On a cold April night in 1933, hundreds of university students worked themselves into a fervor tossing books that challenged the German spirit onto a roiling bonfire.
While the U.S. media denounced the act as silly and ineffective, members of the German Student Association used it as a national call to action.
Their “12 Thesis” reminded Germans of the responsibility to keep their language and literature pure and unfalsified, an “expression of their national character.” Burning anything that tainted the German spirit became a patriotic act.
“It’s certainly the most famous example of book burning,” said Julie Edwards, associate professor at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library at the University of Montana. “It’s a form of what I would call thought control, trying to prevent people from forming their own opinions.”
The book burning is depicted in a new display at the UM library. On loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the national exhibit recalls 1933 in month-by-month detail, shedding light on the fervor that fueled the rise of Nazi Germany.
That January, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor and the prosecution of Jews began the following month. By March, Joseph Goebbels was appointed minister of public enlightenment and propaganda, and the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses began on April 1.
Students rallied for the book burning 11 days later, many of them wearing Storm Trooper insignia.
“It was an attempt by university students to impress the higher-ups in the party, which is super disturbing,” said Edwards. “It was totally student organized with the help of some professors and librarians.”
The cleansing would go on, guided by a list of authors banned in Germany. The writers included obvious targets such as Anna Seghers, a Nazi opponent, and Karl Marx, a communist.
But the list also included the not-so-obvious works of Helen Keller and Jack London, whose 1908 novel the “Iron Heel” depicted the rise of a fascist regime and its overthrow by a socialist hero. Ernest Hemingway’s novel “A Farewell to Arms” was seen by German leaders as anti-war.
“To me, it’s just astounding that university students would burn the tools of their own education,” said Edwards. “This happened in 1933, not long after Hitler came to power. The Nazi higher-ups had nothing to do with it initially.”
But Goebbels saw the burnings as a potent tool. By May, the minister had established the Reich Chamber of Literature and took control of the German book market.
He also developed an index of banned books. By 1939, it included 576 authors and 5,000 titles.
One excerpt from the “12 Thesis” suggested that “the Jew can only think Jewish. If he writes in German, then he lies. The German who writes German but thinks un-German is a traitor. The student who speaks and writes un-German is furthermore unthinking and becomes disloyal to his responsibility.”
While the book burning represents a dark chapter in world history, it's not restricted to Nazi Germany.
In 2001, members of the Harvest Assembly of God Church in Pennsylvania, and Christ Community Church in New Mexico, burned copies of Harry Potter, calling the book “ungodly” and “supernatural.”
In 2011, a pastor in Florida burned the Quran, and in 2012, two Ohio radio stations burned copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” acting on complaints from listeners who objected to the book’s treatment of women.
From a librarian’s perspective, Edwards finds the incidents troubling. School boards and public libraries still wage battles against would-be censors.
“It’s easy to say this was Nazi Germany, but there are still people trying to control who reads what, when and why,” said Edwards. “One of the things this exhibition does is bring the issue to contemporary times, exploring the issues of censorship and book burning.”