Unburning Books in Berlin

An exhibit in the German capital looks at the lives and works of writers whose books were burned and banned during the Third Reich.

Avner Shapira
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Avner Shapira

Alexander Moritz Frey is remembered today less for his literary works and more for Adolf Hitler's moustache. Frey, a German writer who was born in 1881, served in the same Bavarian army reserve regiment as Hitler in World War I. He reported that his fellow fighter in the trenches did not voluntarily choose the narrow moustache that would eventually be associated with him. He says that at the time Hitler had a long moustache and was required by his commanders to trim it so the gas mask worn by soldiers during the mustard gas attacks of the British would fit.

In an article Frey wrote later on, "The Unknown Private - Personal Memories of Hitler," he described his first encounter with the future dictator: "One evening a pale, tall man tumbled down into the cellar after the first shells of the daily evening attack had begun to fall, fear and rage glowing in his eyes. At that time he looked tall, because he was so thin. A full moustache, later trimmed because of the new gas masks, covered the ugly slit of his mouth." In Frey's accounting, Hitler was an enthusiastic soldier eager to fight who took the military maneuvers of the enemy personally, as if they wanted to take his life in particular.

May 10, 1933, Berlin. Goebbels told Nazi activists at the book burning that it marked the “end of the era of outlandish Jewish intellectualism.”Credit: Getty Images

The essay was discovered many years after Frey's death in 1957 and was included in a biography of him published five years ago in Switzerland. However, Frey, who early in his career was a prominent writer known mainly for his fantasy books, is today unknown to the general public in Germany or elsewhere.

An attempt to restore his place in the collective consciousness is now underway in Berlin in the form of an exhibition. Called "Burned Books: Ostracized Authors in Nazi Germany," the exhibition at the pavilion opposite the Holocaust Memorial focuses on the lives of writers whose books were burned and banned during the Third Reich and who were themselves suppressed and persecuted by the regime. Many retained their position and were not forced into oblivion as the Nazis hoped they would be. But in the case of Frey and several others featured in the exhibit, it is hard to say that the German effort to erase their works from German culture failed entirely.

The exhibition relates that Frey, who lived in Munich, saw Hitler on the city's streets several times after World War I, but never spoke to him again. He firmly refused requests from Hitler's aides to join the Nazi party in its early days. Unlike Hitler, Frey became a pacifist after the war and opposed nationalist and racist ideologies, views which are also reflected in his writing. That did not stop Hitler from offering Frey the post of culture editor of the Nazi party organ, Volkischer Beobachter, and he did not forgive Frey for turning down the offer.

Frey's books were popular during the time of the Weimar Republic and he was also known for his satirical columns in the press. In 1929, his antiwar novel, "The Cross Bearers" was published. It was is based in large part on his World War I military service and featured harsh descriptions of the battle routine with no attempt to spare the reader.

"The useless flesh which only a day earlier had been useful for transporting arms, bayonet stabbings or shooting, fell into the pits. If there was anything dignified or meaningful in this, it was this: the flesh fertilized the earth," Frey wrote in the book, which sparked the Nazis' anger.

In March 1933, shortly after Hitler's rise to power, an arrest warrant for Frey was issued and Nazi storm troopers broke into his apartment while he was away, and destroyed it. He fled to Austria and after Germany annexed it, relocated to Switzerland, where he had to constantly fight with the authorities to be allowed to remain there and became impoverished due to the difficulty he had publishing his books. Frey did not return to Germany after the Nazis' defeat. Only on his deathbed, did Switzerland grant him citizenship.

Restocking burned books

Only one kilometer separates the "Empty Library" memorial at Bebelplatz from a library that is not empty, and is in fact one of the main displays at the Berlin exhibit. The memorial by Israeli artist Micha Ullman depicts the books burned in that same square by Nazi supporters on May 10, 1933 with empty shelves. The symbolic representation in the exhibition fills the void with actual content: placed together are the books of the 20 writers to whom it is dedicated, Jews alongside Christians, Communists next to liberals and opponents of the regime, Germans together with citizens of other European countries. The common denominator among them (and some 100 other writers not mentioned in the display ) is the Nazis' efforts to ostracize them based on the claim that their books "threaten the German spirit."

The “Empty Library” memorial in Berlin, with its vacant bookshelves, depicts the books burned here in 1933. Credit: Aharon Sirila

This is a historical exhibit of modest proportions, as well as modest pretensions. Using photos, archival documents and voice recordings, it returns to the book burnings on that spring night in 1933 not only in Berlin, but also in other cities across Germany; and it seeks to create a monument not just to noted intellectuals and writers whose works were confiscated, but also to those whose persecution and ostracism is sometimes forgotten.

The curator of the exhibition, Jan Pronczak, stresses that the book burning was a key step in the Nazi effort to dominate civil society and cultural discourse in Germany. In the exhibition catalog, Pronczak notes that the book burnings were not a government initiative but were organized voluntarily by the German Students Union. The effort did not spark any criticism from other students or lecturers in the universities, except for a few professors who were permitted to hold onto copies of the banned books for "research purposes."

The books burnings were welcomed by the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who was invited to speak at the central event in Berlin. Goebbels told the students and Nazi activists who gathered there that the event marks the "end of the era of outlandish Jewish intellectualism" and is "a breakthrough in the German revolution." According to him, just three months earlier, when Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, "we could not imagine that it would be possible to cleanse Germany so quickly."

Still, from a historical perspective, Goebbels and the others working on purifying "the German spirit" did not accomplish their mission in its entirety. Alfred Doblin, Stefan Zweig, Kurt Tucholsky, Joseph Roth, Heinrich Mann, Klaus Mann, Anna Seghers and Erich Maria Remarque are some of the prominent writers whose lives are reviewed in the exhibition and who are still considered part of the German cultural canon.

Remarque, the author of the 1929 antiwar book "All Quiet on the Western Front," one of the most successful 20th century German writers, fled from Germany to Switzerland immediately after the Nazis' rise to power. On the night of the book burnings, he was hosted by his neighbor, the writer Emil Ludwig, and together they listened to the radio broadcast from Berlin. In his description, he said "we opened the oldest bottle of Rhine wine we had, listened on the radio to the flames flickering and the Nazis' speeches and we drank to the future."

A conscientious objector

Unlike Remarque, the writer and journalist Armin T. Wegner, another hero featured in the exhibition, was imprisoned at the time in a German concentration camp. Only a few weeks earlier, after "the boycott day" the Nazis imposed on Jewish businesses on April 1, 1933, he mustered the courage to send Hitler a sharp letter criticizing the persecution of the Jews. As a result, he was imprisoned and tortured, and after three years he was released and managed to escape to Italy.

This was not the first time that Wegner voiced conscientious objection. Wegner was born in 1886 and began his creative career as an expressionist poet, and refused to serve in the army as a soldier for pacifist reasons. Nevertheless, in World War II, he volunteered to serve as a medic and afterward as a medical officer.

He served in the Middle East and witnessed the Ottoman Empire's genocide against the Armenian people. He visited refugee camps and mass graves and circulated reports and photos documenting the destruction, despite the personal risk that entailed. In 1919, he published an open letter to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in which he called on him to grant the Armenian people independence in the name of "the voice of humanity."

After the war, Wegner became known as a prolific journalist, the author of travel books and novels as well as a human rights activist. He traveled the world with his wife, the Jewish poet Lula Landau. In the late 1920s they visited Palestine and Wegner described this visit in essays and a book that voiced his support for the creation of a Jewish national state in Palestine. After the couple's divorce in 1939, Landau immigrated to Palestine and lived there until he died.

In a letter Wegner sent to Hitler after "boycott day" under the heading "To Germany," he tried to dissuade him from activities intended to suppress the Jews. "Sir Reichskanzler, we are not talking here solely about the fate of our Jewish brethren. This is a matter of the fate of Germany!" he wrote. "As a German, who received the gift of speech not for the sake of remaining silent, I appeal to you: stop this madness!"

He surveyed what the Jews had endured throughout history and estimated that "with the same perseverance that helped them survive as an ancient people, the Jews will also overcome this danger but the shame and tragedy that will be caused to the German people will not soon be forgotten." Moreover, he proposed to Hitler: "Preserve Germany by granting protection to the Jews."

A Hebrew translation of his letter appears in the book by Israeli researcher, Prof. Yair Auron, "Genocide: Can it be Prevented" (Open University Press, 2010 ). Auron maintains that "Wegner is one of the loftiest voices produced by the German-Jewish symbiosis against the Nazi German effort that sought to annihilate it."

Auron adds that in 1968, Wegner was recognized as a Righteous Gentile by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Even though he did not actually save Jews, the committee that grants the title decided to honor his courage and the risks he took in an attempt to defend the Jews in Nazi Germany. In addition, he received Medals of Honor from the governments of West Germany and Armenia. Wegner, who remained in Italy until the end of his life and did not manage to recreate his success as a writer, died in 1978.

Similar to Frey and Wegner, Irmgard Keun was among the writers whose books were forgotten during the Nazi era and after it as well. But unlike them, in her later years she received renewed recognition. She is recalled today as a writer who was miraculously able to provide sharp and light-hearted depictions of modern lifestyles, the consumer society and the flashy society of the Weimar era.

A daring portrait of Berlin women

The exhibition notes that Keu, who was born in 1905, worked first as a stenographer and as a model and studied acting. After being unsuccessful in the theater, she switched to literary writing. Her first novel, "Gilgi - One of Us" sparked a storm after its publication, in 1931, because of its direct depictions of the life of the young, independent, free-spirited heroine, portrayed as the embodiment of modern femininity. Among other things, the book covers such issues as adoption, gaps among social classes, women working in office jobs, sexual harassment, single-parent families and abortion.

Keun earned praise from important writers, such as Doblin and Tucholsky, for her humorous and sharp writing and after a year released another novel, "The Artificial Silk Girl," which became a bestseller. It presents an entertaining monologue by Doris, a light-headed Berlin young woman, with great fondness for men, lies, trendy clothes and brand names.

Doris tries to make her way into the world of glamour and is indifferent to the political dangers in the twilight period of the Weimar Republic. "I want to write like in a film that my life is like that and will be even more so," Doris says. "And I look like Colleen Moore (an American film star ), if only she had a permanent curl in her hair and a nose with more chic, pointed upward a bit more."

The Nazis banned Keun's books and did not allow them to be distributed after having identified "anti-German tendencies" in them and in 1936 she left for Belgium. That same year, she began a romance with Joseph Roth, which lasted until 1938, and later on she moved to Holland. When that country was occupied by Germany, she returned to her native land and lived there under a false identity until the end of World War II. She felt protected because she knew the regime had received false reports of her suicide.

In West Germany after the war Keun continued writing books but they did not gain a following. She suffered emotional crises and became addicted to alcohol and in the 1960s was hospitalized for a time in a psychiatric institution. Only in the mid-1970s was she rediscovered following a newspaper article about her. Her books were issued in new editions and received enthusiastically by young readers and she frequently attended literary events until her death in 1982. Her books were also adapted for theater and film and merited academic analyses.

Six years ago, Israeli director Tom Levy created an adaptation of "The Artificial Silk Girl" which was staged at Tel Aviv's Tzavta Theater. The novel is mentioned several times in Israeli historian Dr. Boaz Neumann's book, "Being in the Weimar Republic" (Am Oved Publishers, 2007 ).

Neumann say the novel's heroine faithfully represents several prevailing trends in Germany at that time, such as the centrality of ads and shopping in people's lives, the importance of fashion and a glamorous appearance in defining humanity, and the tendency to use lies and deceit to climb the social ladder; or in the words of Doris: "I know that people who 'must always speak the truth' always lie."

It seems that some of Doris' perceptions regarding the consumer society are relevant today as well. It is possible that this is one reason why Achuzat Bayit Books chose to release the book in Hebrew, translated by Hanan Elstein. The translation is to be released around Rosh Hashana and its title will be taken from contemporary language, "Naara Homranit" (Material Girl ).

Keun's works were the focus of an evening of readings recently held in Berlin as part of a monthly series devoted to one of the writers whose lives are reviewed in the exhibition. The events feature contemporary German writers such as Herta Muller, the 2009 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Daniel Kehlmann, the author of "Measuring the World," and actress Iris Berben reading from the works of Armin T. Wegner.

The exhibition closes on December 31.



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