Authors & Works
Artifacts speak for themselves

This 1942 poster from the federal Office of Emergency Management incorporated a photograph of a typical New York City newsstand alongside text declaring that "This is America...Where freedom of the press is a guarantee of your liberty." In keeping with the emphasis on the "Four Freedoms," the poster called attention to an unencumbered press in newspapers offered to the public in various languages--German, Russian, Yiddish, French, and English appear in the display. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, N.Y. / USHMM #2003138E

James Vantoor, executive director of the Council on Books in Wartime, telegrammed Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt his request that she include in her daily column mention of "one of the most notorious crimes in history, the burning of the books in Nazi Germany." Her response appeared in her syndicated feature "My Day" on May 11, 1943, which reached more than four million people. New York World Telegram / Nancy Roosevelt Ireland / USHMM #2003WLKC

In 1942 and 1943, librarians nationwide mobilized for the war. The American Library Association organized "Victory Corps Reading Lists." Libraries became "arsenals of ideas" and "citadels of democracy"; even the Library of Congress was labeled a "Fortress of Freedom." Book drive promotional stamps (such as the one shown here) also sported the colors of patriotism. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Collections #2003X7L7

The Office of War Information poster "This is the Enemy" gives the Bible prominence, intended to appeal to deeply-held religious convictions. In actions separate from the book burnings, the Nazis confiscated and destroyed religious materials of the Jehovah's Witnesses, but whether the German students burned the Bible is unknown. The blacklists made no reference to the Bible or other literature of a religious nature, but rumors that Bibles were burned seized the American imagination. Office of War Information, 1943 / USHMM Collection #2003VENZ

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Fighting the fires of hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings
America at War

Books figured prominently in the "war of ideas." Patriotic wordsmiths spawned a vocabulary and slogans that militarized literature. Books were mightier than the sword, and became weapons, bullets, and thinking bayonets. They contained fighting words, and words at war. From books came big moments, and as in this Book Mobilization poster, they represented powerful bombshells. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Hyde Park, N.Y. / USHMM #2003ZWHR

In his 1941 annual address to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt identified American security in terms of a world founded upon “four essential human freedoms”: the freedom of speech and religion and the freedom from want and from fear. The widespread affirmation of the “Four Freedoms” during the war illustrated to Americans “why we fight,” and the ideals they conveyed contrasted with “the nature of the enemy,” where life was grim under the dictatorships that denied these freedoms. Variants on the “Four Freedoms” themes appeared in posters reproduced by the hundreds of thousands.


During World War II, three organizations—the Writers’ War Board, the Council on Books in Wartime, and the Office of War Information—came together to rally the American citizenry around the war effort. Inspired by Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” these agencies emphasized the First Freedom, of speech, by contrasting it with the Nazi book burnings, censorship, and other Axis acts of suppression. The importance of books was given wartime currency in the slogan “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas.” The German students had given to American war propagandists the perfect image—burning books—to symbolize the antithesis of America’s free marketplace of ideas.


Historical film
Historical film
Two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., proposed organizing the nation’s writers as civilians “under arms” to promote the war effort. A month later, a group of prominent American authors formed the Writers’ War Board, a private association partially supported by government subsidy. The board coordinated more than 2,000 writers in diverse activities including slogans, poster contests, syndicated articles, poems, radio plays, dramatic skits, government publications, books, advertisements, and war propaganda. In May 1942 and 1943, the board sponsored anniversary observances of the Nazi book burnings to keep alive the connection between the destruction of books and the consequences of intolerance.

Raymond Gram Swing, among the leading radio newscasters in the country, opened his May 10, 1942, program on the NBC Blue Network with “This is a day of anniversaries ... the burning of books in Germany.” Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Vincent Benet wrote the radio play They Burned the Books for the 1942 anniversary of the book burnings. In 1943, movie and stage star Ralph Bellamy presented it to an audience of a thousand at the New York Public Library. The play was translated into German, Spanish, and other languages for short-wave transmission. On May 10, 1943, WQXR’s Books Never Die radio program quoted Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate: “Arrogant with power, the Nazis burned the books which contained the accumulated truth of centuries. They thought that with flames they could destroy ideas. But those very flames lit horizons of the spirit everywhere and today liberty-loving men are united to wipe out the forces of barbarism and brutality—forces which cannot live where men read books.”


To remind people of the consequences of destroying books and of intolerance, the Writers’ War Board compiled lists of Nazi burned and banned books for wide distribution. The Writers’ War Board also sponsored student essay contests on such subjects as “What It Means To Be an American” in a time of crisis. Winners received war bonds as prizes. Many essays alluded to the enemy’s suppression of free speech, represented by images of the book burnings.

There were thousands of local commemorations of the book burnings. In 1943, the Hampshire Bookshop serving Smith College observed the book burnings’ tenth anniversary. Bookshop co-founder Marion E. Dodd wrote that Hitler, “so fearful is he of our merchandise,” had destroyed thousands of books, unaware that “you can’t burn a book—it will rise again as the Phoenix and smite the hands that set it afire.” The New York Public Library was an important leader of annual wartime observances of the Nazi book burnings. In November 1942, the library created the exhibition Books the Nazis Banned, which highlighted anthropologist Franz Boas’s words: “Banning and burning of books is the symbol of tyranny’s fear of the power of the free mind.” On Flag Day, 1942, a gigantic parade “New York at War” featured scores of floats, including one from the New York Public Library. City librarians marched under the banner “Fascism Burns Books, Democracy Reads Books.” An internal memo instructed male participants to avoid wearing brown suits, because “brown symbolizes fascism.


In April 1942, book publishers and booksellers formed the Council on Books in Wartime “to help win the war through books.” Sponsored also by the American Library Association, the P.E.N. American Center, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Association of Adult Education, the council adopted the slogan “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas.” It published nearly 123 million inexpensive paperback copies of 1,322 titles as Armed Services Editions for American troops, including works by authors whose books had been burned or banned in Nazi Germany. It also supported a host of home-front activities—radio programs, book burning anniversary observances, window displays, exhibitions, editorials, cartoons, articles, book drives and book fairs—all designed to emphasize the importance of books in wartime.

The executive director of the Council on Books in Wartime, James Vantoor, telegrammed Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt to request that she mention, in her daily column, “one of the most notorious crimes in history, the burning of the books in Nazi Germany.” Her response appeared in her syndicated feature “My Day” on May 11, 1943. As she wrote in the feature, which reached more than four million people: “In the democracies of the world the passion for freedom of speech and of thought is always accentuated when there is an effort anywhere to keep ideas away from people and to prevent them from making their own decisions.”



By executive order, President Roosevelt established the Office of War Information in June 1942. Mandated to promote an understanding of the nation’s war policies, the OWI made use of the press, radio, motion pictures, exhibitions, and public programs in the United States and abroad. Roosevelt appointed as its director Elmer Davis, a veteran newspaperman and radio newscaster. While the agency prompted controversy—its news was often slanted to conform to American wartime purposes—it did manage to attract some of America’s most talented writers and illustrators. Several who influenced the subject matter of many publications and posters were émigrés who had fled Nazism.

In May 1943, the OWI opened a giant outdoor exhibition, The Nature of the Enemy, in Rockefeller Plaza. Beneath banners asserting “The Enemy Plans This For You” were individual scenes that, according to OWI Director Elmer Davis, represented methods of political control under the Axis powers. With the exhibition, the OWI intended to expose the Nazi philosophy of “fear, slavery, and death”—“pillars in the society of evil.” But the exhibition’s six tableaux, including a depiction of concentration camps, avoided reference to the “Final Solution,” the Nazis’ systematic extermination of European Jews. Paradoxically, throughout the war the OWI either soft-pedaled or failed to publicize at all news of the most horrendous yet fundamental aspect of the nature of the Nazi enemy.

Frank Capra’s Why We Fight documentaries, required viewing for U.S. troops bound for overseas, explained the cause for which the servicemen were asked to sacrifice their lives. In the Academy Award-winning Prelude to War (1942), a narrator says: “Over here, John Q. still reads what he pleases. And although he heard of books burned in other countries, he would have laughed if anybody had told him his books would ever be burned.” Artist Arthur Szyk thought the film the greatest “gangster movie” ever made and loaned his cartoons to the OWI for publicity.

Related Links
World War II in Europe

World War II in the Pacific

“Final Solution”

The Holocaust

The United States and the Holocaust

The National Archives, online exhibition
Powers of Persuasion—Poster Art from World War II: "The Four Freedoms"

USHMM Library Bibliography: 1933 Book Burnings

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