Book Burning

When I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, I took a World War II college class through University of Maryland. Professor Paul Rose was also working with Garland Publishing on a two volume encyclopedia on the second world war. He let us students write articles for the encyclopedia. Two of my three articles were published. This was my first significant published work.

During their reign of power in Germany, the Nazis were adamant about controlling public thought by controlling the media. When the Nazis began the practice of book burning, they discovered there were two benefits to this method of censorship. Not only could they purge Germany of undesirable literature, but also they could use these great bonfires to incite and rally the crowds in favor of Adolph Hitler.

While there are numerous instances of book burning by the Nazis, the most famous instance occurred on 10 May 1933 in Berlin. Although the Nazis wanted the world to believe the event was spontaneous initiative of university students, there is evidence that the event was organized by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and the Sturmabteilung (SA). There is little doubt that both played a role in this symbolic demonstration of intolerance toward all that failed to conform to the Nazi agenda.

The entire day of 10 May saw raiding parties going into public and private libraries and confiscating books perceived to be unfit for the Third Reich. A variety of literary works were targeted including authors such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Voltaire, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Romain Rolland, and H. G. Wells. Even the writings of the American heroine Helen Keller were targeted. Of those authors who lived in Germany, many went into exile in order to avoid the persecution they expected would follow.

As the day wore on, mobs arrived with more books to pile onto the heap. When the demonstration reached a frenzied pitch, Goebbels arrived and gave a rousing speech that fueled the crow to even greater heights. As night fell, students from the University of Berlin began to dance around the bonfires shouting Nazi phrases and slogans.

This extreme display of censorship led to continued witch-hunts for literary works viewed as suspect. Most book burning demonstrations occurred in cities that were specifically university towns. During a six-day period in September 1936, thirty eight searches were conducted in the district of Dusseldorf. The search produced 37,040 forbidden volumes. After sorting, these books were destroyed by the police.

Even though the book burnings were an effective motivational technique to rally the populace, it took the Nazis several years after coming to power to create an effective censorship mechanism. During the period, books that were banned in one state could be found in other states. The instructions given to the police were vague, which resulted in subjective judgments as to whether any certain work was “calculated to endanger public order.” Once the censorship machine was organized, absolute censorship authority rested with Goebbels’s Reich Chamber of Literature.

Bibliography: Barnes, Tony D. “Book Burning”, Vol. I: World War II in Europe, An Encyclopedia. New York: (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999).

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