Continuing to Read, Continuing to Remember
Researching, studying, and teaching after Memoricide
Under the conditions of Germany’s science policy, it has taken some time for the HU to divert its attention from the glittering highlights which the University has produced in terms of ideas, scientific innovations, and discoveries. With the collaboration of the Stiftungsinitiative 10. Mai, in 2001 the University began to examine its own history of exclusion and its role in the war of extermination – this process is still ongoing. The University’s 2002 Mission Statement called “the burning of books and cooperation in the persecution and expulsion of its members” one of its “darkest chapters,” a chapter which resulted in the end of many academic careers, and the eradication of academic papers, approaches, and methods. This loss is still discernible in much of today’s specialist discourse. It is worth rediscovering the thought processes of those academics, artists, and students who were driven into exile and killed – to make the authors visible and to maintain their presence within the life of the university. The remembrance of the book burning offers a starting point for achieving this.
Continuing to Research
There is much that is already known about the book burning: the major events, people involved, and the manner in which it manifested itself. Larger questions remain unanswered:
• What does the book burning mean for cultural policy, for policies of conquest and extermination, or for the actions of the Wehrmacht and SS in the conquered and occupied territories (the eradication of Polish intelligentsia, internment of intellectuals in France, etc.)?
• Do the themes of exile, resistance, and “inner emigration,” in their reciprocal relationships, merit reinvestigation through the lens of the book burning?
• What became of the expelled academics?
• How can we implement an interdisciplinary reappraisal of the work they were forced to cut short?
• How can we systematically account for the economic damage intentionally inflicted upon the persecuted, with transfers of wealth whose effects persist even today?
• What was it that thwarted the restitution of copyrights and assets that had been violently seized? How did the Cold War, as well as the economic interests of those who inherited this transferred wealth, influence matters?
• Should there be a legal review of the events?
Memoricide has been effective. Much has been irrevocably forgotten. An active approach to remembrance can counteract its effects. There is a memorial on the Bebelplatz, memorial plaques at the entrance to the “Kommode” (today the library of the HU law faculty), and regular events – so there is no “drawing a line under it.”
• Of the works which were burned, those written by the “stars” of the literary scene at the time have been the first to return to libraries. In the meantime, many of the works of banned authors have again become available, but have not found a wide readership – are the negative depictions from Nazi propaganda still having a tacit effect?
• The book burning is overshadowed by the persecution that was to come. Meanwhile, it has found a place in public remembrance. One must envision its preconditions, mechanisms, and consequences as being the result of a specific historical development. Only through this can one gauge its significance to the current debates around censorship and exclusion, with its purported similarities to historical events.
• What does May 10th then represent? Freedom of speech as in “Das Freie Wort” or “Das Freie Buch?” Aside from access to the texts, the focus of active remembrance should be on public debate and making visible who the authors were.
• To what extent do the bans associated with the book burning, and the subsequent unavailability of that body of knowledge, affect our contemporary perspectives? Which questions, values, and basic assumptions would today be the starting points for an “unburned” scientific, literary, and artistic corpus?
Continuing to Consolidate
Remembrance is a process that requires a variety of stimuli. It needs locations, documentation, and opportunities. Memorials, Stolpersteine (the “stumbling block” memorials to victims of Nazism), or plaques can only provide the initial push. Active remembrance must become lived practice in the daily life of the university.
• Various publications and website projects make available the locations of the book burnings of 1933, the affected authors and works, as well as more in-depth information:
• With its Bibliothek der verbrannten Bücher (Library of Burned Books), the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies in Potsdam, that has earned merit for research into the book burnings, dedicates itself to the task of republishing 120 burned works for school libraries.
• Various university libraries are going to great lengths to reacquire the first editions of works which had been burned in 1933, collating them and putting them back on the shelves or displaying them.
• Ein Ort zum Lesen (a place to read), a bookshelf sculpture erected in 2013 at the location of the book burning, in the foyer of the HU’s “Kommode” library, follows the idea of “bookcrossing.”
• Ein Ort zum Verorten (a place to locate) is a concept for a room in the foyer of the “Kommode” to remember the Berlin book burning. It was developed by Juliane Pfeiffer for HisKom, before being presented to the board of the law department in 2017. Its implementation is still forthcoming.
• Since 2021, compulsory modules of law degrees must deal with Nazi legal injustices (according to § 5a DRiG). One aspect of this is giving name to the voids left in law libraries after 1933.
The Initiative to Rename the Palandt
Up until July 2021, some of the most well-known works of legal publishers C.H. Beck carried the names of Nazi lawyers, e.g. the renowned Palandt short legal commentary for the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (BGB, the German Civil Code). It was named after Otto Palandt, who was the president of the Reichsjustizprüfungsamts (Nazi Germany’s Law Students’ Examination Authority) from 1934 to 1943, whose contribution amounted to merely providing a foreword to the work. The person who pioneered the short legal commentary, which remains one of the most successful series from C.H. Beck, was the Jewish publisher Otto Liebmann. In 1933 he was forced to sell his publishing house to Heinrich Beck. Generations of law students have worked with the Palandt, but the name generated little outrage among those students. In 2017 a student initiative, in a skillful and media-savvy fashion, demanded the renaming of the BGB commentary. This initiative eventually met with success: as of 2022 the Palandt has been renamed Grüneberg – Liebmann continues to go uncredited.