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“Not long now: Anyone who still speaks of freedom of thought in Germany, that person is giving funeral eulogies. Because this beloved hero, this free spirit, is already dying a pitiful death. In reality, such a hero no longer even exists — let us be under no illusions. And despite all our sentimental memories of the nearly-departed, we must acknowledge that he himself is to blame for his own demise. He waits peacefully to see whether he will die of exhaustion or whether he will be sentenced to death by the courts.”

Axel Eggebrecht, “Wer weiter liest, wird erschossen! [Anyone who reads on will be shot!]” Weltbühne, January 1932.

Incinerated Thought

The book burning of May 10th, 1933 on Opernplatz in front of the Berlin University publicly concludes the first phase in the Nazi consolidation of power. The staged ritual of symbolically destroying the exponents of the Weimar Systemzeit (a pejorative way of describing the previous system of government, akin to railing against “the system” or “the establishment”) is intended to demonstratively put an end to the unloved “Weimar laboratory” — i.e. the attempt to foster a republic of social reform, cultural avant-garde, and artistic experiments. In direct connection to the antisemitic boycott of April 1st, 1933, the DSt (German Student Union), start their “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist [Action Against the Un-German Spirit],” which particularly targets intellectuals. This action attacks “undesirable” lecturers, and is marked by acts of violence and intimidation which are racist and anti-socialist in nature. The University management, remaining on the fence, contents itself with appeals to restore discipline and order. Antisemites from within the public library system and activists from the Nazi-dominated DSt put together lists of undesirable texts. Ultimately, May 10th sees books burnt at 30 locations across Germany. The intention is for there to be Schandpfähle (wooden posts akin to medieval stocks, to which people, or in this case books, would be fastened), and incendiary speeches such as the infamous Feuersprüche (“fire oaths”). However, local authorities are given carte blanche in terms of how the book burnings are organized.

One month after the passing of the “Law on the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” the book burnings grab the public’s attention and reinforce the systematic destruction of the livelihoods of intellectuals. The events receive special attention in Berlin, where quite a number of the authors who face the stigma of having their works burnt had taught or studied. Furthermore, multiple appearances on radio and newsreel amplify the presence of new Reich Minister of Propaganda Goebbels, succinctly illustrating the building of a media apparatus that secures his grip over creatives and their production tools. From this point on, his apparatus decides the fates of cultural workers and artists, and pressures them to tow the party line. Those who refuse are denounced, blacklisted, or even subjected to the terror of political persecution. The various ways in which the fire oaths scapegoat the enemies of Nazism correspond to categories of persecution, and these categories later reappear when assigning prisoners to groups in the concentration camps.

Brief Summaries of Exhibition Displays

[1] The Weimar Laboratory: In Search of Another Life

The “Golden Twenties“ are marked by contradictions, as well as the flourishing of the technical and cultural avant-garde. Architecture, art, cinema, radio, airplanes – the beginnings of modernity can especially be found in the big cities of the Weimar Republic.

At the same time, bitter disputes over the political system and social values make an indelible mark on the young republic. The democratic constitution of 1919 enables greater political participation. Women, workers, minority groups, and the youth are all engaged in the fight for self-determination. Their aspiration to dismantle inequality goes up against the reactionary protectionism of vested interests and well-established economic power structures.

Mass culture and the world of work become arenas for the artistic avant-garde to intervene into social conflicts.

[2] Struggle for Cultural Hegemony: The Response of the Völkisch Right

The Right uses propaganda, attempted putsches, and murder to attack the Republic. To counter what they see as Niedergang and Entartung (“decline and degeneracy”), anti-democratic and antisemitic theorists lay out an authoritarian and völkisch (ethno-nationalist) order.

Through mass rallies and a cult of violence, the Nazi Party achieves dominance in the German right-wing. In the “Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur” (Militant League for German Culture) they unite intellectuals, DSt members, and student fraternities. On May 10th, 1933, these groups celebrate victory over “asphalt literature” and the symptoms of democratic “decadence”.

[3] Cantering towards Dictatorship: From Prussian Coup to the “Day of German Work”

With its foundations partly laid by the 1932 Prussian coup d’état, the book burning symbolically concludes the first phase of the Nazi consolidation of power. Following Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor, he bases his “legal coup d’état” on methods used by the conservative presidential cabinet, such as emergency decrees and state commissioners. Bans on press and political parties, the stripping away of civil rights, special courts, the enabling act, and employment bans all follow; meanwhile the SA, in their role as an auxiliary police force, terrorize any potential opposition.

[4] Burning Tidings: On the Semantics of Fire

Flaming pyres bridge the gap between self-heroization and symbolically-charged destruction. In his 1815 polemic “Germanomania,“ Saul Ascher sees antisemitism as the incendiary fuel of the völkisch movement: “um das Feuer der Begeisterung zu erhalten, muß Brennstoff gesammelt werden” (“in order to fan the flames of zealotry, one must collect firewood”). In 1817, Ascher’s pamphlet is burned on the Wartburg by student fraternity members. In the “fire oaths” they call out during the ceremony, they make threats against Jews, who in their eyes are “mocking our ethnicity and German culture.”

The Nazis demonstrate their strength and devotion to the cause through staging torchlit marches, fire rituals, and midsummer festivals.

[5] Culture War at the University: Profiling “Enemies” through a Storm of Words

In April 1933, general student committees are legally recognized throughout the Reich and are for the first time granted the right to co-determination within a university senate and faculty. The leadership of the Nazi-dominated DSt plan to build on this with their Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist (“Action Against the Un-German Spirit”), a campaign which has the support of ministers, and which particularly focuses on Berlin. A library Säuberungsausschuss (“cleansing committee”) delivers blacklists of texts which are to be destroyed. The combat division of the DSt, supported by the SA, comb through Berlin’s libraries and ransack the Institute of Sex Research.

[6] The Campaign Reaches Its Climax: May 10th, 1933 in Berlin

In connection with the antisemitic boycott of April 1st, 1933, the DSt organizes the “action against the un-German spirit.” In many college towns – and mostly on May 10th – books, as well as symbols of the republic and of the workers’ movement are publicly destroyed. In front of what is now the law faculty at Berlin’s Bebelplatz (then: Opernplatz), students and members of the SA burn around 25,000 books, as well as a looted bust of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Among the participants are Nazi pedagogue Alfred Baeumler, the NSDStB leader and law student Fritz Hippler, and DSt leader Herbert Gutjahr.

[7] Storm Clouds as a Canvas for Propaganda: Goebbels Gets Involved

In his role as Minister for Volksaufklärung (“Public Enlightenment”) and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels competes with Nazi functionaries such as Bernhard Rust and Alfred Rosenberg for influence over cultural policy. In order to increase his power, Goebbels uses the strategies of political propaganda and insights gleaned from commercial advertising. At short notice, he gives a speech at the book burning in Berlin, which he then has broadcast nationwide via radio and the newsreels. He thus creates the appearance of having been the driving force behind the action.

[8] A Closer Look: The Legal Ideologues and Masterminds behind Nazism

In the law faculty in Berlin, Jewish staff have their employment terminated. This includes Ernst Rabel (the dean) and his deputy James Goldschmidt, as well as six faculty members and at least 19 more lecturers, some of whom are political opponents of Nazism. On May 10th, works by republican lawyers such as Hugo Preuß and Gustav Radbruch are burnt, as well as writings by Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Ernst Fraenkel, and Georg Lukács. The appointments of Carl Schmitt (July 1933), Wenzeslaus von Gleispach (Dec. 1933), and Reinhard Höhn (Nov. 1935) turn the faculty into a center of Nazi legal discourse. Much as the labor law term Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”) is used as cover for existing class interests, so can völkische Großraumordnung (large-scale ethno-nationalist realm order) be used to justify imperialist policies as well as wars of aggression and genocide in Eastern Europe and against the Soviet Union. In 1936 Schmitt chairs the conference Das Judentum in der Rechtswissenschaft (“The Jewry in Law”), and his assistant becomes Herbert Gutjahr who played a significant role in the book burning.

[9] Memoricide: Destroying Remembrance

The term “memoricide“ goes back to Primo Levi and describes the remembrance of people and their ideas being comprehensively destroyed. The Nazis go so far as to physically destroy people. They raze memorial sites in Germany, as well as those in territories occupied in the war, and ban publications and the quoting of certain authors. They change street names and systematically destroy archives, libraries, and graveyards.

[10] Fire Oaths and Archetypes of the “Enemy”: Define, Detain, Destroy

From the Twelve Theses “Against the Un-German Spirit” that are posted on the walls of colleges by the DSt on April 13th, 1933, student activists develop “fire oaths,” which they shout out while casting the works of blacklisted authors into the flames. The oaths articulate the bare bones of an ideological program that will, in the subsequent years, be levied against people in the form of employment bans, the media becoming a state mouthpiece, unceasing propaganda, pogroms, political persecution, and Schutzhaft (“protective custody”) in concentration camps.

[11] Libraries in the Crosshairs: Looting, Documenting, and Destruction

Following the nationwide book burnings, the inventories of libraries and book stores are systematically decimated. 5000 titles are banned – permission to view and quote them in academic contexts is granted only in exceptional cases. Through this, the Nazis are able to regulate discourse.

In order to liquidate libraries of banned organizations or blacklisted writers, the Nazis pass and then enforce special decrees. During the war, this destruction also targets foreign cultural heritage; Poland alone loses 60 percent of its state collections. The preservation of threatened works becomes an act of resistance.

[12] Expulsions, Dismissals, Resistance: The Path to the “German College”

Regime and university leadership comply with demands from the student body – which has been taken over by Nazis – and from 1933 they ban alleged communist, social-democrat, and “unpatriotic” students, teachers, and staff from colleges. Any Jews that remain experience discrimination from classmates, colleagues, the authorities, and the colleges themselves. In 1938 they are banned from attending all public educational institutions in Germany. The Nazi takeover of universities is met by hardly any resistance from students and staff.

[13] Writers Trapped in Bureaucratic Machinery: Life on the Margins of the Volksgemeinschaft

Following the book burning, many writers are left to maneuver between opportunism, withdrawal, resistance, and exile. Looking back, it is often difficult to clearly infer the motivations behind such choices.

In October 1933, 88 members of the Prussian Academy of Arts sign a pledge of loyalty to Hitler, among them staunch supporters of Nazism such as Hans Friedrich Blunck and Hanns Johst, but also critics and opposition figures like Oskar Loerke and Otto Flake. Gottfried Benn, who succeeds the expelled Heinrich Mann as head of the poetry division, is one of the pledge’s initiators.

Despite huge pressure to conform, no one is forced to publish antisemitic texts or to join in the chorus of hate speech. With the beginning of the war, the Gestapo intensifies its crackdown on critics of the regime.

[14] From Book Burning to Genocide: Students and Academia Caught up in Propaganda and the War of Extermination

For many student leaders, the book burning is the starting point of their careers, as seen with the NSDStB leader Fritz Hippler who ends up working in state propaganda, or NSDStB member and DSt leader Herbert Gutjahr who goes on to find employment in the university and in the SD.

The beginning of the war sees SD and SS death squads being recruited, with their intake also  drawing from activists of the lecture halls such as Rudolf Oebsger-Röder, Gustav Adolf Scheel, or Helmut Knochen. After 1945, none of them are held to account for their crimes.

[15] Turning Away or Turning Back? German Exiles Torn Between Disquiet and Homesickness

After the end of the war, Alfred Döblin finds neither a homeland nor much recognition in Germany – and goes to France.

Thomas Mann, who is highly respected in both East and West Germany, makes Switzerland his primary residence. Martin Wolff, the professor of civil law who was expelled in 1935, remains in London until his death. Ernst Fraenkel teaches in West Berlin, but for a considerable length of time his work The Dual State, which deals with the German state under Nazism, receives barely any attention.
The former communist publisher Babette Gross co-founds the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In spite of censorship and his sometimes critical stance towards the regime, Stefan Heym becomes one of the most important writers of the GDR.

[16] Postponed, Put Off, and also Forgotten: Grudging Restitution and Belated Remembrance

As early as 1947 there is an event commemorating the book burning in front of the Berlin University. However, those who fell victim to Nazi persecution soon find themselves caught in the middle of the new cold war between East and West. The Federal Republic of West Germany suspects those who chose exile of committing treason, and later mainly orients itself around the bourgeois-conservative resistance of Claus von Stauffenberg and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler. The East German Democratic Republic places its focus on communists. From the 1970s on, dedicated individuals begin to republish works by authors whose books had been burned. Persecuted groups such as homosexuals, Sinti, Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities, so-called Asoziale (societal misfits), and deserters remain for a long time largely excluded from public remembrance.

  • DSt – Deutsche Studentenschaft – German Student Union
  • NSDStB – Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund – Nazi German Student Union
  • SD – Sicherheitsdienst – Intelligence agency of the SS
  • SS – Schutzstaffel – Paramilitary group, founded in 1925 as Hitler’s bodyguards
  • SA – Sturmabteilung – The “Brownshirts,” paramilitary group founded in 1921
  • Gestapo – Nazi secret police


Stefan Heym

April 10th, 1913 –December 16th, 2001

In 1931, Helmut Flieg is expelled from his school in Chemnitz because of an anti-militarist poem he wrote. He goes on to graduate high school in Berlin and begins a university degree in journalism. As a Jewish man who is publicly critical of the regime, he is thus in danger and flees first to Prague in 1933, where he takes on the name Stefan Heym, before eventually arriving in the USA. It is there that he finishes his studies and takes a job working for the exiled German left-wing press. In 1944, with the US army, he takes part in the Normandy landings. During the McCarthy era, marked by the persecution of socialists, Heym leaves the USA for the GDR (via Prague), where he soon finds himself in a precarious relationship with the state leadership.

Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich

September 15th, 1901 – June 16th, 1979

Liselotte Henrich lives in Berlin from 1911 onwards, which is also where she studies. Holding a doctorate in economics, and working at the Reich Statistical Office, she becomes involved in the resistance and assists victims of persecution — from 1944 she hides her future husband, Rudolf Welskopf, from the Nazi authorities. After becoming a Professor of Ancient History, in 1964 she is the first woman to be elected a full member of the academy of sciences of the GDR.

Babette Gross

July 16th, 1898 – February 8th, 1990

The Potsdam teacher Babette Gross enters the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1920, and in so doing meets her future life partner, the Communist Party publisher, Willi Münzenberg. Both have to abandon Germany in early 1933. In exile in Paris they reassume their publishing activities. Due to political differences, Gross leaves the KPD in 1937. Following her internment in France, she has to flee to Mexico alone in 1940. In 1947 she returns to Germany and co-founds the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Albert O. Hirschman

April 7th, 1915 – December 10th, 2012

As a Jew and a socialist, in 1933 Hirschman is forced to flee, abandoning his studies in Berlin. He fights in the Spanish Civil War against Franco, then graduates from the University of Trieste, before fighting with the French Army to defend France against the German invasion in 1940. Later he ends up in Lisbon where he provides support for other refugees, but then in 1941 he himself has to seek asylum in the USA. He rejoins the war in 1943 with the US Army. Following the German surrender, Hirschman works as a translator in a war crimes trial, and then remains in the USA where he begins a distinguished academic career.

Erich Kästner

February 23rd, 1899 – July 29th, 1974

Kästner lives in Berlin from 1927 and is regarded as an important representative of the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) artistic movement. His children’s books, especially Emil and the Detectives (1929), are hugely successful. On May 10th, 1933, he is witness to his books being burnt on Opernplatz. Frequently interrogated by the Gestapo, Kästner nevertheless remains in Germany — and receives a de facto publishing ban. He is able to continue working, for example as a screenwriter, but only under a pseudonym. It is not until the 1970s that his work from the Weimar era is rediscovered and finds recognition.

Cora Berliner

January 23rd, 1890 – 1942

Cora Berliner is born into a bourgeois Jewish family, and studies at institutions including the University of Berlin. Having attained a doctorate in economics, and following a career in the civil service, in 1930 she becomes one of the first women to become a professor at Berlin’s Berufspädagogisches Institut (vocational institute for teacher training), a post from which she is removed by the Nazis in 1933. She then becomes involved in Jewish education and welfare, and offers Jews help with emigration. She is deported in 1942, with her last recorded whereabouts being the Minsk ghetto.

Ernst Fraenkel

December 26th, 1898 – March 28th, 1975

The social-democrat and doctor of law teaches at the Hochschule für Politik (Political Institute), becomes involved as a lawyer for the workers’ movement, and takes part in debates over constitutional reform. As a Jewish “frontline soldier” of the First World War, he can continue to practice law even post-1933. Fraenkel supports the socialist resistance, but must flee to the USA in 1938. It is there in 1941 that he publishes one of the first analyses of Nazi Germany: The Dual State. It is only in 1974 that it is published in German as Der Doppelstaat. In 1951 Fraenkel returns to Germany and eventually receives a professorship at Berlin’s Free University.