FIGHTING THE FIRES OF HATE: AMERICA AND THE NAZI BOOK BURNINGS
BACKGROUND: AMERICAN RESPONSE
The Nazi Book Burnings: The American Response
The public burning of works by Jewish and non-Jewish authors from around the world was a visual affront to one of America’s most treasured freedoms – the right to the free expression of ideas. The German Students Association framed the burnings in virulently antisemitic terms, first attacking Jews, and then all those deemed “un-German.” Following on the heels of a procession of abuses against Jewish citizens, the book burnings evoked widespread protest among the American press and public.
The American Jewish Congress deliberately chose May 10, 1933 – the pre-announced date of the Nazi book burnings – to coordinate massive, nationwide street demonstrations against the Nazi persecution of Jews and the burning of books. The organized protest served as a catalyst for anti-Nazi groups wishing to publicly denounce the civil violations of the Hitler regime. The largest protest took place in New York City, where up to 100,000 people marched for six hours decrying events in Germany. At the time it was the largest demonstration in New York City history.
The American media extensively covered the book burnings and the resultant protests. It was virtually unanimous in its condemnation of the acts, but considered them with varying degrees of gravity. Some newspapers called the German student actions “silly,” “ineffective,” or “infantile.” The New Yorker made light of the “extra-curricular activities” of the Nazi students. But others, such as Ludwig Lewisohn of The Nation, forecast the dawning of a “dark age,” an “insane” assault “against the life of the mind intellectual values, and the rights of the human spirit.”
The book burnings were a constant symbol of Nazi tyranny before, during, and after World War II. Before America’s entry into war with Germany, a number of individuals and organizations worked to keep the memory of the book burnings alive. The New School established a “University in Exile” composed of German scholars who had fled their homeland. Anti-fascist organizations such as the left-leaning League of American Writers and the German P.E.N. Club in exile sponsored exhibits and lectures on the subject. With America’s entry into the conflict the Writers’ War Board, the Council on Books in Wartime, and the Office of War Information rallied the public around the war effort. “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas” became a wartime slogan. Today, the symbolism of the 1933 bonfires has entered into the American culture of politics, film, and television as a powerful metaphor of demagoguery, censorship, and suppression.