Text from archive says "The public burning of non-German writings and books on the opera square Unter den Linden in Berlin, by students of the Berlin universities! The non-German writings and books collected by the students are publicly thrown into the fire on the Opernplatz in Berlin." Image: CC BY-SA 3.0 de.

The Kind of Books Nazis Burned Is Super !@#$ing Relevant Right Now

The goal of "The Empty Library."

Though many people are aware that Nazis banned and burned books, I think that most people don’t know what types of books were actually burned—at least at first. Up until a few years ago, when I was introduced to the Weimar Republic (roughly 1918 to 1933, a.k.a. the time between WWI and Nazi Germany) via Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical book Goodbye to Berlin (the basis for Cabaret), I just assumed they burned anything linked to Jewish people. This was partly right, as antisemitism involved scapegoating Jewish people for broader cultural shifts, but there’s one type of Nazi-targeted book in particular that’s especially relevant today: books relating to sexuality and gender.

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The first organized book-burning sweep (where many of the images come from) happened in May 1933—just two months after Germany opened its first concentration camps for “political prisoners.” Across 34 cities on May 10, middle-class Germans (many of whom were students) took fire oaths and tossed tens of thousands of books deemed “un-German” into the flames. The weekend before these burnings came for books about socialism (including one from Hellen Keller, and yes, she had a response), pacifism, and more, they would attack one of the most important institutions for sexuality and gender research in history: Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, or the Institute for Sexual Science (ISS).

The ISS is one of the most important institutions for sex, sexuality, and gender research in history. The founder of the school, German Jewish man Magnus Hirschfeld, would coin the word “transvestite” and write about sexuality being an “innate” trait for decades before Nazis rose to power. He and others associated with the school were frequently on the front page of Nazi magazines, and in March 1933, at least one school administrator (Kurt Hiller) was sent to a concentration camp. The first known patient of a male-to-female gender reassignment surgery, Dorchen Ritcher, was murdered when the school was stormed, by Nazi paramilitary group the brownshirts, on May 6 for the Saturday night book burning.

A uniformed member of the Nazi SA and a student of the Academy of Physical Exercise examine materials plundered from the library of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, director of the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin on May 6, 1933. While some materials were burned immediately on the street outside the Institute, others were loaded onto trucks and carted away for sorting. Some were torched at the ceremonial book burning on Berlin's Opera Square on May 10, but selected valuable antiquarian books and periodicals were actually sold abroad. Manfred Baumgardt, Schwules Museum Berlin. Image: public domain
Library of Magnus Hirschfeld. (Public Domain)

Not only was this endorsed by political leaders, but the infamous Joseph Goebbels, the Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, spoke at a burning on the ISS book burning to about 40,000 people. This book burning at ISS resulted in the loss of knowledge and documentation about sex, sexuality, and gender dating back at least to the 1800s, if not further. Knowing that, you can look at this clip from the ultra-MAGA broadcast One American News Network and see that the decision to use an image of Nazi youth burning books in reference to a “moral duty” is actually the right choice here in the worst way.

The Empty Library

The Nazis didn’t stop at the ISS or even in Germany. When they expanded into Poland (where they killed 20% of the population), 80% of books in school libraries and 75% of journals in scientific libraries were destroyed.

In the Bebelplatz (in Berlin), there’s a memorial in the little of the square that you might miss if you’re not paying attention. Called “The Empty Library,” an installation was placed in the ground by artist Micha Ullman in 1995 to mark the site where 20,000 books were burned written by “un-German” academics, journalists, artists, and scientists.

@dw_berlinfresh The artist was chosen from 30 artists who were invited to compete for the 60th anniversary (1995). #historytok #germany #berlin ♬ Lonely Cloud Become Dark Cloud (Piano Solo Version) – EclipseFilms

If reading this comparison to what’s happening today still feels like a stretch, know that much of what happened to these books, and the people soon after, is already happening in the U.S. or being proposed by high-profile figures. (Not to mention that “Well, it’s not as bad as Nazi Germany” is not something to be proud of.) Ethan Schmidt-Crockett, the man who went viral for demanding Petco take down pride merch and ally to the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has rallied to put LGBTQ+ people in concentration camps (again). The most watched cable broadcaster, Tucker Carlson, rails almost daily about losing an “American Identity” and is uplifting people like Chris Rufo (the man behind the Critical Race Theory panic), Matt Walsh, and Libs of TikTok in their coordinated effort to attack gender-affirming healthcare (even for adults) and comprehensive education.

It’s escalated to bomb threats almost daily at children’s hospitals and doxxing of doctors and teachers, as library censorship battles seem to be largely going in favor of the attackers. Librarians, teachers, and support staff that show resistance to book bans and censorship are finding themselves facing firings, fines, jail time, death threats, and in some cases, complete defunding (including e-resources) by local and state officials. Libraries emptying and threats to those whose actions and ideas are too close to the ISS are the first ones up, unless people do something.

(featured image: CC BY-SA 3.0 de.)

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Author
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.