Book burning is the ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials. This practice is usually carried out in a public place, so as to further destroy any sense of control of one’s own life. The burning of books represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question. Sometimes those burning the books think they are “protecting” the people from something they deem to be evil, but more often, the books simply don’t agree with the agenda of the controlling group. Such was the case with the most famous book burning, which took place under the Nazi regime on May 10, 1933. The May 1933 book burning in Nazi Germany was preceded in nineteenth century Germany. In 1817, German student associations (Burschenschaften) chose the 300th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses to hold a festival at the Wartburg, a castle in Thuringia where Luther had sought sanctuary after his excommunication. The students were demonstrating for a unified country. Germany was then a patchwork of states. During the protest, the students burned anti-national and reactionary texts and literature which the students viewed as “Un-German” in nature or content. I wonder if they had any idea that the freedom to protest was the very thing they were looking to take away in the future Germany.
Then, in 1933, Nazi German authorities, decided to synchronize professional and cultural organizations with Nazi ideology and policy (Gleichschaltung). Nazi Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, spearheaded an effort to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi goals. The government began to remove cultural organizations of Jewish and other officials who were alleged to be politically suspect or who performed or created art works which Nazi ideologues labeled “degenerate.” Goebbels also had a strong ally in the National Socialist German Students’ Association (Nationalsozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund), so he used them to bring the literary phase into being. German university students were at the forefront of the early Nazi movement, and in the late 1920s. Many of them filled the ranks of various Nazi formations. The ultra-nationalism and antisemitism of middle-class, secular student organizations had been intense and vocal for decades. After World War I, many students opposed the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and found in National Socialism a suitable vehicle for their political discontent and hostility.
On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” to end in a literary purge or “cleansing” (Säuberung) by fire. Local chapters were to supply the press with releases and commissioned articles, offer blacklists of “un-German” authors, sponsor well-known Nazi figures to speak at public gatherings, and negotiate for radio broadcast time. Then, in a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels delivered a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” He went on to say, “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.” Among the authors whose books student leaders burned that night were well-known socialists such as Bertolt Brecht and August Bebel; the founder of the concept of communism, Karl Marx; critical “bourgeois” writers like the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler; and “corrupting foreign influences,” among them American author Ernest Hemingway. I don’t agree with some of these writings, but I also don’t agree with their destruction. People can make up their own minds.
So often, we don’t realize what our parents did for us until they are gone. It isn’t the big, notable things that hit us that way, but rather the subtle things they did. And when you think about it, you realize that it was the subtle things that mattered the most. My dad was the kind of person who held himself to a standard all his life. It was a standard that he imposed on himself. It involved things like kindness, decency, morality, and honesty. Dad was a gentleman, and you always knew he would be. You could count on it, even when you felt that it wasn’t warranted or deserved by the receiver. That’s just how Dad was. He chose to be kind and understanding even when the receiver should have been chewed out without mercy. I know this is all true, because I have been on the receiving end of his acts of kindness, and I have been told that I needed to act that way toward others…which wasn’t something that usually excited me much. It rubbed me the wrong way to give mercy for injustice, but through the years Dad’s lessons soaked in a little, and I think I do find it easier now to be forgiving, whether people deserve it or not. I can tell you, however, the journey to that place has not always been without a few rocky places in the road. Nevertheless, my dad mellowed my temper with his ways, and while I’m not as successful at the mercy for injustice thing, I try to follow his example to this day.
One thing about my dad that has always stayed in my head, and I’m quite certain that is because he had to pound it in there, is forgiveness. Dad was one to say that you should “never let the sun go down on your wrath” and he took that very literally. We were allowed to argue with each other pretty much to our hearts content, provided it didn’t get to the point of driving our parents insane. We were even allowed to argue, or as I called it, debate with our parents to a degree…one which my sisters will tell you, I took much further than they ever dared. No matter how the fight ended, you always knew that at some point Dad was going to come to you and say that you had to make up with your sister or mom. You didn’t have to say the other was right…just that you loved them too much to let those differences of opinion come between you and carry into the next day. And, Dad held himself to that same standard. It never failed. After he finally got done with my…debating…and finally told me that was enough…and I knew it was, too, he would still come to me after he had cooled down, and told me that he loved me and didn’t want us to “let the sun go down on our wrath” so we needed to make up. It was very comforting to know that no matter what you did, or how mad it made him, before the day was over, things would be ok again, and always before bedtime. That is something that has stayed with me all my life, although I can’t say that I have been as perfect at it as my dad was. It is a process, and you just have to work at it. No one is perfect at policing themselves all the time.
The lessons my dad taught to his girls, are what have formed us into the people we are today. And yes, my mom taught us many lessons over the years too that have stayed with us throughout our lives, but that is a story for another day. When I think of my dad, I see a soft spoken man, who never promoted himself, but rather lifted up those around him. He was a man who assured you that everything was going to be ok. You knew that no matter what the problem was, Dad would always love you. You couldn’t do anything bad enough to change that. To him, that was just being a dad. And that knowledge has made all the difference. If Dad were still with us, he would be 89 years old today. Happy birthday in Heaven Dad. While we miss you terribly, we are so thankful that we know where you are, and that you are having the time of your life. We will see you again someday. We love you more than words can ever express.