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Why the Nazis burned books

May 4, 2024

In 1933, tens of thousands of books by Jewish authors and political dissidents were burned across Nazi Germany. Many authors were forced to go into exile, while others were imprisoned or even murdered.

A burning Harry Potter book
As parishioners in New Mexico burned dozens of Harry Potter books in 2001, a church pastor called the books a 'masterpiece of satanic deception'Image: Neil Jacobs/Getty Images

"Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people." More than 160 years after his death, this quote by the German poet Heinrich Heine is still relevant.

To this day, dictators continue to fear the power of free speech and uncensored artistic expression. Authoritative regimes — such as those currently in power in Russia and Iran — do everything in their power to suppress freedom of art and expression to uphold their repressive systems.

A large group of people burn books in Berlin in 1933
Tens of thousands of books were burned across Germany in May 1933Image: akg-images/picture-alliance

A few months after Adolf Hitler seized power in January 1933, tens of thousands of books were burned on May 10 in more than 20 cities in Germany. Most were works by Jewish authors, but books written by political dissidents were also burned.

Numerous writers were forced to go into exile, while many of those who stayed in Germany were imprisoned or murdered. The Nazis replaced the Weimar Republic's once vibrant culture with Nazi propaganda and a carefully tailored concept of what they wanted "German culture" to be.

Susanne Spröer, DW history reporter
Susanne SpröerImage: DW

In this episode of Arts Unveiled, filmmaker Susanne Spröer sets forth to investigate why the idea to burn books took hold at universities across Germany in 1933.

What role did the symbolism of fire play? Which authors were blacklisted? What happened to them afterwards?

And what do young people today think about these acts of cultural destruction?

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Arts Unveiled — Experiencing and understanding the art world

Arts Unveiled dives deep into the international creative scene, uncovering new ideas and explaining cultural phenomena that shape our history, present and future. Who are the artists? What are their greatest works of art? And how are they having an impact? Where can we find their exciting projects?