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Books can represent a love of life, of people, of God, and of the human spirit.
Why did the Nazis burn books? What was America’s reaction to the Nazi bookburnings? Why did they burn the work of certain authors?
Answers to these haunting questions are suggested in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibition “Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings,” which was on display at Northern State University in South Dakota until Jan. 24 and moves to the New College of Florida (in Sarasota, Fla.) from Feb. 3-April 2.
According to Edward Phillips, exhibitions director at the museum, the particularly public book burnings in Nazi Germany during the spring of 1933 represent the first use of this form of propaganda in modern history.
“In the decades since, the notion of book burnings has become commonplace in contemporary political discourse,” Phillips told JointMedia News Service. “This exhibition explores the events of 1933 and the immediate response in the U.S., and it looks at the continuing U.S. response to censorship since.”
Why did the Nazis burn books?
On April 6, 1933, the German Students Association, as a demonstration of university students’ commitment to National Socialist ideals, announced an “Action against the Un-German Spirit” to cleanse Germany of liberal and “decadent” elements that crept into German life during the Weimar Republic. In a symbolic act of ominous significance on May 10, the students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture.
Why these particular authors?
The works burned fall into six categories, Phillips said.
“The authors were outspoken opponents of Nazism, were socialists or communists (two of Germany’s largest political parties), were pacifists (where the Nazis sought a strong military and aggressive foreign policy), were critics of contemporary Germany society, were advocates for women’s rights, or were Jewish,” he said.
Among the authors whose books students burned that night were well-known socialists Bertolt Brecht and August Bebel; the founder of communism, Karl Marx; critical “bourgeois” writer Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler; and “corrupting foreign influences,” among them American author Ernest Hemingway.
The fires also consumed several writings of the 1929 Nobel Prize-winning German author Thomas Mann, whose support of the Weimar Republic and critique of fascism raised Nazi ire, and the works of international best-selling author Erich Maria Remarque, whose unflinching description of war—All Quiet on the Western Front—was vilified by Nazi ideologues as “a literary betrayal of the soldiers of the World War.”
Erich Kästner, Heinrich Mann, and Ernst Gläser, denigrated in Goebbels’ blistering rhetoric, represented early German literary critics of the Nazi regime, although Heinrich Mann had gained fame as the author of Professor Unrat, which appeared in German cinemas in 1930 as “The Blue Angel,” and Kästner was primarily known for his literature for children and young adults. Other writers included on the blacklists were American authors Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller, whose belief in social justice encouraged her to champion the disabled, pacifism, improved conditions for industrial workers, and women’s voting rights.
Jewish author Lion Feuchtwanger stands out in the exhibition. A best-selling author, Feuchtwanger (1884-1958) was born in Munich, raised in an observant Jewish and patriotic German household, studied German history, and began writing plays and stories at age 19. Most of his novels took on historical themes.
According to the exhibition, after serving in the German army during World War I, Feuchtwanger’s writing took a leftist political turn. His 1930 novel Erfolg (translated as success) provided a thinly veiled broadside at the Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler’s rise to leadership in the Nazi party.
Feuchtwanger’s Jewishness, the Jewish themes of his early fiction, and his close association with Brecht were among the causes for his persecution. As early as 1932, his house in Berlin was illegally searched and his library plundered by the Nazis during his lecture tour in the U.S. All of his works were burned in 1933. In the same year, Feuchtwanger moved to the south of France, where he remained a vocal opponent of the Nazi regime.
After the Germans invaded France in 1940, Feuchtwanger was detained in an internment camp. His wife, with help from American journalist Varian Fry, organized his escape. Fry ran a rescue network in France that helped thousands of Jewish refugees escape Nazi Germany. Feuchtwanger ultimately found asylum in the U.S. and settled in southern California, where he continued to write until his death in 1958.
What was America’s response?
Anti-fascist organizations, American Jewish groups, and numerous writers, scholars, and journalists recognized the ominous intent of the Nazi “culture war” that made blood and race the source of inspiration. The American Jewish Congress hoped to broaden the coalition of anti-Nazi Americans by using the May 10 book burnings as a unifying cause. It urged mass street demonstrations to take place that same day. As the German literary blacklists circulated in the press, American authors published declarations of solidarity with their condemned brethren.
American newspapers nationwide, Phillips said, reported both the Nazi bonfires and the American protests, and editorial opinion was nearly unanimous in its condemnation but uneven in its rhetoric.
Some newspapers called the German student actions “silly,” “ineffective,” “senseless,” or “infantile.” The New Yorker made light of the “extra-curricular activities” of Nazi students. Essayist E. B. White joked, “We never burn books except to keep them out of the hands of the grand jury.” But others, such as Ludwig Lewisohn of The Nation, forecasted the dawning of a “dark age,” an “insane” assault “against the life of the mind, intellectual values, and the rights of the human spirit.”
On May 10, 1933, the same day as the book burnings in Germany, massive street demonstrations took place in dozens of American cities. Skillfully organized by the American Jewish Congress, the demonstrators protested the relentless Nazi attacks upon Jews: the continued harassment, police raids, arrests, and beatings, as well as the destruction of Jewish property and the boycott of Jewish businesses. In the largest demonstration in New York City history up to that date, 100,000 people marched for more than six hours to protest events in Germany and the burning of books. Other mass demonstrations by a variety of American groups took place in cities across the country, including Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago.
What can we do today?
In the spring of 1933, the Nazi regime was still in its infancy, working hard to solidify its power with the elites and other key segments of German society. This required the newly created Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi ideology.
Removing Jews and other “undesirables” from cultural organizations, and banning artists who created “degenerate” works of art, were the first steps. Holocaust Memorial Museum Director Sara Bloomfield said history teaches us the consequences of action—and inaction—when it comes to book burnings.
“Although the Nazi book burnings caused immediate outrage in Europe and the United States, it did not last long. Perhaps for us today the most important aspect of the Nazi book burnings is not what the Germans did, but what others failed to do,” she said.