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2013 marks the 80th anniversary of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists in Germany. One of the most famous events of that year took place on May 10th 1933 with the public book burning of over 25,000 “un-German” books on Opernplatz in Berlin (now renamed Bebelplatz). This spotlight will examine this event and its coverage within the UL collections.

At the beginning of April 1933, the German Student Association proclaimed a nationwide “action against the un-German spirit” throughout German universities. The aim was to remove undesirable professors from their posts, to blacklist “un-German” books and to purify libraries according to National Socialist principles.

Nazi book burning in Berlin, May 10th 1933 (source)

The campaign reached its climax on the night of May 10th 1933 when students in over 20 university towns across Germany marched in torchlight parades to public book burnings. Students threw books onto bonfires, accompanied by marching bands, songs, incantations, fire oaths, speeches and ritualised ceremonies. The highlight of the evening was the public burning of over 25,000 “un-German” books on Opernplatz in Berlin, which was carried out by students, professors in academic robes and members of the SA, SS and Hitler Youth paramilitary organisations. The event was accompanied by music from SA and SS bands, broadcast live on German radio and filmed by the weekly newsreel “Wochenschau”. At midnight, the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, addressed a crowd of over 50,000 people and condemned works written by Jews, liberals, leftists, pacifists, foreigners and others as “un-German”. Not all book burnings took place on May 10th. Some were postponed because of rain and some took place at the Summer solstice, a traditional date for bonfire celebrations in Germany. Nevertheless, the night witnessed public book burnings in university towns across Germany and the “action against the un-German spirit” was hailed by the press as a great success.

The latest research on the Nazi book burnings is currently being conducted by the Moses Mendelssohn Zentrum für europäisch-jüdische Studien in Potsdam. The UL holds two of their comprehensive publications: “Julius H. Schoeps & Werner Tress (eds.) : Verfemt und verboten, Vorgeschichte und Folgen der Bücherverbrennungen (2010)” at 571:75.c.201.68, which chronicles the history of the event and its consequences and includes a select bibliography listing some of the burnt books, and “Julius H. Schoeps & Werner Tress (eds.) : Orte der Bücherverbrennungen in Deutschland 1933 (2008)” at 571:75.c.200.392, which examines the event at a more local level throughout Germany. The UL also holds further seminal books on the Nazi book burnings, such as “Werner Tress : Wider den undeutschen Geist! Bücherverbrennung 1933 (2003)” at 571:75.c.200.222, Hans-Herbert Wintgens & Gerard Oppermann (eds.) : 1933, verbrannte Bücher, verbrannte Autoren (2006)” at 746:15.c.200.426 and “Volker Weidermann : Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher (2008)” at C205.c.9415.

The librarian Wolfgang Hermann was instrumental in drawing up the blacklist of books to be burnt, which was published in Börsenblatt, the trade magazine for the German publishing industry. More than 2,500 authors were consigned to the flames. Among the famous German-speaking authors were Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Karl Marx and Stefan Zweig. The list included authors such as the 1929 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, targeted for his support of the Weimar Republic, and international best-selling author Erich Maria Remarque whose “All Quiet on the Western Front” was vilified as a betrayal of the martyred soldiers of the First World War. The UL holds copies of “Thomas Mann : Der Zauberberg (1924)” at CCC.35.38-39 and “Erich Maria Remarque : Im Westen nichts neues (1929)” at 748:35.d.90.607. The writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaser and Erich Kästner were particularly targeted in Goebbels’ speech, even though Mann was better known for the 1930 film “The Blue Angel” rather than his burnt book “Heinrich Mann : Das öffentliche Leben (1932)”, held by the UL at S746.d.92.10. Kästner was better known for the children’s literature classic “Erich Kästner : Emil und die Detektive (1934)” held by the UL at 748:35.d.90.1107. He was also the only blacklisted author known to be present that night at Opernplatz, who bore witness to the Nazi book burning.

It wasn’t only German-speaking authors whose books were burned, but also American writers like Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, French writers like Victor Hugo and André Gide, English writers like D.H. Lawrence and H.G. Wells and Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The list included “Ernest Hemingway : In einem anderen Land (1931)” held by the UL at 9720.d.7899 and “H.G. Wells : Die Geschichte unserer Welt (1932)” held by the UL at 9500.c.692.

The year 1933 marked the beginning of a mass exodus of German writers, artists and intellectuals, who fled Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht fled to America, Sigmund Freud fled to England and Lion Feuchtwanger fled to France, where he was arrested and sent to a prison camp, but escaped and fled to the United States. Those writers who didn’t emigrate, like Erich Kästner, were banned from publishing their works in Germany until after the war. Life in exile is portrayed in “Christina Thurner : Der andere Ort des Erzählens, Exil und Utopie in der Literatur deutscher Emigrantinnen und Emigranten 1933-1945 (2003)” at 746:15.c.200.223 and “Daniel Azuelos (ed.) : Lion Feuchtwanger und die deutschsprachigen Emigranten in Frankreich von 1933 bis 1941 (2006)” at P701:4.c.40.79.

A memorial to the Nazi book burning, Berlin 2006

The Nazi book burnings were commemorated on their 50th anniversary in 1983 with an exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and the publication of the exhibition catalogue: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur… Bücherverbrennung Deutschland 1933. Ausstellung der Akademie der Künste vom 8. Mai bis 3. Juli 1983 (1983)” held by the UL at 9570.c.213. The 70th anniversary was likewise commemorated in 2003 with an exhibition held at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Berlin and the publication of their exhibition catalogue: “Erhard Stang & Detlev Brunner (eds.) : Verbrannt, geraubt, gerettet! Bücherverbrennungen in Deutschland. Eine Ausstellung der Bibliothek der Friedrich Ebert Stiftung anlässlich des 70. Jahrestages (2003)” held at 2005.11.6. This year the book burnings have been remembered as part of Berlin’s 2013 Theme Year in an exhibition commemorating Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 entitled “Zerstörte Vielfalt”, which has been held at various memorial sites throughout Berlin.

The nineteenth century German Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, whose works were also burnt on May 10th 1933, wrote in his 1821 play “Almansor”, “Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” – “Where they burn books, they will end up burning people”. This prophecy was tragically fulfilled during the Holocaust a few years later.

L. Noble