Burning Books by Matthew Fishburn (auth.)

By Matthew Fishburn (auth.)

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2 The Burning of the Books I know that books don’t burn well. Heinrich Böll On 10 May 1933, on the Opernplatz in Berlin, just off Unter den Linden, German student associations staged an elaborate book burning ritual, the result of several weeks’ planning. Bolstered by uniformed brown shirts of the SA and marching bands, great ranks of students filed into the square in a torchlight parade. A carefully constructed timber scaffold full of books was set alight, as uniformed representatives stepped forward and proclaimed their socalled Feuersprüche (‘fire incantations’ or ‘fire oaths’), little planned speeches in which they attacked the books they held responsible for the collapse of Germany.

The ruling Horthy party in Hungary sponsored a burning of political-economic heresies soon after their accession to power. 97 Although it was missing the sense of mass spectacle which would characterize the burnings in Germany, both the process and the result were effectively the same. This is why Brown’s deeply ironic response is worth quoting at length: Americans, accustomed during and since the war to conscientious efforts on the part of their government to protect their minds from revolutionary propaganda, ought to hear this news with admiration for the Hungarians, in thus setting the world an example of efficiency and thoroughness in the policy of fighting ideas by the method of extermination.

That night, and over the next week, similar events were held in university cities across Germany, most of which explicitly followed the model of Berlin by including marching parades, torches and speeches. These fires have since become synonymous with the barbarity of the Nazi regime, but such an understanding was by no means automatic, and the international response to the events tended to be perplexed, even bemused. Through studying the tone of many of these reports, this chapter assays the initial reactions to the German bookfires, and returns them to their historical context.

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