"Book burning" refers to the ritual destruction by fire of books. Usually carried out in a public context, the burning of books stems from cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials. In 1933, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, began an effort to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi goals. The government purged cultural organizations of Jews and others alleged to be politically suspect or who performed or created art works which the Nazis labeled “degenerate.” German university students were among the vanguard of the early Nazi movement. The ultra-nationalism and antisemitism of middle-class, secular student organizations had been intense and vocal for decades. After World War I, many German students opposed the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and found in National Socialism a suitable vehicle for their political discontent and hostility.
On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” by fire. In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in 34 university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.” In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered to hear Joseph Goebbels speak.
Among the authors whose books student leaders burned that night were well-known socialists such as Bertolt Brecht; the founder of the concept of communism, Karl Marx; critical “bourgeois” writers like the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler, and “corrupting foreign influences,” among them American author Ernest Hemingway. The fires also consumed writings of the Nobel Prize-winning German author Thomas Mann and works of best-selling author Erich Maria Remarque, whose unflinching description of war, All Quiet on the Western Front, Nazi ideologues vilified. Other writers included on the blacklists were the Americans Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller, whose belief in social justice encouraged her to champion the disabled and pacifism. The May 10th nationwide program was a success, eliciting widespread newspaper coverage. Radio broadcasts brought the speeches, songs, and ceremonial chants “live” to countless German listeners. Naturally Jewish authors were among the writers whose works were burned, among them Franz Werfel, Max Brod, and Stefan Zweig. The crowds also burned writings of the beloved nineteenth-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who in 1820 had written, "Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people."