April 13, 2003
FIGHTING THE FIRES OF HATE, AMERICA AND THE NAZI BOOK BURNINGS OPENS AT MUSEUM
“TYRANNY CANNOT DEFEAT THE POWER OF IDEAS”
— Helen Keller
April 13, 2003 — Seventy years ago this May 10, just a few months after Adolf Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany and a full six years before World War II, German university students carried out an “Action Against the Un-German Spirit” targeting authors ranging from Helen Keller and Ernest Hemingway to Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Their orchestrated book burnings across Germany would come to underscore German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine’s 19th century warning, “where one burns books, one soon burns people.”
On April 30, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will open a special 10th Anniversary exhibition Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings. It provides a vivid look at the first steps the Nazis took to suppress freedom of expression, and the strong response that occurred in the United States both immediately and in the years thereafter. The exhibition focuses on how the book burnings became a potent symbol during World War II in America’s battle against Nazism, and concludes by examining their continued impact on our public discourse.
Covered widely in the media, the Nazi book burnings provoked immediate, strong reactions in the United States among writers, artists, scholars, journalists, librarians, labor unions, clergy, political figures, and others. Newspaper editorials and political cartoonists denounced the bonfires. Newsweek called it a “holocaust of books”; TIME a “bibliocaust.” American writers including Helen Keller, Lewis Mumford, and Sinclair Lewis – some of whose books had been consigned to the flames – wrote open letters condemning the book burnings. The American Jewish Congress organized massive street demonstrations in more than a dozen U.S. cities to protest Nazi persecution of Jews, using May 10 and the book burnings to broaden the coalition of anti-Nazi groups.
“Americans were deeply offended by the book burnings, which were a gross assault against their core values,” said Museum Director Sara Bloomfield. “Their response was intense, in fact so strong that throughout the war the government used the book burnings to help define the nature of the enemy to the American public. Unfortunately, the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews was not seen as a compelling case for fighting Nazism.”
As World War II progressed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would evoke the book burnings as a vivid example of the difference between a democratic America and Nazi Germany. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt condemned the book burnings in her daily newspaper column. The exhibition also focuses on how organizations ranging from the Library of Congress, the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and the National Council of Women to the Writer’s War Board, the Council on Books in Wartime, and the Office of War Information used the 1943 10th anniversary of the book burnings to rally Americans around the war effort. It documents how the importance of books and the free marketplace of ideas were given currency through the slogan “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas,” which appeared in posters, proclamations, radio broadcasts, and scores of other outlets.
The exhibition concludes with the postwar years, exploring how the Nazi book burnings have continued to resonate in American politics, literature, and popular culture. It features post-war evocations of book burnings, including a McCarthy-era speech in which President Eisenhower urged Dartmouth graduates, “Don’t join the book burners”; films such as Pleasantville and Field of Dreams; episodes of The Waltons and M*A*S*H; the death threats against Salman Rushdie; and the public burning of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings will run through October 13, 2003, at the Museum and then travel nationwide. It includes displays of period artifacts, documents, and news coverage, along with film, video, and newsreel footage. For more information on the exhibition and the series of programs highlighting the Museum’s 10th Anniversary, visit www.ushmm.org.