Book burning and destruction has a long and ignoble history. From King Jehoiakim ordering a scroll written by the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah to be burnt, to the public burning of the ‘papist bull’ at the instruction of Martin Luther in Wittenberg’s, to the wholesale destruction of copies of Margaret Sanger’s book on birth control ‘Family Limitation’ as recently as 1923. In 1823, the German Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote in his play ‘Almansor’ the words, ‘Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen’ or ‘Where books are burned, in the end, people will also be burned’.
Dresden was an early adopter of National Socialism and the Nazis in Dresden took a similarly prompt lead on book burning. On 8th March 1933, a large bonfire of books blazed opposite the Dresden Royal Conservatory of Music. The new Reich Governor
Martin Mutschmann appointed in 1933 had been assiduous in following orders. What followed in the city after his installation made some prescient citizens leave immediately, whilst others like Victor Klemperer and my family, simply looked on in horror.
The Nazi book burnings were ostensibly a campaign conducted by the German Student Union. Actions like the Dresden bonfire were repeated in towns and cities across the Reich. On May 10th, in many university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades ‘against the un-German spirit.’ These highly scripted rituals required Nazi officials, academics and student leaders to address participants and spectators. The books targeted for burning were those viewed as being subversive or opposed to Nazi ideologies. The bonfires also served to instill fear.
All these types of writing, as described by the Nazis, along with many others were banned: writing by Jewish authors regardless of the field, the works of traitors, emigrants and authors from foreign countries who believed they could attack and denigrate the new German Reich, the literature of Marxism, Communism and Bolshevism, Pacifist literature, literature with liberal and democratic attitudes and writings supporting the Weimar Republic, historical writings whose purpose was to denigrate the origin, spirit and culture of the German ‘Volk’, books that advocated “art”, which is decadent, bloodless or purely constructivist, writings on sexuality and sexual education which serve the egocentric pleasure of the individual and thus completely destroy the principles of race and Volk, popular entertainment literature that depicts life and life’s goals in a superficial, unrealistic and cloying manner, based on a bourgeois or upper-class view of life and patriotic kitsch in literature.
Book burning was a stark warning to, and persecution of, those whose opinions were opposed to Nazi ideology. And, of course, far worse was to come. Like Victor Klemperer, many artists, writers and scientists were banned from working and publication. Their works could no longer be found in libraries or on the syllabuses of schools or universities. Some of them were driven to exile, others were deprived of their citizenship or forced into a self-imposed exile from society. For other writers Nazi persecutions ended in death. Many died in concentration camps or were murdered, others despaired and committed suicide.