September 9, 2010
THREATS TO BURN THE KORAN: THE NAZI BOOK BURNINGS AND THEIR LESSONS FOR TODAY
As we witnessed with grave alarm the recent threat by a Florida pastor to burn the Koran, we were reminded that book burnings are not new as potent ideological expression and an effective political tool. From the destruction of the Alexandrian Library in ancient times to the burnings of Harry Potter in our own day, they reflect an understanding of the immense power of ideas and their free expression—a concept fundamental to our democratic enterprise. Certainly, one could even argue that it is precisely that freedom of expression that permits the right to burn books.
And it’s important to recognize that a tiny congregation in Gainesville is hardly the same as a mass movement that obtains political power. And yet with today’s technology, the power of individuals can be dangerously amplified. This is a moment for some historical reflection.
In the spring of 1933, the Nazi regime was still in its infancy, working hard to solidify its power with the elites and other key segments of German society. This required the newly-created Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi ideology.
Removing Jews and other “undesirables” from cultural organizations and banning artists who created “degenerate” works of art were the first steps. Then on April 6, 1933, with the regime less than three months old, the German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide “Action Against the Un-German Spirit” that would culminate in a literary “cleansing” by fire. It was an impressive grass roots effort. Local chapters of the student association were to prepare press releases and articles, provide blacklists of “un-German” authors, sponsor prominent Nazis to speak at public gatherings, and negotiate for radio time. They also drafted twelve “theses”—a deliberate evocation of Martin Luther’s theses—which exalted the importance of a “pure” national language and culture. The students described the effort as a response to a worldwide Jewish “smear campaign” against Germany and a reaffirmation of German values.
A month later, on May 10, 1933, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades to protest the “un-German spirit.” The highly scripted rituals called for Nazi officials, professors, university rectors and student leaders to address the crowd. Then, as bands played, students threw truckloads of books that had been confiscated from libraries and bookstores onto bonfires with great ceremony, shouting “fire oaths.” In the center of Berlin, 40,000 witnessed Joseph Goebbels proclaim, “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state.”
In all about 25,000 volumes were burned across the country. Some were books by Jewish authors but most were not. The works of writers such as Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and Helen Keller were consumed in the fires of hate. Keller defiantly responded with an open letter to the German students: “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.”
Undeterred by the almost universal condemnation, the Nazis began to assume ever greater control of German intellectual, political, and cultural life. Within twelve years of the book burnings, they would murder six million Jews and millions of other innocent civilians across the European continent.
We can only speculate on the motives of the Florida pastor, and individual actions are surely not state power. But history teaches us the consequences of action—and inaction. Although the Nazi book burnings caused immediate outrage in Europe and the United States, it did not last long. Perhaps for us today the most important aspect of the Nazi book burnings is not what the Germans did, but what others failed to do.
Sara J. Bloomfield
Director, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum