?” “Why have poets in times of woe?”
In 1944 her workshop at Georgenstraße 16 in Schwabing was destroyed by an incendiary bomb and with it most of her art, her business records, and remaining books. She kept a few pieces around at her country house in Landsberg and was able to bring a small collection of her works back to her new apartment north of the city on Dietlindenstraße in 1945.
With the fall of the Nazi dictatorship, Frieda found herself out of work crafting ceremonial ephemera for the Nazis. She then started to use her skills at the end of the war and immediately thereafter to make simple leather good like wallets, purses, and belts. She turned her craft towards practical objet d’art, such as the cigarette case pictured here. These items went unsigned and only a few can be verifiably traced to Frieda.
Frieda Thiersch Cigarette Case (Private Collection)
The Unsolved Mystery
When the American allied forces occupied Munich in 1945, Frieda was selling her craft goods in order to earn any money she could. With her high-level associations in the Nazi party, she had tried to remain somewhat inconspicuous.
The last chapter in her life remains unwritten as it contains an unsolved mystery that hints at a visit from a “Monuments Man.” On December 29, 1945, Frieda received a very special, unannounced visitor in her apartment just north of the city. An “American,” claiming to be from the DISCC (District Information Services Control Command) appeared at her door looking for a book. He was not looking for just any book, but a very specific hand bound Luther bible. A picture of the spine is shown below.
The visitor was a “gentleman dressed in military clothing with no insignia”.
He entered Frieda’s apartment and searched it thoroughly. He found several books including the Bible he came for, works by Homer, Bacon, Goethe, Vogelweide, and Nietzsche.
He took all of them with him and did something unexpected. He left a receipt.
He listed his name as “Hugh Johnston, Jr.”, left a small amount of money, and described his action as a “forced sale- Zwangsverkauf”, a term also used for Nazi appropriation of Jewish property or a “sale under duress”.
His handwritten note from December 29, 1945 reads:
“I have this day removed the following books:”
Frieda returned to find some of her last books missing with only the “receipt” to show for it. She filed an official complaint with the American Military Government in Munich. The local military office claimed to have no “Hugh Johnston, Jr.” registered in Munich. The books were never recovered.
Frieda had been seeking recognition her entire life, but the last remaining moment of fame was relegated to a mysterious book lover from the U.S. occupying forces that sought her out in order to retrieve a precious bible and other books of literature. Whether the mysterious visitor was really named Hugh Johnston, Jr. or not is unknown. There are still a number of Hugh Johnston Jrs. alive today, but none have responded to inquiries sent out concerning the Thiersch Bible.
Frieda Thiersch died of lung cancer on July 11, 1947. An obituary ran on Radio Frankfurt a month later, but her end passed mostly unnoticed. A number of her family members emigrated to the USA, while others remained in Munich. Today she is largely a footnote in the history of the Third Reich.
Despite her relative obscurity in the history of the Third Reich, two distinct groups have grown to value her works: bibliophiles and collectors of Nazi ephemera. Her “Orden” or Medals for specific promotions within the upper echelons of the Nazi party are too expensive and rare in the original so they are reproduced and still sold at high prices. Any original works by her created from 1933-1944 are highly valued more for their historical associations with the Nazi party than due to their artistic merit. For Nazi fetishists, Frieda’s name means something, even when printed on a reproduction.
Nevertheless, the bright spot in the history of Frieda Thiersch is that her original bookbindings (1914-1933) handily outsell the Nazi collectibles she created. Pre-1933 bindings go for $1,000-$10,000 per book. Bindings post 1933 go for about $500. Her legacy, according to the open market, has found the most value in her artistic endeavors to lovingly hand bound books of western literature. In the end she may be forgotten in Germany, existing without the requisite Wikipedia entry afforded to even minor actors in history, but her legacy lives through her leather work and is cherished most of all by bibliophiles. As the recent discovery of artworks in a Munich apartment have demonstrated, there are many important historical artifacts that have yet to surface. My research in to Frieda Thiersch has uncovered more mysteries than answers, and despite my success in stumbling upon a hidden archive in another Munich apartment, there is surely more to be discovered regarding Frieda Thiersch.
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