Bonfires in 1933 (Part I)

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Following WWI, Germany’s economy was in shambles, in part due to large fines levied on Germany as part of the Treaty of Versailles, and Germany’s citizens were angry. Disgruntled, many German citizens blamed the Weimar Republic government for accepting the treaty and not doing enough to restore Germany to its pre-WWI condition. This frustration set the stage for Hitler’s ascent to power because he promised to restore the nation to its prime, making people believe that the only way to do this was through what he considered pro-German policies—conservative, anti-Semitic, nationalistic, and anti-Weimar. The Nazis’ policies were also anti-democratic and anti-communism. By outlawing these factors, Hitler promised Germany would become a prosperous nation, but instead, Germany became a land of fear, controlled thoughts, and institutionalized hatred. Combined, all of these factors resulted in a militaristic state, a deadly war, and genocide. One of the Nazis’ first acts of power was to enact strict censorship laws, beginning in 1933, that defined acceptable literature as “pro-German,” which could not praise modernity, Judaism, communism, etc. or question the Nazi’s actions. As a case study, the Nazis’ early actions provide an extreme example of censorship, which is nevertheless useful in understanding how average citizens—including students, professors, and librarians—became complacent in censorship.

Nevertheless, the Nazi’s actions are not unique. As Ritchie (1988) points out, “burning books is by no means a uniquely German pastime” (p. 68). Many great libraries and works have been destroyed in the name of ideology. Often books and ideologies are incompatible because the written word encourages dissent and questioning, which is unacceptable within a totalitarian state. Therefore, governments censor, confiscating information from citizens, outlawing the opposition, and requiring loyalty. The Nazi government told the German people that restricting information was necessary in order to preserve the essence of German ingenuity and to dispel those who were working against Germany. In 1933, the Nazi’s first “black list”—a list of unacceptable books—was published, and in response, numerous libraries and texts were destroyed. This gave the Nazis control over the dissemination of information pertaining to culture, sexuality, and political discourse, eliminating any message contrary to the Nazis’ ideal Germany and thus ensuring that fear overpowered the ability to question authority.  Yet, the Nazi police forces—the Gestapo or the SS—did not serve as the face of Nazi censorship in May 1933; instead, students led the charge against taboo topics.

In many modern cases of censorship, academia often speaks out, calling for open discussions about controversial topics and favoring debates instead of restricting messages. However, in 1933 Germany, unusual events transpired. German university students called for and organized mass book burnings of banned texts, often written by Jewish authors. The NSDStB and DSt were two student organizations that led the way towards complete censorship. Although some members of these groups were national socialists and identified with the Nazi party, not all did. Inspired by the student leaders’ nationalism, charisma, and commitment to German restoration, non-politically-identifying students joined these two groups. The Nazis used the proliferation of pro-Weimar writing to turn the tables, telling citizens that they had been intentionally duped by their former government. This message struck a nerve with the students, who were then convinced to believe that the Nazis were the truthful party. Even those who did not identify with the party were wrapped up with the message of nationalism and truth.

For the students, censorship of Jewish authors was particularly attractive because of the social tension that existed between Germans and Jews. Anti-Semitism was not unique to the Nazi party or to the students who participated in the book burnings. At first, this made it much easier to enforce censorship because the public was easily convinced that reading the work of their enemy was harmful to Germany. In the end, this sentiment helped Hitler and the Nazis enact their final solution to “the Jewish question” because, as seen in many wars and horrors, people are more agreeable to destruction and death if the affected are unseen and/or hated.

Many researchers, including James Ritchie (1988), recognize that while students were the main actors in the May 10 burning, it is nearly impossible that they were the primary instigators. Historians point fingers at the universities, librarians, and professors for allowing the burnings to occur, but the influence of the Nazi party whose intimidating message of “comply with our censorship demands or face the repercussions” was the underlying commonality.  For example, writer Armin Wegner was arrested and tortured by the police before being sent to various camps for writing an (unpublished) editorial that questioned Hitler and censorship (Ritchie, p. 61). At the bequest of the Nazi party, universities created pillars of shame where students could denounce professors whose teachings or opinions were “un-German.” Professor Maz Hermann opposed the students’ actions, which resulted in the Nazis deporting him to Theresidenstadt by 1942 (Ritchie, p. 639). Hermann believed that the book-burnings were harmful to German on a national scale because of the backlash that German universities would face from other Western universities, but even his small objections placed him on the Nazis’ list.

Before the May 10 book-burnings occurred, the students were told which books to burn or else they too would be seen as “un-German” if they burned books that promoted the desired German utopia. The students could not and did not act without orders; instead, they were told which titles to burn by new government administration and a librarian named Wolfgang, who may have received money to create the book blacklist. Before the Nazis took over in January 1933, very few librarians were Nazi members, but many joined after Hitler took power in order to preserve their jobs and book collections. By joining the party, librarians could demonstrate that they were eager to be in compliance with the Nazi’s regulations, while at the same time hiding or relocating important banned collections.

The book burnings of May 10, 1933 were effectively executed and organized—this was no mere dash, grab, and burn. Speeches made by students, seasoned academics, teachers, authors, and journalists further instigated the burnings. These events were hardly unexpected; students informed of the media about locations and times, so news teams were able to dispatch reporters and videographers to the 98 sites that were to be purged (Barbian, 2010, p. 24-25). On the radio and through posters, German libraries and average citizens were also invited to comply with the burnings by bringing books directly to designated burning locations (and avoid potential vandalism of their buildings). By June 21, 1933, the university libraries in Hamburg and Heidelberg both experienced mass book burnings twice; 28 other university libraries were attacked and purged.


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