The History of Nazi Book Burning

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The rise in book censorship across the United States is reminiscent of the fascist tendencies throughout history. While book banners and censorship supporters paint their concerns as specific to contemporary issues, it’s a common way to consolidate power. The history of Nazi book burning is one of the most obvious antecedents to the censorship of books in the U.S.

Book burning began shortly after the Nazi Party took control over the government: “Beginning on May 10, 1933, Nazi-dominated student groups carried out public burnings of books they claimed were “un-German.” The book burnings took place in 34 university towns and cities. Works of prominent Jewish, liberal, and leftist writers ended up in the bonfires.”

black and white image of a group of people performing the Nazi salute next to a large pile of burning photos
Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons

However, this was not the first time Germans had burned “un-German” books. In 1817, groups of students demonstrated their patriotism for the unification of Germany by mounting massive bonfires of books. At this time, what is now Germany was a loose collection of cities. This moment of censorship was driven by the conceptions of race and nationalism spreading across Europe.

With these ideas came the need to define what was German and what was not. Exclusion is necessary to create an enclosed nation. Part of the rhetoric of German nationalism was that all true Germans were Christian. Some German nationalists believed Jews could assimilate only if they converted. German Jewish people disagreed and fought for equal recognition under German law. Gabriel Riesser, a prominent Jewish activist during the first half of the 19th century, argued that the Jewish people’s participation in the army validated their German identity, not their faith.

The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote with chilling clairvoyance, “where one burns books, one will soon burn people.” Although Germany was officially unified in 1871, chaos and power-grabs in the form of nationalistic fervor were quick to dominate the country.

Ideological Purpose of Book Burning

As soon as they took power in 1933, the Nazi Party swiftly enacted their agenda to enforce racist, exclusionary ideology. The Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, spearheaded this mission to “synchronize” German culture by rooting out supposed “un-German” material and stirring up nationalist fervor.

While the Nazi Party also worked to bolster their hard power with military might, the consolidation of soft power through cultural destruction was equally important. Goebbels took a broad approach to the discipline of the German people through controlling their cultural appetites. The Ministry oversaw the institution of the Hitler Youth, what foreign press was allowed and what the national press said, film censorship, and suppressing counter-propaganda. Anything that criticized the methods of the Third Reich or their policies had to be quashed or demonized.

Although Goebbels was antisemitic from a young age, the Nazi Party truly radicalized him and gave him the opportunity to enact such draconian policy. The fundamental belief of the Nazi Party was that the Jewish people (as well as other un-German forces) were the source of all of Germany’s ills. When the Nazis took power, Goebbels pushed for immediate action against the Jews, banning them from using public transport and requiring all Jewish-owned businesses to be labeled as such.

All these actions served to create a culture of fear and exclusion to support flawed idea of Aryan purity. Book burnings, visible markers of difference, and tight control of widely distributed media (like films and radio) all served the division of people living in Germany and set the stage for future inconceivably evil actions taken by the Nazi Party. Since everyone was either supportive of German purity, or too scared to speak up for fear retribution, the Nazi Party could push any policy they wanted.

Taking the time to separate German and un-German texts (even if a number of them originated in Germany) also allowed the Party to define the enemy. The un-German forces defined by the Party were texts from Jewish writers, socialist writing, anything democratic, or foreign authors.

Schools as the Locus of Conflict

On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Students’ Association announced the book-burning action, which was called an “Action Against the Un-German Spirit.” German university students were early supporters of Nazi ideology in the 1920s and were eager to display their German nationalism through these censorious actions.

This was a coordinated effort on the part of the Ministry that oversaw the German Students’ Association. Local university chapters received press releases, visits from high-ranking Nazi Party members to give speeches, and radio time to publicize the action. Goebbels wanted to dominate the radio airwaves and the print press in order to consolidate soft power over the German people. He wanted them to feel justified in their outright racism in the name of German purity. The low-level buzz of German right-wing nationalism was impossible to avoid.

The German Students’ Association also drafted “12 theses,” a deliberate callback to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The 12 theses were posted around university towns and outlined the ways in which the Nazi Party believed the Jewish people were attempting to destroy German culture. Whatever individual students may or may not have believed, the universities were pushed to act as stewards of the Nazi Party’s conception of German purity.

On May 6, 1933, the first book-burning action took place. The Institute of Sexology was targeted by German students. The library of the Institute collected over 20,000 texts about intersexuality, homosexuality, and transgender people. Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the Institute, also performed the first gender confirmation surgery on Dora Richter, who died in 1933 and was most likely killed in the chaos of the book burning action. This initial step was part of the Nazi Party’s mission to ban all “deviant” sexuality.

Across the country in 34 towns with universities, students and Nazi supporters gathered to burn books. The image of the ritual is very familiar: “On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades ‘against the un-German spirit.’” The Charlottesville, Virginia right-wing rally of 2017 replicated this image exactly.

The book-burning in Berlin was the largest event. Goebbels spewed rhetoric of German purity to 40,000 spectators at the Opernplatz. That day, over 25,000 books were burned in total.

What Was Un-German Book?

Before the burnings, the propaganda ministry worked with booksellers and university leaders to compile blacklists of authors who did not align with Nazi policy. Helen Keller’s books were burned not only because she lived with disabilities, but she was also a socialist and a pacifist.

Other authors on the blacklist included authors who were not born in Germany, writers who supported the Weimar Republic, Karl Marx and all other communists, socialists like Bertolt Brecht, anything written by a Jewish author, pornographic writing, or writing that advocated for a bourgeois lifestyle. The seemingly endless list of books was also taken to libraries in Poland, which were forced to only stock the “pure” German texts. Of course, the many Germans who wrote books about socialism or art or culture were not allowed in these libraries or universities anymore.

An Un-German Response

Counter-protests immediately sprang across American cities, and the American media responded with shock and warnings about what the Nazi Party would do in the future to further push for German purity. American Jewish leaders, who were attempting to sound the alarm about the Nazi Party, organized protests and marched against the “culture war” against the destruction “un-German” culture. In New York City, over 100,000 people marched in opposition to the actions of the Nazi Party.

Targeting culture is a necessity for dictatorial control. Fascist leaders seek to crush any thoughts that might encourage resistance to their regime. However, there was consistent opposition to the Nazi regime.  As Helen Keller said in her open letter to German students the day before the book burnings, “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas.”

As these methods of cultural restriction rise in the U.S., it is deeply important to oppose book bannings and pay attention to what government officials mean by un-American when they choose to ban books about queer kids and racial injustice.  

The fact that state governments are choosing schools to start the book bans is also deliberate. The Nazi Party exerted control over universities and children through the Hitler Youth program in order to raise compliantly racist Germans. American schools filled with students with no knowledge of the Middle Passage, the Jim Crow era, or internment camps will pay no attention to the erosion of protections for marginalized people under federal or state law. If they know nothing about discrimination, they can’t fight it.

They’re also fed a false narrative of American exceptionalism, similar to the narratives of German purity that drove the book burnings. The news-making banning of Maus by Art Spiegelman could even preface a future in which students learn very little about the lead-up to the Holocaust and fail to recognize the signs of dictatorial cultural power.

The ideology of book burnings and bannings are obvious in their aims. Pruning away “un-American” literature is part of a concerted effort to silence dissent, crush progressive political movements, and eradicate the concept of marginalization and privilege. The most challenged books of 2021 are disturbingly similar in themes to the books Nazis wished to eradicate. Books about race, gender, and sexuality will continue to be targets. Fighting book bans is a book lover’s moral imperative.

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