Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Little did Heinrich Heine know when in 1820 he penned the lines for his new play, Almansor: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will burn people in the end, too.“
With the 16th-century Spain as their setting, these words, spoken by a Muslim mourning the burning of Quran by the Christian invaders at the main plaza in Granada, became a dark prophecy for the events which began to unfold in May 1933 in Germany.
On May 10, 1933 many students from 22 German university cities – students aggressively supporting the Nazi politics in their country – organised the final stage of their campaign aimed at “cleansing” German libraries, bookshops and private bookshelves of what they defined as “un-German” and “deleterious” literature. What they meant were books written by Jews, communists, social-democrats, pacifists, homosexuals, liberals and anyone who dared doubt the only “rightful” road drawn by the NSDAP. After setting up lists of selected titles and including the names of several dozens authors – both German and foreign – German Student Union named the date and the place for the public burning of now banned books in each of the 22 university cities.
In Berlin they chose Opernplatz– since 1946 the plaza bears the name of the father of German Social Democracy, August Bebel. But on May 10, 1933 it became a venue for a pretty much pagan ceremony: despite the pouring rain some 25,000 books were packed onto lorries waiting in Oranienburger Straße and paraded through the city, orchestra in tow, towards Königsplatz before the Reichstag, through Brandenburger Tor, down Unter den Linden to the spot next to the city opera house to be burnt there. Purification through fire.
Once at Opernplatz, they began to pile the books and attempted setting flames to them but the rain prevented the bonfire from burning. Help was offered by Berlin´s fire fighters who quickly poured petrol onto the collected volumes.
To the accompaniment of joyous live music and incantations, copies of the works by Karl Marx, Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Joseph Roth, Alfred Kerr (father of the famous British children´s books´ author, Judith Kerr), Kurt Tucholsky, Walther Benjamin and Alfred Döblin – to mention just a few among the authors originally selected by the 29-year-old Wolfgang Herrmann, head of Berlin´s Central Office for German Libraries, on whose private lists the Nazi Black List was based – were thrown into flames. Each author´s name was shouted out loud in a text written especially for the occasion, one of the nine “fire oaths” pronounced by one of the nine selected student activists: “”No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeser, Erich Kästner!”
Even though many of the authors still alive as their books were being burnt in Berlin that day had left Germany before the Bücherverbrennung, one of them happened to be among the 40,000 people gathered at Opernplatz that night: Erich Kästner, the author of such cult children´s books as Emil und die Detektiven or Pünktchen und Anton but also of many critical journalistic pieces, was the only one of the banned authors accused by the young academic Nazis of spreading “the un-German spirit” who witnessed the burning of his own works.
By 1935 the official Black List of banned books comprised 12,400 titles and names of 149 authors.
Less than a decade later the Nazis would begin the mass-killings of thousands of people daily at their death camps. The bodies of their victims – most of them children and women – were burnt in crematoria and fire pits created especially for this purpose. The 46 furnaces built in 1943 at the death camp in Auschwitz were designed to dispose of 4,400 bodies provided daily by the eight gas chambers built on the site. Soon their “capacity” was not enough…