The place, where nazi propaganda uncovered ist true face at Bebelplatz in Berlin.
The book burning took place in Berlin on May 10, 1933: it was a Nazi propaganda action that remained in the history books and collective memory.
Those who come to Berlin probably are usually prepared with many images linked to the Nazi era. Especially this particular event has been widely documented through photographs and audiovisual material that contribute to build a whole imaginary world in the consciousness of each one of us ready to be evoked.
Walking through Bebelplatz in the district of Berlin Mitte, it almost seems as if you can imagine that distant night of May 10, 1933, which saw German culture and its memory scattered in the ashes of the burning of approximately 20,000 books. Time thus seems to come to a pause before such a specific gesture that represented the concrete expression of Nazi censorship.
This tragic event, however, was only the culmination of a successful action, carried out in several German cities and born within the ultra-conservative academic world that Nazi propaganda was able to use.
THE BURNING OF BOOKS: WHEN NAZISM SET CULTURE ON FIRE
The main actor in this act of censorship was the Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who used all the information, video and photographic apparatus, as well as flaming speeches to lay the foundations of the new morality.
However, the real executors of this book burning were the German students themselves, whose souls had been stirred up by Nazi propaganda, against intellectuals, and in particular Jews and the left wing scientists, artists and politicians.
In this square once known as Opernplatz (Opera Square) just a few steps from the Museum Island, Goebbels personally uttered the words that accompanied one by one not only the books, but the ideals contained in them, towards those flames that were to envelop the voices of the authors themselves in oblivion:
Against class struggle and materialism, for the people’s community and our idealistic way of life! I hand over to the fire the writings of Marx and Kautsky.
Against decay and moral ruin! For discipline and morality in the family and the state! I consign to the fire the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeser and Erich Kästner.
Against opportunism and political betrayal, for total dedication to the people and the state! I hand over to the fire the writings of Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster.
Against the overestimation of instinctive drives that exhaust the soul, for the nobility of the human soul! I consign the writings of Sigmund Freud to the flames.
Against the falsification of our history and the degradation of his great figures, for the sake of our past! I consign to the flames the writings of Emil Ludwig and Werner Hegemann.
Against the enemy journalism of the Jewish-democratic people, for responsible participation in the work of national construction! I hand over to the flames the writings of Theodor Wolff and Georg Bernhard.
Against the literary betrayal of the soldiers of the Great War, for the education of the people for their self-defence! I consign to the flames the writings of Erich Maria Remarque.
Against the arrogant adulteration of the German language, for the care of the most precious good of our people! I consign to the flames the writings of Alfred Kerr.
Against impudence and presumption, for the attention and homage to the immortal spirit of the German people! Swallow, flame, even the works of Tucholsky and Ossietzky!“
(Neuköllner Tageblatt, Friday 12 May 1933, no. 111)
THE BOOK BURNING MEMORIAL IN BERLIN
The memory of that night and of the burning at the stake is consigned to history through Micha Ullmans memorial “Monument to the memory of the burning of books” (1995), placed in the centre of the square but not easy to be discovered because it is located below the trampling surface.
This emblematic underground installation is visible through a glass window and gives the viewer the vision of a non-place: an empty library whose deserted shelves are able to contain precisely the 20,000 books now destroyed forever.
The memorial itself is framed by evocative architecture dating back to the 18th century and which in the visionary project of Frederick II, known as the Great, were built around former Opernplatz as the heart of culture and art, as the shining symbol of Prussian Enlightenment. Even today we can still admire, although restored after the Second World War, the first Prussian public library from where the burned books were taken.
Close to the Bebelplatz but on the opposite side of the Unter den Linden is the central building of the Humboldt University, from where the students and professors who organised the burning themselves left to march towards the event of the book burning later that evening.
A few meters from the memorial is a memorial plaque with the words of the German poet Heinrich Heine:
“This was just the beginning, where you start to burn books, you will burn people in the end too.”
The quote comes from a theatre play called “Almansor” that Heine wrote in 1820, more than 100 years earlier! The work, in which the quote is found, talks about how the Christian troops set fire to the Koran during the Spanish reconquest of Granada and it was written as an open criticism of the hard Prussian censorship at the beginning of the XIX century.
The singular contrast between the design of this square as a symbol and place of culture in Prussian times and the denial of part of it during Nazism, is summarized in this memorial that in its minimalist lines invites reflection on the ability of the human being to learn from his own history at all.
HOW TO GET TO THE BOOK BURNING MEMORIAL IN BERLIN
– By subway: Stadtmitte stop (line U2);
– By bus: Staatsoper stop (Bus line 100, 245 and 300);
– On foot: from Gendarmenmarkt Square, Museum Island or Brandenburg Gate;
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