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The Nazis Were Not the First: The Long History of Book Burnings

Posted by Anastasios Tzitzikos, Wednesday 28th June, 2017

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Book Burning Memorial at Bebelplatz, Berlin © Anastasios Tzitzikos

Book Burning Memorial at Bebelplatz, Berlin © Anastasios Tzitzikos

My name is Anastasios Tzitzikos and I have studied an MA in the History of Ideas (Birkbeck College, London) and an MA in Contemporary Greek and European History (University of Crete). In 2014 -2015 I volunteered at The Wiener Library working on the Refugee Family Papers Interactive Map project. This was a great experience which provided me with a lot of knowledge on The Wiener Library’s subject matter as well as how an archive works. In my first blog post, I have decided to examine book burnings, both in history and today.

The Nazis Were Not the First: The Long History of Book Burnings

Recently I had the chance to visit Berlin and amongst other Holocaust and World War Two monuments, I visited the memorial dedicated to the 1933 Book Burning at Bebelplatz (formerly known as Opernplatz) created by the Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman and aptly titled ‘Library’. Staring at the empty white bookshelves I remembered the first time I had found out about this atrocious event. I cannot now recall how I first learned about it; but I remember clearly linking the burnings with Ray Bradbury’s famous novel Fahrenheit 451 which was influenced by this event, which I was reading at the time. As a bibliophile, this act struck me with its barbarity. Why destroy books? What is it so dangerous about them that needs to be annihilated?

It was later on that these questions were answered, in the form of a quote by Hans J. Hillerbrand: ‘The burning of books is the categorical attempt to eradicate ideas….Indirectly (and inadvertently) book burning is a testimony to the power of ideas…The burning of a book is a symbolic act. Obviously, a book itself constitutes no physical threat to either individuals or society’ (Hillerbrand, 604).

The 1933 Nazi Book Burnings

"Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" (English: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people’’) wrote German poet Heinrich Heine in his work Almansor (Heine, 142). It is hard to imagine how more prophetic this could have been in Hitler’s Germany when on 10 May 1933 in many cities and towns around Germany ‘un-German’ books were thrown into the flames.

The burning of thousands of books in university towns was an event organized by student organisations aligned with National Socialistic ideology such as the Der Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (English: The National Socialist German Student Union) and Deutsche Studentenschaft (English: German Student Union)) and later supported by the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung (English: Reich Propaganda Ministry). Similar events were organised in 30 more university towns in Germany.  According to historian Richard Evans, ‘while the book-burnings of 1933 were largely independently led by fascist students...they were actively encouraged by the Nazi leadership in a bid to "purge the un-German spirit’ (Henley, 2010).

The destruction of anything ‘un-German’ started with the burning of books but continues to the destruction of humans themselves, and what it is rather interesting and has puzzled historians and intellectuals is how the world’s largest human destruction connects with the most “devastating literary Holocaust” of all time (Rose, 1). The mass book burnings of the 1930s’ stand together with the Reichstag fire and the boycott of the Jewish businesses as among the most striking events of the early period of Hitler’s regime, each giving indications of what possibly was going to follow.

Without the benefit of hindsight, however, it seems that not many at that time could foresee what was going to happen. As the Austrian-Jewish author and journalist Joseph Roth wrote in 1933; “Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean. The technical apotheosis of the barbarians, the terrible march of the mechanized orangutans, armed with hand grenades, poison gas, ammonia, and nitroglycerine, with gas masks and airplanes, the return of the spiritual (if not the actual) descendants of the Cimbri and Teutoni—all this means far more than the threatened and terrorized world seems to realize: It must be understood” (qtd. in Eugenides, 2003). This was to be a tragic premonition as Roth’s books also came to be burned by the Nazis. Roth himself died prematurely in Paris a few years after having fled Hitler’s Germany.

The Long History of Book Burning

Later on and after doing some general reading, I found out that the burning and banning of books has been a common practice of censorship even before Nazism. Anyone who has read the famous novel The Name of the Rose by the Italian author and Professor of Semiotics Umberto Eco will remember the forbidden part of the abbey’s library which is symbolically destroyed in the novel by fire. We could also mention the famous Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of books which were banned by the Catholic church on the grounds of heresy, anti-clericalism or lasciviousness. Many famous intellectuals of Europe such as Kant, Descartes and Voltaire found their place on the Index, which was finally abolished in the 1960s by Pope Paul VI. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Émile and his Social Contract were burned after an order of the Genevan City Council in 1763 ‘an indication surely, that not everyone in the eighteenth century embraced what we have come to call ‘“Enlightenment ideals” of toleration’ (Hillerbrand, 601). The case of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) is also famous for the destruction of objects that were considered as objectionable by Savonarola during the Renaissance period in Italy. Ironically Savonarola will be burned himself after an order of Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) in 1497.   

However, book burning, as an act of  extreme symbolic censorship, has since then been related with the ideology of Nazism. It was the first time that the destruction of books seemed to have been realized fully as an act of great symbolic meaning and power. Josef Goebbels referred to the book burning, as an act of ‘strong, great, and symbolic deed’.

Another fact that made this monument more interesting for me was when I found out that most of the books burned came from the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (English: Institute of Sexual Sciences) directed by the influential physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) who was one of the first advocates of homosexuality and transgenderism and whose influence and works I studied as a graduate History student.

The Destruction of Cultural Heritage Today

The book burnings undertaken by the Nazi Party has had an important impact on society today where it is common for acts of extremism to be directed at cultural monuments and therefore indirectly against the destruction of memory. A recent documentary by Robert Bevan titled ‘The Destruction of Memory’ tackles this issue with an emphasis on the wars in Iraq and Syria. In the past few years news about the destruction of cultural heritage monuments around the world have become familiar. Most recently around 8,000 books from the Mosul Library in Iraq were burned (Buchanan and Saul, 2015).

Furthermore, there is a growing counter-movement as intellectuals and artists try to raise awareness against any type of censorship. Argentinian artist Marta Miujín will stage in Documenta 14 the ‘Acropolis of Banned Books’, a huge replica of the Acropolis in Athens, made from 100,000 banned books. The work was originally displayed in Buenos Aires after the collapse of Argentina's dictatorship in the 1980s and will be displayed this month on the Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany where in 1933 books were also burned. Incidentally the square is not far from the Fridericianum, a great library and museum founded in 1779 which was destroyed during an Allied bombing attack in 1941 and resulted in the destruction of over 350,000 books. Documenta, the organisation behind the installation, was originally founded in 1955 as the “Society of Western Art of the 20th Century” in order to present art that had been deemed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis.

To conclude, the act of book burning, with its symbolic connotations and its power to destruct memory is again becoming relevant in our turbulent period. As a result, resistance against the most barbaric act of cultural destruction and censorship is more pressing than ever. Even if acts like the burnings of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or the Florida pastor Terry Jones’ plans to burn the Quran may look trivial and grotesque, there is still a lot of serious discussion to be done concerning the extent that ideas and books can be considered a ‘danger’ for regimes. Recently, for example, debate was sparked by the decision of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich and Berlin (IfZ) to republish Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This highlights how the publication of such a book still raises questions of an immensely political nature.


Works Cited:

Buchanan, Rose Troup and Heather Saul. “Isis burns thousands of books and rare manuscripts from Mosul's libraries”, The Independent, 25 February 2015.

Eugenides, Jeffrey. “Joseph Roth's Movable Cafe”, The New York Times, 2 February 2003.

Heine, Heinrich, Almansor: A Tragedy. Translated by Graham Ward, 2003.

Henley, John. “Book-Burning: Fanning the Flames of Hatred”, The Guardian, 10 September 2010.

Hillerbrand, Hans, J. “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (And Powerlessness) of Ideas,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 74, No. 3, 2006, pp. 593-614.

Morris, Jane. “Documenta to Restage Acropolis of Banned Books”, The Arts Newspaper, 6 October 2016.

Rose, Jonathan, The Holocaust and the Book. Destruction and Preservation. Essays on the Nazi Campaign Against the Written Word, University of Massachusetts Press. 2008.

Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library holds material on the book burnings, and the way in which the Nazi Party imposed censorship more generally, some of which is listed below:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: book burnings; censorship; literature; human rights; exile art


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