On May 10th, 1933, forty thousand German students gathered for a torch-lit procession in Berlin's opera square. German folk music played as students marched in unison around a bonfire. The curling smoke furled into the night air, devouring words. So many words.
Into that fire went 80–90,000 books.
Books by Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud fed the flames, but other books seem illogical — works by Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Helen Keller.
Like most Nazi propaganda, fascist leaders had carefully planned the event. Months before, books were confiscated from libraries, book stores, private collections, and schools. Bonfires were scheduled simultaneously in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Dresden, and Breslau. News coverage of the book burnings was broadcast by radio throughout Germany.
Germany’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, presided over Berlin’s bonfire of inanities. Every German student knew Goebbels was promoting fascism. But Goebbels imbued fascism with modernity, which was far sexier than your grandpa’s fascism.
In his infamous “fire speech,” he proclaimed;
“The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. … The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.”
Ostensibly, those with “character” did not form opinions that opposed the views of the Nazi party. And so intellectualism went up in flames.
But that match had already been lit. Months earlier, German schools declared a cleansing period of “un-German” books. In the following years, the Nazi regime pulled every child’s textbook that didn’t align with their heroic version of history.
Many historians have noted the irony that poet Heinrich Heine’s Almansor books were among the books burned. Almansor had famously written, “Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned.”
“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” — Oscar Wilde
When war beats the snot out of a nation, that nation tends to distrust foreigners and their cultural debris. After WWI, proud Germans raised themselves up by their meritocratic bootstraps to abolish foreign cultural influences. Or at least they tried.
During this time, culture was limited. The middle class consumed high art with the same ferocity that they enjoyed violent boxing matches. Only one in four Germans could afford a radio,¹ but they did have enough discretionary income to consume literature and news at bookstalls or go to their local cinema.
With these small freedoms, liberal ideas flourished.
In the 1920s, Berlin was one such liberal hot spot. People (and women) got the whacky notion that they could read what they like, have opinions, and even flaunt sexual mores. Many blamed that devil’s music jazz for corrupting young minds. To the conservative right, Berlin was a city in crisis.
Part of this crisis was that no one had one definition of German culture. Those at the top saw high culture as a homogenous culture. Any cultural diversity (or diversity in thought) threatened those ideals.
“JA! FÜHRER WIR FOLGEN DIR!” read the propaganda posters. (Yes! Führer we will follow you!)
And so, the flame of radical nationalism was lit.
“…books are not absolutely dead things.” — John Milton
Today we have “fake news.” In the 1930s, it was called “Lügenpresse” (press of lies). Reinhold Anton coined the term in 1914, but its attack was more on enemy propaganda.
Unfortunately, hatred is a many-tentacled beast. Cut off one tentacle, and it grows back longer. By the 1930s, Hitler used his hatred toward journalists to oppose anyone who stood against the “will of the people.” And by “people,” he meant only members of the master Aryan race.
In 1933, Wilhelm Frick was appointed Hitler’s national minister of the interior. Frick used his office to silence any dissenting voices. This silencing included bans on books, movies, and music that opposed the German National Tradition. He even created a mandated list of literature to be included in every library (similar to what is happening in states today).
But Joseph Goebbels saw a more ingenious way to control people’s minds — radio — the 1930s version of Twitter.
At the time, radio was controlled by the post office, owned by the National Broadcasting System. Goebbels seized control of the network and then fired anyone “unpatriotic.”
With absolute control over the radio, Goebbels could steer the people away from jazz music and American films. By 1939, It became illegal to listen to foreign broadcasts. If you were caught, the punishment was the death penalty.
“In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man’s freedom.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
On January 28, 1932, the founder of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle, sat down and penned a prescient letter to media mogul William Randolph Hearst. In his letter, Laemmle begged Hearst to condemn Hitler because; “A protest from you would bring an echo from all corners of the civilized world.”
Laemmle’s echo went unanswered. Hearst believed Laemmle was overreacting and did not condemn Hitler until 1938.
By then, it was too late.
It’s not hard to see why the German-born Jewish Laemmle was worried. The man who gave us such Hollywood classics as Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Dracula understood man’s capacity for evil more than most. But he had not predicted just how far Germany’s far-right’s propaganda machine would reach.
But that dog did bark before it bit.
Two years prior, Universal had released an adaptation of the international bestselling novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. The movie followed the novel’s poignant narrative of a group of German soldiers stationed behind the front lines during the last weeks of WWI.
The film garnered praise from French, British, and US critics, who heralded it as “a stern, objective lesson against war.”
The lesson must have got lost in translation in Germany. Propagandist Joseph Goebbels saw All Quiet’s visceral portrayal of war as an insult to German nationalism. Any film that portrayed a tarnished and defeated Germany must be suppressed. So Goebbels terrorized moviegoers by sending mobs of derelict youngsters into theaters. These Savonarola-like thugs released snakes, mice, and stink bombs during performances.
Only weak men use mice to scare people.
Hitler called for the film’s removal and got his wish. The censorship of All Quiet was the first incidence of Germany controlling the media and essentially silencing free speech on a world stage.
And how did the world stage respond? We did nothing.
“What if there was no civilization left to destroy, only debris, rubbish, easily inflammable?” — Malcolm Muggeridge
In 1941, the Library Journal’s motto became; “In America, we do not burn books. We build libraries.” As Republicans dismantle library collections around the US, can we still make this claim?
National cultural unity and individualism have always made strange bedfellows. When opinions vary, power varies. Free-thinking individuals have the potential to feed pluralism. And that scares the hell out of despotic leaders.
If you don’t believe me, examine what would be more offensive to most Americans — burning the American flag or burning a famous work of literature? Both acts of destruction are symbolic. So why is one symbol stronger than the other?
Destroying a flag symbolizes destroying national unity. Destroying a book symbolizes destroying individualistic thinking and ideas. The former is abhorrent. The latter is tolerated. Or, I should say, the latter is tolerated until it threatens the former.
Book banning will always be a symbol of oppression. A library does not merely contain ideas. A library contains a diversity of ideas. The recent censorship of books across America threatens that diversity. It’s not a coincidence that the books censored in libraries today include plotlines with marginalized characters.
When people are allowed to read what they want, they can also think what they want. Books will always be dangerous in a world that fears the freedom of ideas.
Helen Keller knew this. When she discovered German students burned her books, she confronted them in an open letter:
“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.”
Hellen Keller was, of course, correct. Tyrants cannot kill ideas. But they have killed people.
“Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned.” — Heinrich Heine’s Almansor
The “un-German” cleansing of Nazi Germany repeated in 2021 with an unprecedented and record-breaking banning of 1,597 un-American books.
But Republicans are not stopping at book banning. Recently a Tennessee bill was introduced that prevents books from inclusion in a library without state approval. Once the stalwarts of education and literacy, librarians have now been reduced to mere paper-pushing bookkeepers. Now, every book must be submitted to a state-created committee — a committee that I doubt has the expertise of most librarians.
When Republican State Representative Jerry Sexton was asked what to do with the censored books, his response clearly ignored the lessons of history.
“I would burn them,” he said.
Sexton should remember that book burning is a blood sport that has changed throughout history. When the Arabs burned down the Alexandrian Library or the Goths and Vandals attacked the Roman Empire epicenter of learning, knowledge was lost to history. In the digital age, knowledge cannot be lost. Burning books is pointless pageantry in a world where knowledge is no longer tangible.
Most Republicans know burning books will only anger liberals (and will seriously tar their reputation with future generations.) So they have taken a subtler approach and quietly removed books from libraries for reasons as petty as one parent’s complaint.
And some of those complaints are bordering on the absurd. Recently, comedians poked fun at Florida for banning math textbooks that supposedly promoted CRT.
It’s not so funny when you remember conservatives stole that trick from the Nazi playbook.