On May 10, 1933, in university towns around Germany, the crowning event of the month-long, student-organized “Action Against the Un-German Spirit” campaign took place. That night, tens of thousands of copies of books deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime were consigned to the flames.
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Although the government of Adolf Hitler, in the person of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, took part in the book burnings, that was only after the event had been initiated and organized by members of the National Socialist German Students’ Organization, the NSDStB, as it was abbreviated in German.
'Purifying' German culture
Young people, including university students, were early and enthusiastic participants in Nazism. And Goebbels saw the country’s students as a key partner in his grand effort to assume control of all aspects of German culture, cleansing it of “foreign” and “degenerate” influences.
The NSDStB announced its campaign on April 6. Two days later, the organization came out with a list of Twelve Theses – an allusion to the “95 Theses” nailed by Martin Luther to Wittenberg Castle in 1517, and meant to purify Christianity. The students' version outlined the attributes of a “pure” German culture, and of the foreign elements that needed to be purged from it. These elements included socialism and communism, pacifism, democracy, and anything associated with Jews.
Over the course of the next few weeks, local chapters were to publish lists of authors to be blacklisted, and enlist university professors and the media to get their message out.
The festivities of the evening of May 10 began with torchlight marches in each of the 34 towns where a Säuberung (a purging) had been scheduled. (There were some localities where weather necessitated a delay, or where it had been postponed to the date of the summer solstice, June 21.) When marchers reached the central site where the fire was to be kindled, they found waiting for them large piles of books, which had been lugged in over the preceding weeks.
Kastner for decadence, Freud for sexuality
The ceremony proceeded with the recitation of “fire oaths” – the enumeration of the specific values to be uprooted from German society, followed by the names of the individual authors who personified those particular values. As each oath was spoken, the books in question were added to the flames.
For example, in opposition to “decadence and moral decay” (and on behalf of “discipline and decency in family and state”) the books of Erich Kästner. and Heinrich Mann were burned. Against the “soul-shredding overvaluation of sexual activity” (and in favor of “the nobility of the human soul”), the works of Sigmund Freud and his followers were incinerated. Erich Maria Remarque, author of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” had his book burned because of its “literary betrayal of the soldiers of the World War.” (The translations of the fire oaths are from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.)
The largest of the demonstrations that night took place in Berlin, at the Opernplatz, today called Bebelplatz. There, close to midnight, Joseph Goebbels himself showed up to address a crowd that has been estimated at 40,000. His speech was also broadcast live on radio. "German men and women,” he proclaimed, “The age of excessive Jewish intellectualism has come to an end The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past."
By the following year, more than 3,000 titles had been censored or banned from distribution in Germany.
As is often noted, poet Heinrich Heine had himself presciently predicted the future when, in his 1821 play “Almansoor,” he had the Moor character Hassan comment, in response to the burning of the Koran in 15th-century Granada, that, “That was only a prelude; where one burns books, one is going to wind up burning people, too.”
And, ironically, after the defeat of the Third Reich, the Allied occupation forces in Germany compiled a list of some 30,000 titles of all kinds left over from Nazi rule that were considered dangerous. These books too were confiscated and destroyed.