These days we are remembering the National Socialist book burnings that took place all over Germany ninety years ago in May. Back then, in the spring of 1933, hardly anyone wanted to acknowledge how existentially true Heinrich Heine’s warning of 1823 would be: »Where you burn books, you also end up burning people.«
But if commemoration is not to degenerate into an empty formula, then we today must try to understand history: to recognize differences, but also related tendencies. The public burning of books of the most important German-language authors of their time, including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Nelly Sachs, Kurt Tucholsky, Anna Seghers, Erich Kästner and Karl Kraus, still looks at us today as a barbaric, cultureless act. The perpetrators, however, led by the academic offspring of the universities, were convinced that they were doing the right thing. Why? Because they were striving for purity, in their case the purity of an imagined »Aryan« German culture.
That is the part that remains as a reminder to us. Until today books are banned and authors are suppressed, for this or that, but always for bad reasons. The dictatorships of this world, whether China, Iran, Turkey, Russia or Uganda, harass their writers, arrest, torture, murder them or drive them into exile. But in the U.S., too, writers are targeted, books are removed from school libraries that look at America through the eyes of marginalized black or indigenous people, or that speak of gender diversity and freedom. On social media, dissenters are defamed, shouted down without argument, and stigmatized.
Yes, texts can be dangerous, in many ways. But they don’t torture or murder, and they don’t deprive anyone of freedom. Only people do that. Rather, most texts help people achieve freedom, even the bad ones from which one learns to mentally distance oneself. Words, embedded in longer texts, are also rarely weapons, even if you sometimes have to explain them. »The worst thing you can do with words is surrender to them«, wrote George Orwell.
Therefore, on the anniversary of the German book burnings, let us remember that there can never be a good or a pur, but at most a less bad and less successful. In the best case, if we try hard together, there is a little more freedom and a little less restriction. A little more humanity, a little less hatred. The way remains the goal, because the respective, constantly changing ideal none of us will ever experience. Thoughts and through them the word, whether spoken or written, must remain as free as possible and as free as tolerable: this is the admonition and the order of the books burned in Germany at that time.
Events by and with PEN Berlin on Wednesday, 10 May:
90 Years of Nazi book burnings
From 11:30 a.m., Bebelplatz Berlin – with Claudia Roth, Meral Şimşek, Nasir Nadeem a.o.
7 pm, Akademie der Künste, Pariser Platz, Berlin – with Ursula Krechel, Eva Menasse, Jeanine Meerapfel, Thomas Lehr and Ingo Schulze
Exile in Germany Deutschland – Talk and Reading
8 pm, Waschhaus Potsdam, Schiffbauergasse 6 – with Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Filipp Dzyadko, Meral Şimşek and Deniz Yücel