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Relaunch on May 10th, 2023
About the Exhibition, Context, and the Initiative

On May 10th, 1933 – 90 years ago – on the square right in front of this building, members of the German Student Union, student fraternities, the SA, the Nazi Party, and other antisemitic organizations set a bonfire ablaze. Opposite the university’s main building and being filmed for the newsreels, the ritual marked the climax of the nationwide “action against the un-German spirit.” Each book cast into the flames represented the knowledge and achievements of those that the Nazis wanted to remove from the so-called Volkskörper (the “body of the nation” but rather meaning an ethnically “pure” Germany).

The exhibition “Wer weiterliest, wird erschossen …” (Anyone Who Reads on Will Be Shot), first shown in 2013, outlines the events leading up to Berlin’s book burning, as well as how the situation unfolded and its wider significance. It depicts the stages on the road to excluding opposition thought: the university and its students submitting to Gleichschaltung, i.e. forced (self-imposed) conformity, then paths into exile, into concentration camps, or a so-called “inner emigration.” At its center is “memoricide,” the systematic erasure of the ideas, works, and indeed existence of anyone they declared an “unperson.” The book burning of May 10th, 1933 acted as a beacon marking this erasure, before its escalation into a war of extermination and genocide. With remembrance and reparation remaining contentious issues, the effects of this “memoricide” continue to be felt today.

Any reappraisal, research, or remembrance of the book burnings which took place in Berlin and more than 90 other cities were for a long time undertaken by civic initiatives, and for this reason often remained fragmentary or with a scope limited to the occasion and its accompanying events.

Precarious Memories

Authors in exile had already begun commemoration in the form of the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library) of 1934, and the events commemorating the 10-year anniversary in 1943. After 1947’s Tag des freien Buches (Day of Book Freedom), the GDR makes it a yearly day of remembrance. In West Germany, a remembrance day is first put in place in 1979 under another name.

In both East and West Germany, the occasion of the 50th anniversary in 1983 sees the publication of texts which provide more detailed accounts of the events of May 10th, 1933, the people involved, their perspectives, and their life stories. Since then, at the location in which the events occurred, the book burning is commemorated by a plaque, and since 1995 also by the bare bookshelves of The Empty Library, a memorial that sits below ground level.

Researching Remembrance

To prepare for the 70th anniversary, students and other interested parties from the Humboldt-Universität (HU) became involved in the “Stiftungsinitiative 10. Mai” (May 10th Foundation Initiative). They widened the scope beyond the event itself, accessed additional knowledge resources, and worked to establish visible and inquisitive remembrance. The envisaged foundation, which had been intended as a center for connectivity and resource pooling, collapsed due to the banking crisis of 2007–2008. The ideas and approaches have been continued by the Humboldt Initiative, the Moses Mendelssohn Center, and ultimately by those involved in this exhibition: the Historical Commission of the Student Body of Berlin (HisKom).

In 2008, the student parliament of the HU tasked the HisKom with the realization of an exhibition for the University’s Bicentennial. In its 2010 exhibition presenting the 200-year history of studying in Berlin, there was already a focus on the book burning and Nazism, with these later being granted their own standalone exhibition for the 80th anniversary in 2013.

Today, as the exhibition is being re-staged 10 years on, 90 years after the events, new questions are posed and numerous gaps in research persist. The resources behind this relaunch are still lacking: researching remembrance requires time, finances, personnel, and an Ort zum Verorten (a location for permanent discourse and debate).

Titel der Ausstellung 2023

Stiftungsinitiative 10. Mai (May 10th Foundation Initiative)
At the beginning of the 2000s, the founding group of the Foundation Initiative included Rainer Wahls and Daniel Apelt (who were then student activists), Werner Tress and William Hiscott (both students of philosophy and history), as well as the historian of philosophy Hans Christian Förster, and the historian of science and economics Bernd Schilfert. The 2001 founding ceremony was supported by economic historian Thomas Kuczynski, the educational historian Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, and Matthias Burchard, who achieved some renown for his research into the Generalplan Ost (the Nazi “Master Plan for the East”), published by what is today the Albrecht Daniel Thaer-Institut.

Continue reading: Summaries of the panels of the 2013 exhibition