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Nazi Censorship

DW staff (jen)May 10, 2008

On the anniversary of ceremonial Nazi book burnings, Germany is hosting a series of events to commemorate those whose works were destroyed.

Book burnings in germany, in 1933
Onlookers saluted the burning volumes with the "Hitler Gruess"Image: AP

The ceremonial burning of books written by Jews, communists and "degenerates" on May 10, 1933 took place less than four months after Adolf Hitler came to power.

The country is hosting a series of lectures, exhibitions, discussions and readings to mark the 75th anniversary of the unsavory event.

Poster for the events commemorating the book burnings
A long list of outlawed authorsImage: Deutscher Kulturrat e.V.

The Academy of Arts in Berlin held a commemoration ceremony on Friday, May 9, during which German President Horst Koehler was the keynote speaker.

The book burning was a precursor to the Holocaust, he said.

"It was only a small step from isolating the Jews to burning their books, and again a small step from the burning of the books to incinerating people," Koehler said.

Actors, authors and schoolchildren read from the works of some of the 130-odd authors whose works went up in flames, among them Bertolt Brecht, Sigmund Freund and Thomas Mann.

Some writers forever lost, organizer says

But while the names and works of many of the targeted authors are still popular today, others like German writers Maria Leitner and Georg Hermann have virtually been forgotten.

This shows that in some ways the book burning had a long-term effect, according to Olaf Zimmermann, managing director of the German Council of Culture.

"Yes, it's disgraceful, but the sad fact is that many authors whose books landed on the bonfires have faded into obscurity," he said.

Portrait Bertholt Brecht
Bertholt Brecht's work was burned as "degenerate" ...Image: AP

Passages from some of their works will be read out at the weekend events, he said.

Berlin's renowned Humboldt Library and the Spanish cultural institute, Cervantes, are jointly hosting readings and recitals from the burned works on Saturday.

"Empty library" commemoration

The event takes place on the same square where some 40,000 Nazi supporters gathered three-quarters-of-a-century ago to witness the book burning in the German capital.

Today an underground memorial marks the spot on what is now August Bebel Platz. Conceived as an "empty library," visitors can view it through a glass window built into the pavement.

"It is the right monument in the right place," according to Klaus Staeke, president of the Academy of Arts.

Records show that at least 35,000 books were burned in 22 cities between May and the end of August 1933 in an event unseen since the Middle Ages.

In Berlin, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels delivered a midnight speech in which he said: "The era of Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The soul of the German people can express itself again."

Blacklists of "degenerates"

Sigmund Freud portrait
... as were writings of the father of psychology, Sigmund FreudImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The students, who were at the vanguard of the Nazi movement, compiled blacklists of undesirable authors and circulated them to public and private libraries.

In addition to German-speaking authors, works of American writers Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller were also consigned to the flames.

The book burning was the last major orchestrated event in the early stages of Hitler's rule, following a purge of communists and trade unions and a Nazi-organized boycott of Jewish goods.

Guidelines for Nazi writers

It also marked the start of censorship and the introduction of Propaganda Ministry "guidelines" to which all writers were expected to adhere.

Within the space of days the German book trade published a list of 131 authors and ordered libraries and bookshops to cleanse their shelves of their works. Many of the writers had already fled the country.