This reading is available in two formats: standard and modified. The modified version has been edited to support use in the unit Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior.

“Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” So wrote Heinrich Heine, one of Germany’s greatest poets, who was of Jewish origin. He lived in the early 1800s, at a time when nationalistic students displayed their “patriotism” by tossing “un-German” books into huge bonfires (see reading, Creating the German Nation in Chapter 2). Few believed it could happen in the twentieth century until May 6, 1933. That day, the German Student Association announced a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit.”

At one gathering, Joseph Goebbels told a cheering crowd, “The soul of the German people can again express itself. Those flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they light up the new!"1 Lilian T. Mowrer, an American journalist in Germany, describes what happened next:

I held my breath while he hurled the first volume into the flames: it was like burning something alive. Then students followed with whole armfuls of books, while schoolboys screamed into the microphone their condemnations of this and that author, and as each name was mentioned the crowd booed and hissed. You felt Goebbels’s venom behind their denunciations. Children of fourteen mouthing abuse of Heine! Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front received the greatest condemnation . . . it would never do for such an unheroic description of war to dishearten soldiers of the Third Reich.2

Students contribute anti-German books to be destroyed at a Berlin book-burning on May 10, 1933. About 40,000 people attended the event.

The mobs also burned the books of Helen Keller, an American author who was a socialist, a pacifist, and the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college. Keller responded: “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. . . . You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”3

Citations

  • 1 : William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 241.
  • 2 : Quoted in Witness to the Holocaust, ed. Azriel Eisenberg (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1981), 79.
  •  

  • 3 : Quoted in Rebecca Onion, “'God Sleepeth Not': Helen Keller's Blistering Letter to Book-Burning German Students,” The Vault (blog), Slate.com, May 16, 2013, accessed March 16, 2016.
  •  

    On May 6, 1933, the German Student Association announced a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit.” At one gathering, Joseph Goebbels told a cheering crowd, “The soul of the German people can again express itself. Those flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they light up the new!"1 Lilian T. Mowrer, an American journalist in Germany, described what happened next:

    I held my breath while he hurled the first volume into the flames: it was like burning something alive. Then students followed with whole armfuls of books, while schoolboys screamed into the microphone their condemnations of this and that author, and as each name was mentioned the crowd booed and hissed. You felt Goebbels’s venom behind their denunciations. Children of fourteen mouthing abuse of Heine! Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front received the greatest condemnation . . . it would never do for such an unheroic description of war to dishearten soldiers of the Third Reich.2

    The mobs also burned the books of Helen Keller, an American author who was a socialist, a pacifist, and the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college. Keller responded: “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas . . . . You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”3

    Citations

    Donde queman libros

    El 6 de mayo de 1933, la Asociación Alemana de Estudiantes anunció una “Acción contra el espíritu antialemán” en toda la nación. En una reunión, Joseph Goebbels le dijo a una animada multitud: “¡El alma del pueblo alemán puede expresarse de nuevo. ¡Esas llamas no solo iluminan el fin definitivo de una vieja era, también alumbran la nueva era!”.1 Lilian T. Mowrer, periodista estadounidense en Alemania, describió lo que pasó a continuación:

    Contuve la respiración mientras él arrojaba el primer volumen a las llamas: era como quemar algo vivo. Los estudiantes lo siguieron con brazadas de libros, mientras los colegiales gritaban por micrófono su repulsión por este o ese autor y, a medida que se mencionaba cada nombre, la multitud abucheaba y silbaba. Se sentía el veneno de Goebbels en las acusaciones. ¡Niños de catorce años gesticulando insultos de Heine! Sin novedad en el frente de Erich Remarque recibió la máxima condena… que se haría alguna vez por una descripción tan antiheroica de la guerra para amilanar a los soldados del Tercer Reich.2

    Las turbas también quemaron los libros de Helen Keller, autora estadounidense que también era socialista, pacifista y la primera persona sorda y ciega en graduarse de la universidad. Keller respondió: “La historia no les ha enseñado nada si piensan que pueden eliminar ideas… Pueden quemar mis libros y los libros de las mejores mentes en Europa, pero las ideas que hay en ellos se han filtrado por millones de canales y seguirán estimulando otras mentes”.3

    Citations

    • 1 : William L. Shirer, Auge y Caída del Tercer Reich: una Historia de la Alemania Nazi (Nueva York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 241.
    • 2 : Quoted in Witness to the Holocaust, ed. Azriel Eisenberg (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1981), 79.
    • 3 : Citado en Rebecca Onion, “'God Sleepeth Not': Helen Keller's Blistering Letter to Book-Burning German Students,” The Vault (blog), Slate.com, 16 de mayo de 2013, visitado el 16 de marzo de 2016.

    Connection Questions

    1. What was “un-German” about the various books burned by the Nazis?
    2. What message did the Nazis convey by publicly burning books? Who did they hope would receive that message?
    3. Have you heard of books being restricted or destroyed where you live? In what ways is that similar to or different from publicly burning books?
    4. Was Helen Keller right, or can education, law, or policy destroy an idea?

    Related Content

    Image
    Holocaust
    Transforming Germany in the 1930s

    Book Burning in Berlin

    Students contribute anti-German books to be destroyed at a Berlin book-burning on May 10, 1933. About 40,000 people attended the event.

    Reading
    Holocaust

    Pledging Allegiance

    Compare the text of Germany's original military oath with Hitler’s new oath, and consider the implications of the oath's promise of allegiance to a single leader. 

    Reading
    Antisemitism & Religious Intolerance

    “We Don’t Control America” and Other Myths, Part 2

    A young Jewish person reflects on the impact of antisemitic myths on attitudes today.

    Reading
    Holocaust

    Shaping Public Opinion

    Read about the far-reaching efforts of Joseph Goebbels and the Ministry of Propaganda to generate enthusiasm for the Nazi party.

    Search Our Collection

    Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.