My husband and I went to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on our recent vacation to Washington, DC. One of the events that I did not know anything about was the May 1933 book burning by the National Socialist German Students’ Association. From the USHMM website:
In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.” In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Goebbels enjoined the crowd. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner. 1
The lists of some of the authors whose books were burned is interesting: Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, John Dos Passos, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Jack London, Karl Marx, André Malraux, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, H. G. Wells, B. Traven, and Erich Maria Remarque.
While all of these authors are old (several where on my parents’ bookshelves), many are still read today. What was so scary to the Nazi regime that they felt the need to destroy the words and ideas of this writers? It might be interesting to read some of them with an idea to trying to understand what would have made them degenerate, decadent and indecent. In September we have Banned Books week. Maybe we should also have a Burned Books week.
It made me think more about the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech. There isn’t a corresponding Freedom of Thought, but that is probably because it would be hard to enforce the negative. In this age of highly charged political conversation, we are pressed even more on the need for freedom of speech, even speech we disagree with. The German people were denied this freedom because the government wanted to control all of their lives. I hope the United States sticks to the Constitution and allows us our diversity.
1 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Book Burning.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005852 Accessed on October 19, 2016.
2 Books and writings deemed “un-German” are burned at the Opernplatz. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933. — National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.