On the 90th Anniversary of Germany’s Book Burnings: ‘A Terrible Attack’

In News by Porter Anderson

Laying out the Börsenverein’s complicity 90 years ago, publishers and booksellers commemorate the bonfires of ‘un-German’ books.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Sergey XSP

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Schmidt-Friderichs: ‘The Inhuman Events That Followed’
At the conclusion today (May 10) of Germany’s Freedom of Expression Week—Woche der Meinungsfreiheit—careful attention is being paid to the freedom to publish.

This is the 90th anniversary of a signal event in 1933, when what the United States’ Holocaust Museum Encylopedia refers to as “Nazi-dominated student groups” carried out public burnings of books in 34 university cities. The books, deemed “un-German” by the Nazis, are described today as “works of prominent Jewish, liberal, and leftist writers.”

Books by Bertolt Brecht, Erich Maria Remarque, and Ernest Hemingway were listed for burning among many others, and the flames were followed by raids on bookstores, libraries, and publishers’ warehouses to seize content not aligned with the party’s positions.

As you’ll remember, the Freedom of Expression Week program that ends its third year today is a project of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, Germany’s publishers’ and booksellers’ association, and the program has used as its theme this year, across at least 60 event around the nation, “Together for Peace, Democracy, and Diversity.”

Karin Schmidt-Friderichs

In a thoughtful statement on this difficult observance of such a darkening moment in history, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, head of the Börsenverein, says, “The book burning 90 years ago was a terrible attack on free speech and democracy.

“It is important to keep alive the memory of this act and the inhuman events that followed. Because it makes us aware of how fragile the values ​​of a free, democratic society are.

“Even today, critical opinions are silenced in many countries. We must therefore work daily for the freedom of expression and publication.”

Kraus vom Cleff: ‘Deeply Shameful’

A view into the 1995 ‘Empty Library’ memorial by Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman at Bebelplatz in Berlin, a commemoration of the May 10, 1933, Nazi book burnings that took place there, when the square was called Kaiser Franz Josef Platz. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Diego Grandi

What makes the Börsenverein’s actions today all the more compelling is that—as the association itself tells the world media today—”From 1933 onward, the association actively participated in suppressing critical voices, for example by publishing a list of books in the Börsenverein that should no longer be sold in bookstores.

“By adapting to the regime, the association promised economic benefits for the industry.” And today, this pivotal association among world publishers’ organizations “sees itself as having a special responsibility.”

Peter Kraus vom Cleff, the Börsenverein’s general manager,  says, “Out of opportunism, the association has subordinated itself to those in power. This is deeply shameful.

Peter Kraus vom Cleff

“Aware of its historical guilt, the association drew consequences from its misconduct soon after the Second World War—for example by awarding the Peace Prize and consistently advocating freedom of expression through many initiatives and projects.” And the association in its media messaging thoughtfully affirms its cognizance of its alliances and actions of the past.

There are notes in today’s statements, in fact, on how today, the Börsenverein “systematically chronicles the association’s history. Between 2015 and 2023, five partial volumes of the History of the German Book Trade in the 19th and 20th Centuries on the Third Reich were published by Verlag De Gruyter.”

On Sunday (May 7), a Freedom of Expression Week event at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater reflected on the book burnings in a program featuring Can Dündar, Felicitas Hoppe, Herta Müller, Moritz Rinke, and Jan Wagne, with moderator Bascha Mika and Gorki ensemble actors Aysima Ergün and Doğa Gürer, who read from works burned 90 years ago today. That program was called Where Books are Burned, People Will Also Be Burned in the End.

And while something that occurred almost a century ago in a Germany succumbing to the Nazi nightmare may seem far from us now, the whole issue feels much closer when you read Mike Schneider’s April 10 report from the Associated Press, which says, in part: “A high school along Florida’s Atlantic Coast has removed a graphic novel based on the diary of Anne Frank after a leader of a conservative advocacy group challenged it, claiming it minimized the Holocaust.

Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation was removed from a library at Vero Beach High School after a leader of Moms for Liberty in Indian River County raised an objection. The school’s principal agreed with the objection, and the book was removed last month.”

The Börsenverein’s forthright confession of its role in the 1930s and its annual counter-programming today—so timely amid widening book-banning and other censorhip efforts in many markets—may lead more national and regional publishers’ associations to explore their own options for creating events like Freedom of Expression Week. The transgressions of the past can help to highlight the urgent importance of literature’s place and purpose in free societies today.

More on this year’s Freedom of Expression Week in Germany is here.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the German book market is here, more on the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels is here, and more on the freedom of expression and freedom to publish is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.