Book burning refers to the ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials. Usually administered in public context, the burning of books represents a element of censorship & typically proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question.
A 19th Century Precedent
The May 1933 book burning in Nazi Germany had precedent in 19th century Germany. In 1817, German student associations chose the 300th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses to carry a festival at the Wartburg, A Castle In Thuringia where Luther had sought sanctuary after his excommunication. the scholars , demonstrating for a unified country—Germany was then a patchwork of states—burned anti-national & reactionary texts and literature which the scholars viewed as “Un-German.”
“Synchronizing” Culture with Nazi Ideology
In 1933, Nazi German authorities aimed to synchronize professional & cultural organizations with Nazi ideology and policy. Joseph Goebbels , Nazi Minister for Popular Enlightenment & Propaganda, began an attempt to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi goals. the govt purged cultural organizations of Jewish and other officials imagined to be politically suspect or who performed or created art works which Nazi ideologues labeled “degenerate.”
In an attempt to synchronize the literary community, Goebbels had a robust ally within the Nazi German Students’ Association (Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, or NSDStB). German university students were among the vanguard of early Nazi movement, and in late 1920s, many filled the ranks of varied Nazi formations. The ultra-nationalism and antisemitism of middle-class, secular student organizations had been intense and vocal for many years . After WW1 (World War 1), many students opposed the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and located in Nazism an appropriate vehicle for his or her political discontent and hostility.
On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s headquarters for Press & Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” to climax during a literary purge or “cleansing” (Säuberung) by fire. Local chapters were to supply press with releases and commissioned articles, offer blacklists of “un-German” authors, sponsor well-known Nazi figures to speak at public-gatherings, & negotiate for broadcast time.
On April 8 the students’ association also drafted its 12 “theses”—a deliberate evocation of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: declarations which described the basics of a “pure“ national language & culture. Placards publicized the theses, which attacked “Jewish intellectualism,” asserted the necessity to “purify” the German and literature, and demanded that universities be centers of German nationalism. the scholars described the “action” as a response to a worldwide Jewish “smear campaign” against Germany and an affirmation of traditional German values.
In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals involved high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and college student leaders to deal with the participants and spectators.
At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.” In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in Opernplatz to listen to Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence & moral corruption!” Goebbels enjoined crowd. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”
Targeted Authors & Works
Among the authors whose books student leaders burned that night were well-known socialists like Brecht & August Bebel; the founding father of the concept of communism, Karl Marx; critical “bourgeois” writers just like the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler; & “corrupting foreign influences,” among them American author Ernest Hemingway .
The fires also consumed several writings of the 1929 Nobel Prize-winning German author Mann , whose support of the Weimar Republic and critique of fascism raised Nazi ire. Also burned were works of international best-selling author Erich Maria Remarque. Nazi ideologues vilified Remarque’s unflinching description of war, All Quiet on the Western Front, as “a literary betrayal of the soldiers of the WW.” Works by early German literary critics of the Nazi regime were also burned, like those of Erich Kästner, Heinrich Mann, & Ernst Gläser.
Other writers included on the blacklists were American authors Jack London , Theodore Dreiser & Helen Keller , whose belief in social justice encouraged her to champion the disabled, pacifism, improved conditions for industrial workers, & women’s voting rights.
Also among those works burned were the writings of beloved 19th century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820–1821 play Almansor the famous admonition, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”: “Where they burn books, they’re going to also ultimately burn people.”
Not all book burnings happened on May 10, because the German Student Association had planned. Some were postponed a couple of days due to rain. Others, supported local chapter preference, happened on summer solstice , the June 21, a standard date for bonfire celebrations in Germany.
Nonetheless, in 34 university towns across Germany the May 10th “Action against the Un-German Spirit” was a hit , receiving widespread newspaper coverage. In some cities, notably Berlin, radio broadcasts brought the speeches, songs, and ceremonial chants “live“ to countless German listeners. The promotion of “Aryan” culture and therefore the suppression of other sorts of art was yet one more Nazi effort to “purify” Germany.
Why do Totalitarian Regimes Often Target Culture?
In this short film, a Holocaust survivor, an Iranian author, an American critic , and 2 Museum historians discuss the Nazi book burnings & why totalitarian regimes often target culture, particularly literature.