How the Nazis burned books first, then people

In 2022, a pastor in the United States burned “Harry Potter” books, evoking memories of Nazi book burnings. Ninety years ago, bonfires in German cities were fueled by books the Nazis called “un-German.”

Nazi book burnings were an undeniable symbol that the progressive spirit of the Weimar Republic had ended (akg-images/picture alliance).
Nazi book burnings were an undeniable symbol that the progressive spirit of the Weimar Republic had ended (akg-images/picture alliance).

On a rainy night in May, German writer Erich Kastner stands among Nazi SA officers and onlookers in front of a pyre that lights Berlin’s Opernplatz, now Babelplatz. Men in black SA uniforms throw piles of books into the fire. Kastner hears his name shouted into the microphone: “Against decadence and moral decay! For discipline and decency in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaser and Erich Kastner!”

Also read: March of Life: Remembering Auschwitz

A barbaric act that reverberates to this day

It is the night of May 10, 1933. In Berlin and 21 other cities in Germany, books are set on fire. It is an act of barbarism that continues to repeat itself to this day.

“If there had been no Nazism; if there had been no book burnings, the cultural diversity and innovative spirit that developed in Germany in the 1920s would certainly have continued,” says historian Warner Trace, author of several important books. subject

But the rise to power of the Nazis put a decisive end to the cultural flowering that Germany had experienced during the Weimar Republic (1919 to 1933). And the burning of the book on May 10 was an undeniable sign of that.

The cultural elite of the Weimar Republic flees

Many of the writers and intellectuals whose books were burned had left Germany by then. Alfred Kerr, Bertolt Brecht, the brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, the siblings Erika and Klaus Mann, Albert Einstein, Else Lasker-Schuller, Irmgard Keun, Ernst Toller—to name just a few—were among the cultural elite of the Weimar Republic. Flee from the Nazis. After the Nazis seized power on 30 January 1933 and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, it became clear to them that they had no future in Germany.

Enemies of the Nazis: Jews, Leftists, Liberals

In the years since their seizure of power, the Nazis had already demonstrated their readiness to fight their opponents—including all Jews, but also actors who disagreed with them politically. Anyone who did not adhere to the Nazis’ ideological line was vilified as “un-German”, their names and deeds added to a constantly updated blacklist.

By May 1933, over 200 writers were blacklisted; A year later, more than 3,500 written works were banned.

Condemnation: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

The Nazis especially hated the novelist Erich Maria Remarque. His 1928 novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” is an unflinching depiction of the horrors of World War I, and it was first adapted for film by Hollywood in the 1930s.

German Nazis and conservatives had previously attacked the book and its pacifist message, accusing it of defaming German soldiers, and when the film version was released in Germany in 1930, SA thugs disrupted screenings and temporarily banned the film.

By May 1933, Remarque also no longer lived in Germany. He traveled to Switzerland shortly before the Nazis seized power in January of that year.

An open letter from an American icon

Erich Kastner was probably the only author to have witnessed the burning of his own books on the night of May 10, 1933. The New York Times published an open letter directed to German university students. The German Student Union was dominated by the Nazis from 1931 and played an important role in organizing book burnings.

“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas,” the letter reads. “Dictators have tried to do that before, and ideas have risen to their power and destroyed them.” Those words were coined by blind and deaf American writer and activist Helen Keller, whose book “How I Became a Socialist” also caught fire in the works of other international writers such as Jack. London, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, Maxim Gorky, Alexandra Kolontai, Jaroslav Hasek and Sholem Ash, to name just a few.

Kästner is known among the crowd

Shortly before midnight on May 10, 1933, a young woman standing at a book burning on Berlin’s Opernplatz called out, “There’s Kästner!”

Eric Kastner became “uncomfortable”, as he later wrote. He left the square, but remained in Germany, somehow keeping his head above water in the following years. As a non-Jew, he was able to survive until the end of the Nazi dictatorship in 1945.

Persecution and death

Others were not so lucky.

Journalist and novelist Karl von Osietzky was arrested in 1933 and died in 1938, after years of imprisonment and torture while under guard in a hospital.

In 1934, anti-militarist journalist Erich Muhsam was murdered in the Oranienburg concentration camp.

And the German-Jewish poet Gertrud Kolmar, who stayed in Berlin to care for her father, died in the Auschwitz extermination camp in 1943.

Those who succeeded in exile abroad often had to start a new life in a new language. For many, it ended their writing careers, as in the cases of Irmgard Kane, author of the 1932 novel “The Artificial Silk Girl” and Alfred Doblin, who wrote “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1929).

Others were driven to suicide by psychological or financial difficulties, or fear of escape, such as Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, and Ernst Toller.

Success in exile

Only a few immigrants to Europe’s cultural scene were able to continue their careers, such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann.

Historian Trace says, “The influx of immigrants from Germany was a great boon to American universities and cultural institutions, from which they benefit to this day. But I would say that in Germany we have not yet recovered from that loss. It meant to us.”

Where books burn, people eventually burn

What is today Berlin’s Babelplatz is a memorial to the book-burning, a 1995 work by Israeli sculptor Mika Ullmann titled, “The Empty Library”—an underground room lined with empty white bookshelves, visible through glass set on the sidewalk. A nearby plaque reads, “Where books burn, eventually people burn.”

Those words, written by the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine in the 1820s, became a terrifying reality in Nazi Germany.

“In 1933, the Nazis burned books, and in 1938 they burned synagogues,” Treas says. “And in 1942 and 1943, in the Shoah, the organized genocide of European Jews, people were burned.”

Not a Nazi invention

Heinrich Heine was not a contender; His words were in reference to book burning in medieval Spain.

The Nazis were by no means the inventors of this barbaric act, which has a long tradition. Books (and people) were burned throughout the centuries-long histories of both Christianity and Islam, as well as in ancient Greece and China, and more recently, in Iran and Russia.

Totalitarian regimes around the world fear the power wielded by free speech to question their dominance—and in the case of the Nazis, so much so that they included Heinrich Heine among the works burned on May 10, 1933, more than 70 years after the poet died in exile in Paris.

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