Thousands of Nazi students and SA men standing round a blazing fire of burning books on Opernplatz in Berlin. Some of them are holding flags.

Nazi book burning in Berlin, 1933 | © Scherl/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo

The Book Burnings in Germany and in Munich

Between March and October 1933, Nazi supporters all over Germany publically burned books and writings proscribed as “un-German.” One public burning took place on Königsplatz in Munich. The book burnings were a symbolic prelude to the systematic persecution of Jewish, Marxist, pacifist, and politically undesirable writers by the Nazi regime.

The destruction of art and culture under the Nazis

The land of “poets and thinkers,” as Germany has traditionally been known, became the scene of acts of cultural barbarity on the night of May 10, 1933. In twenty-two German cities, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets shouting slogans, singing songs, and gathering at central locations. Surrounded by on-lookers, they tossed hundreds of books and writings onto blazing bonfires, in some places chanting so-called fire slogans as they did so. These were designed to give this ignominious campaign a ritualistic and celebratory character. The books burned were the works of pacifist, Jewish, and Marxist authors, some of them famous, such as Lion Feuchtwanger, Rosa Luxemburg, or Erich Maria Remarque, others who are scarcely known today, such as the German-Hungarian writer Maria Leitner.

The book burnings were planned and staged by the Nazis as a propaganda spectacle and were broadcast live on the radio. The message to Germany and the rest of the world was loud and clear: the coming to power of the Nazi regime marked the beginning of a new cultural era. The “depraved” culture of the Weimar Republic was to be a thing of the past. Although Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels addressed the event on Opernplatz in Berlin, the campaign was not directed by the Party leadership. The main actors were young students led by the Nazi-dominated German Students’ Union (Deutsche Studentenschaft).

The book burnings on Königsplatz: a part of Munich’s history

In Munich, too, students from the Ludwig Maximilian University and the Technical University marched through the streets with burning torches on the night of May 10, 1933. They were accompanied by several thousand onlookers. Shortly before midnight, they assembled on Königsplatz. The main organizer of the Munich book burning was the law student Karl Gegenbach.

In the atrium of the university a rally had taken place shortly beforehand at which the university principals had given the students new rights. This not only granted state recognition to the students’ unions as legal entities in the university constitution, but also stipulated the exclusion of Jewish students from these bodies. It was claimed that 8,000 students took part in the rally alongside many high-ranking guests, including the Bavarian Minister of Education and Culture Hans Schemm and many professors.

Logs and planks of wood stacked up to make bonfire on Königsplatz in Munich. A man with an SA cap stands watching.

Nazi book burning on Königsplatz, 1933 | © Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich / Bildarchiv

According to the students, 3,000 people joined the torch-lit procession through the city, and 70,000 onlookers were said to have assembled on Königsplatz. Gegenbach addressed the crowd, as did the “elder of the German students” Kurt Ellersiek, who later became a high-ranking member of the SS. The gathering sang nationalist and Nazi songs, such as the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Nazi Party anthem. We do not know whether fire slogans were used at the Munich event.

Members of the Hitler Youth had already staged a smaller book burning event at the same venue four days earlier, on May 6, 1933. Emil Klein, head of the Munich chapter of the Hitler Youth, and Josef Bauer, city schools councillor, gave speeches on the steps of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen  – the antiquities museum. This first Munich book-burning campaign focused mainly on Marxist works.

The Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist (campaign against the “un-German” spirit)

The events of the night of May 10, 1933, were the culmination of the Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist (campaign against the “un-German” spirit) that the German Students’ Union had already been staging for several weeks. Between early March and October 1933, around 100 book burnings were recorded in seventy cities. Alongside the German Students’ Union as the main initiator, other actors involved in the campaign were the Hitler Youth, SA and SS groups, and the Kampfbund für deutsche Kultur (Combat League for German Culture).

The book burnings were accompanied by other illegal actions. Private apartments were looted, raided, or destroyed. Libraries were barred from lending the works of authors who were persona non grata. Universities established “book collection points” and urged students to “purge” their private libraries. These initiatives were based on various “blacklists” in circulation.

“Where they burn books, they also ultimately burn people.”

Heinrich Heine in his tragedy Almansor

The book burnings were an important and highly symbolic stage in the National Socialist German Workers Party‘s (NSDAP) bid to establish its power on the local level. The German Students’ Union, which had been a stronghold of right-wing radicalism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism since long before 1933, played a central role in this campaign. The authors whose books had been burned were subsequently banned from their profession. Many of them gave up writing and thereafter led a shadowy existence in “internal exile” or were forced to emigrate. Some of them were gradually forgotten as were their works – others never achieved major public acclaim. In retrospect, the barbaric destruction of cultural and intellectual treasures has often been interpreted as a precursor of the Holocaust. Indeed, not a few of the ostracized writers were later murdered by the Nazis.

More on the book burnings of 1933

The Blacklist / Die Schwarze Liste

The Blacklist / Die Schwarze Liste by the artist Arnold Dreyblatt commemorates the 1933 book burnings on Munich’s Königsplatz.

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