'Where They Burn Books, They Will Burn Men as Well'

Memories of the Nazi book burnings from 85 years ago have important lessons for us in India today.

It had been a balmy early-summer day in Berlin, but by late afternoon, storm clouds started gathering overhead. As evening fell, a slight drizzle set in, forcing many Berliners to stay indoors. Yet, groups of young women and men – more men than women – started converging on the Opernplatz, one of Berliners’ favourite rendezvous that stands by the side of the magnificent Unter den Linden, Berlin’s Champs- Elysees. More and more people came, till the plaza swarmed with a crowd of nearly 40,000.

It was not a holiday, but the mood of the crowd seemed festive – in a manner of speaking. There was chanting of slogans, singing of National Socialist songs, notably ‘Es zittern die morschen Knochen ‘(‘The rotten bones are trembling’), and beating of drums even as some young men on the microphone were urging the crowd to clear out from a circular space  in the plaza’s middle. Lights had come on all around the square and in the noble buildings that ringed it – the State Opera House and behind it the St Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Kronprinzenpalais, the Old Palace and the Old Library. Across the road, Humboldt University’s main campus still hummed with activity.

Clearly, the stage was being set for a special event right at the heart of central Berlin. It was May 10, 1933. A long and very dark night loomed ahead.

The Nazi students’ unions had announced a ‘cleansing’ drive all around Germany that day, a project for the ‘purification’ of the German nation’s ‘soul’. The launch of the grand project had necessarily to happen at the Third Reich’s star city, but all around the country, many university towns were also to celebrate the event at the same time.

Late in the evening, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda (and after the Fuehrer’s death, Germany’s Supreme Leader for all of one day) arrived to a tumultuous welcome. The musicians piped up, crackers burst noisily, and the crowd cheered their leader lustily as Goebbels prepared to speak. He spoke as only he could, invoking the ‘great German spirit’ and calling upon Germany’s youth to rid their great country of all the evils that plagued it – the Jewry, communists, pacifists, ‘vagabonds’ and homosexuals.

Fiery but short, the speech ended to clenched-fist salutes and noisy ‘Heil Hitlers!’, and then the evening’s centrepiece was unveiled. In the clearing at the square’s middle, numerous sacks crammed with books were overturned and their contents tumbled out on to the cobblestones with some help from the ardent purifiers. These were carefully chosen ‘un-German’ books, 20,000 (25,000, according to some estimates) in number, plundered from public libraries, private bookshelves and academic collections.

Hitler Youth burning books on that fateful night in Berlin. Credit: World Archive/CC/Wikipedia

The ‘honours list’ was impressive: Stefan Zweig, Thomas and Heinrich Man, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Kafka, Eric Maria Remarque, August Bebel, Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers, Klaus Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Heinrich Heine, Upton Sinclair and Eric Kastner huddled together in that insane pile. For good measure, works of Friedrich Engels, Albert Einstein, Maxim Gorky, Victor Hugo, Henri Barbusse and Vladimir Lenin were also tossed in. Then the assembly intoned a solemn, dire pledge:  “Against decadence and moral decay! For discipline and decency in the family and the nation! I commit to the flames the writings of ….”

The bonfire was then lit, and a collective roar the like of which Germany had not heard since the Crusades rent the night air. There were bizarre scenes of jubilation as the tongues of fire, first blue, then greyish orange, and finally devilish red, leapt up towards the sky. Burning and crackling paper seemed to inebriate the crowd like the most potent Bavarian beer. People danced, sang, wept and hugged one another even as thick, billowing smoke swept over them. The scene was surreal. Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath, showing the moonlit silhouette of a giant he-goat towering over a coven of cavorting witches, comes close to capturing the spirit of that evening.

The great anti-war novelist Arnold Zweig, who happened to watch the proceedings from a distance, noted how “the crowd would have stared as happily into the flames if live humans were burning instead (of books)”. He made up his mind that very night to leave the country. Stephan Zweig fled a few days later, never to return. He killed himself, lonely and heartbroken, in far-away Rio de Janeiro in 1942. Einstein was away lecturing in California, and never again saw the sun rise over Germany. All three were Jewish, and pogroms against Jews had already started in the Reich by then, as Hitler consolidated his power and set about destroying all opposition.

The satirist and celebrated children’s story-teller Erich Kastner was not Jewish, but he also was ‘purged’ that fateful evening, presumably for his well-known pacifist views. In fact, this gentle soul was present at the conflagration when his novel Fabina was tossed into the fire. He was recognised, people jeered at him and threw him ugly taunts, but he quietly stood his ground. He continued to live in Berlin through its darkest years, faced every kind of humiliation, was stripped of his position on the Writers’ Guild, but said, memorably:

I am a German from Dresden in Saxony,

My homeland won’t let me go.

I am like a tree that, grown in Germany,

Will likely wither there also.

Kastner’s home was devastated in allied bombings in 1944, as was his native city, Dresden, somewhat later. After the war, he moved to Munich, probably unable to stand the sight of the ruins to which both Berlin and Dresden had been reduced.

The book-burning carnival was not as roaring a success everywhere as Germany’s purifiers had hoped – not  because there was not enough enthusiasm – or enough books to burn – but because rain played spoil-sport that night. In fact, even at Opernplatz the blaze had to be helpfully stoked by spraying gas over the pile – by fire-fighters, of all people – as the drizzle turned into a steady rain. But what mattered was that the message had been broadcast loud and clear: Nazism had conquered not merely political power but Germany’s cultural landscape as well, and one could demur only on pain of death. “(A) master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue/with a bullet of lead he will hit the mark he will hit you”, in Paul Celan’s unforgettable words.

Opernplatz today is Bebelplatz, after the great German socialist-internationalist August Bebel (1840-1913), who fought tirelessly both for workers’ rights and against nationalistic  jingoism. It now hosts the Book Burning Memorial which, designed by the Israeli artist Micha Ullman, was unveiled in 1995. I had my first glimpse of the memorial on a late November day, when a stiff wind blew in my face and the sun played hide and seek with a high bank of clouds.

It is an unusual memorial and I must confess I did not find it easy to locate. In the middle of the cobble-stone plaza, you get to see a thick plate-glass lid over a yawning void drilled deep into the earth. Once your eyes adjust to the light reflected off the glass cover, you can make out rows upon rows of empty book-shelves standing mutely inside the pit in witness to the carnage of May 10, 1933.

The Book Burning Memorial in Bebelplatz Plaza in Berlin. Credit: Wikipedia

Those shelves were so crafted as to hold 20,000 books or more. And right next to this eloquent nothingness of a sunken, empty library, is a black granite tablet, lying face up, which reads, in white letterings in German, this:

That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn men as well.

The quote is from Heine’s tragedy Almansor, written in 1821. Heine, a Jew, figured prominently on the list of the ‘un-Germanic’ writers whose works were consigned to Nazi flames on that summer night. A more stunning prognosis of a catastrophe is hard to come by in all of recorded history. Hitler and his hordes are dead and gone, but Heinrich Heine stands tall still, right in the middle of the civilised world, to warn us all against the evils of bigotry and obscurantism.

It is three years since I looked into the abyss that Hitler’s young foot-soldiers had dug into the heart of Heine’s (and Goethe’s, and Beethoven’s) Germany. Sadly in these three years, Heine’s warning has assumed even greater urgency across the world. In Germany, as in Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and France – not to speak of Hungary, Poland and other former members of the now-defunct Red Block – hyper-nationalism and crass isolationism have in large measure managed to push the few surviving relics of the Enlightenment against the wall. Sabre-rattling is no longer the sole preserve of serving army generals, as Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu have shown us. Putin’s Russia has relapsed into authoritarianism and religious orthodoxy. Every variety of fanaticism, of intolerance is at a premium, and the world of man seems to be hurtling towards barbarism at frightening speed.

And in India, we may very well be on the edge of a precipice. The rallying cry of the Hindutva brigades, who enjoy the ruling establishment’s covert, even overt, support seems to echo the sinister slogans raised by the Nazi student agitators in 1933: “ The state has been conquered, but not yet the universities. The intellectual paramilitary is coming in. Raise your flag!”

Over the past many years (and especially during the last four), the state has been encroaching upon academia and the world of culture, indeed upon every institution of democracy, relentlessly, remorselessly. Books have been banned, even burned, movie halls vandalised, and the media has painted itself into a corner, to cower there pitifully. The most disheartening aspect of this tragedy has been the fact that the country’s youth has been made the principal engine of coercion everywhere – be it in cow vigilantism, moral policing or strident anti-liberalism on university campuses.

With a shudder, one recognises the uncanny resemblances between our young, social media-savvy saffron hit-men who throng the WhatsApp universe, and the Nazi militants bristling with hate that night in Berlin. Erich Kastner remembers how he “stood in front of the university, wedged between students in SA (Brownshirts’) uniforms, in the prime of their lives, and saw our books fly into the quivering fire”.

Perhaps our home-grown Fascists have devised an even more ingenious method of destroying books: by re-writing them wholesale. And that macabre project is targeted at the potential book-burners of our unhappy country – India’s young. It is only by being aware of mankind’s collective past that we can hope to turn India away from the disastrous path on which Hitler’s Indian admirers have firmly set their sights. Our young women and men need to learn this lesson, and learn it well and fast.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic, translator and commentator. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com