In the middle of a massive square in the heart of Berlin, is a sunken library. It can hold around 20,000 books. But its white shelves are empty. And it is not accessible. Visitors can only look down at it through a square pane of glass in the ground.
The square, Bebelplatz, is usually a quiet place, especially at night when the light from within the library shines clearest.
On 10 May 1933, the atmosphere on the square was starkly different, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
That night, there was much singing and band playing. There were speeches and oaths, even incantations. About 40,000 Nazis and their supporters were gathered, including intellectuals, Ministers and the key actors, student groups who had marched to the venue bearing torches.
The students also carried something else: books and journals. In the centre of the square, over 20,000 pieces of literature were burned that night in a huge bonfire. And that was in Berlin alone.
This choreographed scene was played out in university towns all over Germany on this and subsequent days as part of an “Action Against the un-German Spirit”.
The meticulously planned “cleansing” campaign, with its trademark Nazi use of propaganda, ritual and ceremony, also typically appropriated something older. In this case, it was the 1817 burning of ‘reactionary’ books by students in Wartburg, who wanted a united Germany after the Napoleonic Wars.
The event augured the constricting of press freedom and imposing of censorship that helped keep the Nazis in power.
Not only were works of “Jewish intellectualism” burned, so were those “espousing” any ideology considered deleterious to Nazism, which netted every ‘ism’ there was from communism to liberalism.
There were other criteria too, such as “over-valuation of sexual activity”, “betrayal of WWII soldiers” and “impudence and presumption”.
Hence, turned to ashes were the works of manifold authors including Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Helen Keller, Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and James Joyce. Some works disappeared forever.
Today at the Bebelplatz memorial, there is a quote by Heinrich Heine, who was also on the book-burning list: “Dies war ein Vorspiel nur, dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“This was a mere prelude; wherever man burns books, finally will man also burn people.”)
Heine wrote this 112 years before the Bebelplatz event. It appeared in a play in the context of the burning of the Quran by Christian knights in Spanish Granada.
Because Bebelplatz is located on the famous Unter den Linden tourist strip, we ended up bringing all our visitors there and photographing each and every one of them at the memorial.
It wasn’t intentional but I am glad we did that especially when I found archival photos of the book burning on Wikimedia.
I scrutinised the faces photographed and read in them joy, excitement and pride. It was a carnival. How many foresaw though that it would lead to what it did? ω
» The book list was compiled by a single man, a librarian. He had been independently compiling lists of ‘undesirable’ literature to ban for years as part of a “new order” for libraries.
» One targeted author was present at the burning. Erich Kästner, one of several named in the opening burning ritual as ‘typifying’ “decadence and moral decay”, watched his work go up in flames.
» On the first anniversary of the Berlin book-burning, a Bibliothek der verbrannten Bücher (Library of Burned Books) was opened in Paris. It aimed to collect all the works that had been burned. It was destroyed when the Nazis invaded Paris. There is no complete collection of the burned books till today.
» After WWII, the Allies gathered all “undemocratic, militaristic and Nazi” literature and destroyed it. As a Time magazine article scathingly put it, “Tombstones were excepted.”
» This story draws from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s excellent online exhibition of the book-burning, called ‘Fighting the Fires of Hate’. It details the history of the event, including images and the outrage it evoked in the US as well as authors’ responses to their books being burned.