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Blog

When Books are Burned

Stephanie Smith

In 1933, in one of the first steps leading to the Holocaust, the Nazi regime ordered that any and all books deemed “subversive” to Hitler’s rule must be burned.  There were book-burnings in the streets, carried out by university students and Nazi supporters, who collected all censored literary works and threw them into the flames.

Surprisingly, among the books sentenced to burning were works by what we now view as classics, works by Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and H.G. Wells.  Philosophical and political works were designated for destruction, but also children’s literature, theatrical works, and stories.

It is something of a wonder that one of the most powerful political movements of its day would feel so threatened by a story.

Perhaps the books were burned because even Nazis knew the insurmountable power of words.  Perhaps they were burned because language is so strong, so potentially dangerous, that the Germans only knew one way to address it: to treat it as an enemy.  Hitler himself attested to the importance of words as he used prophetic voice, persuasive rhetoric, and euphemism as some of his primary weapons for his Nazi cause.

While Hitler exploited language for evil during the Holocaust, other words were uttered, at great personal risk, for the sake of truth.  Dietrich Bonheoffer was one such voice; a Lutheran pastor who actively opposed Hitler, Bonheoffer urged his congregations not to conform to Nazi ideas up until his execution shortly before the end of the war.  Irene Harand, an Austrian human rights activist, wrote a public response to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or “My Struggle”, which she titled, “His Struggle: An Answer to Hitler”.  Martin Niemoller organized the Confessional Church, a Christian group that resisted the Nazi movement, and avowed in the last sermon before his arrest, “No more are we ready to keep silent at man’s behest when God commands us to speak…”

These voices and many more spoke out against the deafening tide of propaganda, and they were heard.  Helen Keller, whose own books were publicly burned including The Story of My Life, responded to the censorship by saying, “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.”

What are your views on censorship? How far do you think the power of words can reach in its influence for good or evil?