Seventy years ago today, over 20,000 books were set alight by the Nazis on the Opernplatz in Berlin. The words of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann and many, many others went up in flames, to the delight of the watching crowd - and the horror of the rest of the world.
Through the ages, people have always been driven - as much by fear and insecurity as by malice - to make a show of silencing the voices of those who oppose them. History’s timeline is lit up by literary funeral pyres, and the pyre of books on the Opernplatz burned brighter than most.
The Nazis didn’t just burn books because they opposed of the content of those books. They burned books because they disapproved of the writers themselves: because they were Jews, or they were pacifists, or they were simply “degenerate” and “un-German”. The Nazis wanted the book-burning to be a symbol of their triumph over degenerate thought. In truth, it was a symbol of the kind of intolerance that, sadly, still holds sway around much of the world today.
Our instinct may be to chuckle at the burning of Harry Potter books or Dixie Chicks CDs, but the impulse behind these displays of small-mindedness and fear is the same impulse that drove the book-burning Nazis and countless others before them. It’s the impulse to silence those with whom we disagree, to suppress thoughts and ideas that we consider too dangerous - or too alluring. It’s an impulse that is far too easy to fall prey to, and far too dangerous to laugh off or ignore.
So today might be a good day to read a book - maybe even a controversial one, maybe even one you disagree with - and to ponder the words of Heinrich Heine, written in 1821, often repeated, and as powerful today as they were nearly two centuries ago:
“Dort, wo man Buecher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” (“Where one burns books, one will, in the end, also burn people.”)