There is an unusual monument in Berlin in what looks like an empty square called Bebelplatz. It sits on the grand boulevard Unter den Linden, flanked by the Opera, the main building of the Humboldt University, and the former royal library. A window is set in the cobblestone pavement in the center of the square, looking down on a large underground room lined with empty bookshelves. On the floor is a pile of books.
Created by the Israeli artist Micha Ullman, this is a memorial to the place where in 1933, the Nazis burned books. The empty shelves have space for 20,000 volumes, the number burned on May 10th of that year. The Nazis sought to control people’s thoughts and beliefs by destroying books they claimed were “volkszersetzendes Schrifttum,” corroding or corrupting literature. And this is just one instance. Beginning in March 1933, books were burned in over 60 cities throughout Germany and later in occupied territories.
I was reminded of this monument in a place I would have least expected it: in the U.S. It was a table of books on display at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Denver with a sign touting “Banned Books.” These were all works that had recently been banned somewhere in the country. I was startled to see several classics I had read and loved in school, such as Catcher in the Rye, the Diary of Anne Frank, and Lord of the Flies.
These last two titles deal specifically with the rise of authoritarian regimes. My mother, who was active in community theater, brilliantly performed the role of Mrs. Van Daan in the powerful stage version of the Diary of Anne Frank. I wonder what her reaction would be if she were alive to see it on the table of banned books. I would also be curious to learn why some people feel these books should be banned and why so many others have agreed.
The implications of this for U.S. politics are very unsettling.
To Germans, the parallels between the Nazis and the current extremism in America are clear. Ever since the election of Donald Trump, they have observed U.S. politics with a mixture of disbelief and outright horror. While studying the rise of Hitler in 10th-grade history class, a classmate of my daughter’s was incredulous at what she perceived to be the boundless naiveté and gullibility of the Nazi regime’s supporters.
“How could they be so stupid and blind to what was happening?” she asked.
Her teacher immediately responded: “Easy. Just look at what’s happening in the U.S.”
With the election of Trump, being an American abroad became if not a mark of shame, at least an immediate invitation for aggressive questioning. How could Americans elect someone like that? What did I think of his politics? What was happening to the country? Was America going to pull out of NATO?
I found I was unable to answer these questions. For the first time, I felt estranged from my home country, like an outsider looking in, rubbing her eyes, and wondering what was going on, a sentiment shared by most Americans living in Germany.
The comparison with Nazis is often a facile one, as they make such good bad guys in novels and movies. But recent events in the U.S. do indeed have parallels to the Nazis that cannot be denied. The attempt to control free thinking by banning books is a clear example.
To escape persecution in Nazi Germany, so many writers and artists went into exile in the U.S. that they even formed their own community in Pacific Palisades, California. One of the most famous members of this group, Thomas Mann, even traveled around the U.S. giving speeches entitled “The Coming Victory of Democracy.” One can imagine the passion he felt about this topic since his very presence in the U.S. was due to the obliteration of democracy in his own country.
Unlike the writers who remained in the homeland, these German émigrés were free to pursue their craft with no restrictions on their expression. There is even a separate body of literary work called Exilliteratur, literature of the exiles, created by this group. German filmmakers also emigrated, as they were either Jewish, had provoked the regime with their movies, or both.
One of the exiled writers was the Munich native Lion Feuchtwanger, author of the iconic novel on antisemitism, Jud Süss. He wrote in his diary of extensive conversations with Charlie Chaplin, and they likely inspired his classic film, The Great Dictator. The lives of these émigrés and their impact on Hollywood are depicted in an episode of a history series called Lost LA.
“Wherever they burn books, in the end, they will also burn human beings.”
This famous quote by German author Heinrich Heine is usually cited in conjunction with the Nazi regime, but it originates from his 1821 play Almansor. It refers to the Spanish government’s burning of the Koran during the Inquisition in an attempt to eradicate Islamic culture. Spain eventually expelled all Moors from the country in 1492. The Nazis did not stop at book burnings, either. And yes, they burned Heinrich Heine’s books, too.
One of the writers whose books were burned in 1933 is the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose works are now considered classics and are often required reading in schools. He fled the country under the Nazi regime, eventually winding up in Brazil. Driven to despair by what was happening at home, he ended up taking his own life. In his suicide note, he explained that he could no longer bear to live, as “the world of my own language has perished” and his “spiritual home of Europe has self-destructed.”
Germany lost so many great artistic talents because of its authoritarian regime. The U.S. is headed in that direction, too. I don’t dare even consider what could happen if it continues down that same path.
There haven’t been any book burnings in the U.S.—yet. But the widespread banning of books is just one ominous sign of a new direction away from free speech and tolerance of opposing points of view. The upcoming midterm elections on November 8th will indicate how serious Americans are about protecting their democracy.
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