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.”