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When Books Burn

In Berlin, on May 10, 1933, the newly-elected Nazi party carefully orchestrated an event that would announce to Germans and the world some of the aims and the reach of the Nazi party.

Nazis unload books to be burned, May 10, 1933Beginning at nightfall, trucks laden with thousands of books taken from Berlin-area public, state and university libraries converged on the Opernplatz. Members of Nazi student groups and the Sturm Abteilung (Nazi Party private police) tossed the books onto waiting wooden biers and set them afire in a huge "funeral pyre of the intellect." Other members paraded with torches chanting the Feuersprüche, the declarations of the cultural and intellectual war they intended to wage. Against this backdrop, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels gave a short speech announcing the end of Jewish intellectual influence and proclaiming that a new Germany would rise from the ashes: a Germany remade in the Nazi's image.

Josef Goebbels, May 10, 1933In Bonn, Gottingen, Heidelberg, Munich, and other cities throughout Germany, Nazi youth performed similar ceremonies, mostly aimed at "cleansing" public, church, and other types of community lending libraries of books and journals thought to be "un-German."

Book censorship was just the beginning. By the end of July 1933, Hitler was in complete control of the government, and the Nazis were the only legal political party in Germany. They had created the first concentration camps, restricted the freedoms of speech and of the press, enforced boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, and had begun a sterilization campaign of citizens the new government considered genetically undesirable.

As Helen Keller pointed out in her letter to the German students, you cannot burn ideas. We hope this exhibit will be one more way to remember the books which were burned and their authors, and so remind us of the importance of intellectual freedom to free peoples everywhere.

 

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Last updated February 19, 2002

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