Sunday, August 02, 2020

'Wherever Books Are Burned'

On Jan. 30, 1933, the day Hitler was named Reich Chancellor, Joseph Roth boarded a train in Berlin, traveled to Paris and never again returned to Germany. Two months later the German Student Union proclaimed an “Action Against the Un-German Spirit,” culminating in a “cleansing” (Säuberung) by fire. On April 8, the student group, with the endorsement of Joseph Goebbels, drafted twelve “theses” deliberately echoing Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, calling for the purification of German culture, specifically literature. On May 10, university students in Berlin burned some 25,000 “un-German” volumes. Similar incinerations took place in thirty-four university towns in Germany  

Some of the books targeted for burning were predictable: volumes by Marx, Einstein, Freud. Others are more baffling: Helen Keller, Jack London, Hemingway and Theodore Dreiser. In February 1933, in a letter to Stefan Zweig, Roth wrote: “The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”

That September, in the French magazine Cahiers Juif, Roth published “The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind,” now collected in What I Saw: Reports From Berlin, 1920-1933 (trans. Michael Hoffman, 2002). Roth writes:

“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 . . . —all this means far more than the threatened and terrorized world seems to realize: It must be understood.  Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating.  It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination (it will be the task of some future generation to establish the reasons for this disgraceful capitulation).”

The burning of books continues. On Friday in Portland, the spiritual descendants of Goebbels and his young followers burned a pile of the ultimate Jewish book, The Bible. One wonders how many of the arsonists have actually read it, or any book. Roth writes: “If the books of Jewish or supposed Jewish authors are burned, what is really set fire to is the Book of Books: the bible.”

I can’t imagine myself into the wish to set fire to books, any books, even those I detest – Mein Kampf, for instance, or Das Kapital. In Almansor: A Tragedy (1823), Heinrich Heine composed his best-known and most prophetic sentence: Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.

That is, “Wherever books are burned, men in the end will also burn.”


Richard Zuelch said...

Unless I miss my guess, Heine's books were also burned by the Nazis.

Edward Bauer said...

I've been thinking about this since yesterday. Your work is always entertaining and educational (for me anyway). At times, though, you are profound and important. This is one of those times. Thank you for writing this. I wish it could be broadcast more widely; but despair that, even then, many wouldn't understand.

Dwight said...

The timing of your post is coincidental with my finishing Hitler’s First Hundred Days by Peter Fritzsche, which covers the time period from Jan 30 to Apr 8, 1933. The events of that period rhyme with the present a little more than is comforting.