Nazi book burnings  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Nazi book burnings were a campaign conducted by the authorities of Nazi Germany to ceremonially burn all books in Germany which did not correspond with Nazi ideology.



In 1933, Nazi Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels began the synchronization of culture, by which the arts were brought in line with Nazi goals. The government purged cultural organizations of Jews and others alleged to be politically or artistically suspect.

German university students were among the vanguard of the Nazi movement, and in the late 1920s many filled the ranks of various Nazi formations. The ultra-nationalism and antisemitism of middle-class, secular student organizations had been intense and vocal for decades. After World War I, most students opposed the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and found in National Socialism a suitable vehicle for their political discontent and hostility.

The book-burning campaign

On April 6, 1933, the German Student Association's Main Office for Press and Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide "Action against the Un-German Spirit", to climax in a literary purge or "cleansing" ("Säuberung") by fire. Local chapters were to supply the press with releases and commissioned articles, sponsor well-known Nazi figures to speak at public gatherings, and negotiate for radio broadcast time. On April 8 the students association also drafted its twelve "theses", deliberately evoking Martin Luther; the theses declared and outlined a "pure" national language and culture. Placards publicized the theses, which attacked "Jewish intellectualism", asserted the need to "purify" German language and literature, and demanded that universities be centers of German nationalism. The students 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 the students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of "un-German" books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the night of May 10, in most university towns, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades "against the un-German spirit." The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, rectors, and student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and unwanted books into the bonfires with great joyous ceremony, band-playing, songs, "fire oaths," and incantations.

Not all book burnings took place on May 10, as the German Student Association had planned. Some were postponed a few days because of rain. Others, based on local chapter preference, took place on June 21, the summer solstice, a traditional date of celebration. Nonetheless, in 34 university towns across Germany the "Action against the Un-German Spirit" was a success, enlisting widespread newspaper coverage. And in some places, notably Berlin, radio broadcasts brought the speeches, songs, and ceremonial incantations "live" to countless German listeners.

Targeted works

Richard Euringer, director of the libraries in Essen, has identified 18,000 works which were publicly burned. The works of some 25 writers were consigned to the flames, including those of leading German writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Alfred Kerr, as well as those of American authors Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller. In May 1933, books published by Jewish authors such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Maxim Gorky, Heinrich Heine and Walter Rathenau were burned in front of the University of Berlin. (On the exact spot where the book-burning took place, visitors today can see a plate glass window placed level with the ground beneath which you can peer into a small empty room lined with empty bookshelves). In 1940 at Lublin, Poland, the vast judaic library of Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was carted to the city's market place and burned. The conflagagration lasted twenty hours.

Literary aftermath

Speaking at the burning of the books, Goebbels announced that "the soul of the German people can express itself again. The flames not only illuminate the end of the old era, they also light up the new." To fill the gap, Goebbels delegated control of literature to Department VIII of his own Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The department quickly set up a set of standards to which all aspiring writers were obliged to conform. Work had to be produced in any one of four categories: Fronterlebnis, stressing the camraderie of war; Weltanschauung, reflecting the Nazis world view; Heimatroman, stressing the national mystique of the German localities; and Rassenkunde, reflecting Nazi views on race.

Writers working within this bureaucratic system included people like Werner Bumelburg, who wrote sentimental novels about comradeship in the Great War, Rudolf Binding, and Bōrries von Münchausen, who wrote pseudo-Medieval epics. The few writers who stood out included Hans Grimm and Gottfried Benn, who, though initially supportive of National Socialism, later turned hostile. Others like Ernst Jünger, though a hero of the German right, had always maintained a sense of personal distance.

Successor campaign

In 1946 the Allied occupation authorities drew up a list of over 30,000 titles, ranging from school books to poetry and including works by such authors as von Clausewitz. Millions of copies of these books were confiscated and destroyed. The representative of the Military Directorate admitted that the order in principle was no different from the Nazi book burnings.

List of authors whose books were burnt

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