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Why May 10 Matters

May 10, 2016

“Where they burn books,

they will ultimately

burn people as well.”

— Heinrich Heine in 1821

It’s my birthday, but I want to draw your attention to what happened in Berlin 83 years ago today.

And the implied warning in an article about it.

I’ve been in contact with the writer, Paul R. Bartrop, PhD, and it’s with his expressed and gracious permission that I share this with you, from page 22 of

I’ve highlighted some parts.

But first let me warn you: this has fiercely haunted me since reading it several days ago —

On May 10, 1933, in an event that took place 83 years ago this month, a phenomenon unseen since the Middle Ages took place in the heart of Berlin, when students from the National Socialist German Students’ League, the SA, the SS and the Hitler Youth, in the presence of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, burned around 25,000 books which they considered to be “un-German.”

Some 40,000 people had gathered prior to the burning, as Goebbels made an inflammatory speech to the youth of Germany in which he declared: “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. … The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. … And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. … Here the intellectual foundation of the [Democratic] Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.”

He continued: “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.” This latter writer, Erich Kästner, was present among the crowd.

The speech, and the book burnings which followed, were accompanied by the singing of Nazi songs and anthems  as well as an abundant use of the Nazi salute. Berlin radio broadcast the occasion triumphantly to listeners throughout Germany live as it happened.

On that awful night, books of all kinds were publicly and symbolically burned. German-language authors, regardless of whether they were from Germany or not, included Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Engels, Lion Feuchtwanger, Sigmund Freud, George Grosz, Jaroslav Hašek, Franz Kafka, Erich Kästner, Egon Kisch, Karl Kraus, Theodor Lessing, Karl Liebknecht, Georg Lukács, Rosa Luxemburg, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Carl von Ossietzky, Erwin Piscator, Erich Maria Remarque, Joseph Roth, Nelly Sachs, Anna Seghers, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernst Toller, Kurt Tucholsky, Jakob Wassermann, Franz Werfel, Arnold Zweig and Stefan Zweig.

Foreign writers were not exempt. These included Victor Hugo, André Gide, Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse (France); Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley (Britain); James Joyce (Ireland); Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Jack London and Helen Keller (United States); and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Maxim Gorki, Isaac Babel, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy and Leon Trotsky (Russia).

The works consigned to the flames included those of pacifists, liberals, socialists, communists and anarchists; those whose writings were viewed as subversive or somehow opposed to Nazism; those considered to be traitors; all historical writing deemed as disparaging to the spirit and culture of the German Volk, or antithetical to Aryan racial ideals; writings which praised so-called “degenerate art;” works relating to sexuality and sexual education opposite to the principles of Nazi racial ideas; literature by Jewish authors, regardless of the field; and many other areas to which the Nazis were opposed.

The book burnings were the culmination of a series of events that had begun a few days earlier on May 6, when students began gathering books and dragging them into the square for a purpose still yet to be established. Even then, however, it was clear that the intention was to purge local places of learning of works deemed to be unacceptable to the new Nazi regime, installed a little over three months earlier.

The location of the book burnings was a square in the heart of Berlin, first known as Opera House Square (Platz am Opernhaus or, colloquially, Opernplatz). On August 12, 1910, it was named Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Platz in honor of Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria. After the war, on August 31, 1947, the square was given the name it has to this day, Bebelplatz, in honor of August Bebel, one of the founders of Germany’s Social Democratic Party. Situated on the south side of the majestic Unter den Linden, it is bounded to the east by the State Opera building, to the west by Humboldt University, and to the southeast by St. Hedwig’s Cathedral. The large square is dominated on one side by the library of Humboldt’s Law School.

May 10 in Berlin was just the beginning of a spate of book burnings that took place in many German university cities over succeeding weeks. In 34 university towns across Germany the movement to purge those whose writings opposed “the German Spirit” took place with the seeming consent (or at least, acquiescence) of those observing. Nationalist and Nazi-inspired students marched in torch-lit parades throughout Germany, enjoining their professors and student leaders to address the crowds. Some professors, from what were the finest universities in the world, were incapable of joining in. Many were dismissed; some took their own lives in despair at what Germany had become.

The works of those whose books had been burned were from this point on no longer permitted in university curricula or on the shelves of libraries.

It is sobering to reflect on that terrible night. We have a reminder of it still, in the very square where the events of May 10, 1933, took place. A memorial in Bebelplatz, consisting of a glass plate set into the cobblestones, opens onto a hollow in the ground showing row after row of empty bookshelves. At the site is an engraving of words from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play Almansor. Here, he wrote a much-quoted line: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen” (“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well”).

Heine’s works were also among those burned by the Nazis 83 years ago this month.

— God help us. God help us all.






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