Book burning - two words that stir strong feelings. Seventy five years ago, the Nazis staged what is probably the most infamous of all book burnings. On 10 May 1933 thousands of books banned by Germany’s National Socialist regime were tossed into flaming pyres. It was a terrifying statement of intent with the Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, redefining his nation’s culture within strict boundaries.
People have burnt books for almost as long as they have printed them. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are regularly torched for promoting witchcraft. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were burned by Muslims in 1988 for allegedly insulting Islam. Burning a book is a symbolic act – words are not just being suppressed, they are being destroyed by fire. In reality, the Nazi burnings were a very public, very threatening public relations stunt. The real impact was felt in homes, libraries and bookshops. Ray Bradbury once said: “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
It became dangerous to own a book by Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger and countless other banned authors. Your bookshelf marked out whether you were a friend of Aryan Germany or an enemy of the state.
Wolfgang Hermann - part of the Nazi’s Purification Committee - is probably the most infamous librarian in history as he was instrumental in drawing up the list, which was published in Boersenblatt, the trade magazine for the German publishing industry. More than 2,500 authors were deemed fuel for the fires. After the trauma of World War I, many shell-shocked writers had emerged from the conflict and questioned Germany in their work. The list included many bestselling German authors but also other nationalities.
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was banned. The Nazis wanted to glorify wartime struggle as they warmed up for World War II and Hemingway’s novel was a typical example of a writer sickened by World War I.
Jack London had died in 1916 but was well read in Germany. He became a vocal supporter of socialism and that made him an enemy of the German state. His 1908 novel The Iron Heel depicts the rise of fascism in the USA with a socialist hero, and was one of three of his books to be burned. His adventure stories were not banned.
Sigmund Freud, an Austrian, was Jewish and wrote about sexual activity. All his writings before 1933 was banned. He left for England and died in 1939 from cancer.
Another on the list was German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who fled his native country in February 1933 – a very timely exit. The creator of The Threepenny Opera studied Marx and wrote political films and plays which were banned by the government. His plays portrayed German society in a negative light and criticized Nazism.
Munich-born Lion Feuchtwanger, another Jew and a friend of Bertolt Brecht, had all his books banned. He fought in World War I for Germany and his writing turned towards socialism. His 1930 novel Erfolg (Success) provided a thinly veiled criticism of the Beer Hall Putsch and Hitler's climb to power. In 1933, he published an anti-Nazi novel The Oppermans and he moved to France to avoid the inevitable. His 1925 book Jud Süss, about an 18th century Jew, was used by the Nazis for a 1939 anti-semitic propaganda film of the same name. However, Feuchtwanger failed to escape the Nazis. Following their invasion of France, Feuchtwanger was sent to a prison camp but he escaped and fled to the US. He died in 1958.
Other banned authors included Theodor Dreiser, and HG Wells. Of course, Karl Marx was top of the list along with books from Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky. How I Became a Socialist by Helen Keller was on the list. Left deaf and blind by illness at a young age, the Alabama-born writer promoted the disabled, workers, and women's rights. She wrote a letter of protest, published by the New York Times, after the 10 May burnings.
The list also included prominent artists Paul Klee and Marc Chagall. Klee taught at the Bauhaus but fled to Switzerland in 1933. Monographs about Klee were burned. Chagall was born in Russia to a Jewish family who had moved to Paris in 1923. He painted Jewish subject matter in a modernist fashion so his name went on the list too. He fled to New York when Germany invaded France.
German novelist Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 for his contribution to literature, which includes Buddenbrooks in 1901, The Magic Mountain in 1924 and many short stories. However, he wrote Mario and the Magician in 1930 and portrayed the dangers of dictatorships. A marked man, Mann fled to the US where he campaigned for the Allies.