On 20 March 2013 Minister of State Cornelia Pieper opened together with the Chairwoman of the Association for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Lea Rosh, the exhibition “Burned Books” at the Federal Foreign Office. The Minister of State delivered the following speech.
Ms Rosh, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This year sees the 80th anniversary of a sad event in German history: the shameful book burning not far away from here on what was Opernplatz, today’s Bebelplatz. It was here on 10 May 1933 that books were burned in an “action against the un‑German spirit” – for the most part organized by the German Student Association.
The 10 May marked the start of the persecution of undesirable thought in Germany and the banning of works by unconventional authors and academics. Students, professors and Nazi functionaries threw books onto the fire chanting so‑called fire oaths. Tens of thousands of books by almost 500 writers, academics and commentators went up in flames including works by Berthold Brecht, Sigmund Freud, Erich Kästner, Heinrich and Klaus Mann and Kurt Tucholsky. Erich Kästner was probably the only author who was actually present at the book burning in Berlin – hidden in the crowds.
The 10 May 1933 reminds us how fanatical the Nazis were in taking action against great works of German literature. “That was but a prelude. Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” This quote by Heinrich Heine from 1817, which sadly turned out to be true, refers by the way to Koran burnings after the conquering of Granada by Christian crusaders in 1499.
Book burnings have taken place throughout human history, from antiquity to the present day. They are a way of dealing with undesirable literature not through intellectual debate but through total negation, extermination.
Terror and destruction had their dreadful beginnings in 1933, when the Reichstag burned, when books burned, and ultimately people burned. The systematically planned extermination of the Jews was preceded by the destruction of intellectual cultural heritage. For many of the authors the book burnings meant the complete end to their artistic activity. Some were able to survive in exile but many never found the strength again to resume their earlier work. Some chose death, leaving behind them uncompleted works.
It fills us with shame that the square only 200m away from here is branded with the scar of what was inflicted on some of the greatest contributors to German literature.
We would like to thank Ms Rosh and the Association for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe for designing and making this exhibition possible and for preserving the memory of 10 May 1933.
The exhibition has been shown in various places of significance in Berlin since the end of last year: at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Willy Brandt House, now at the Federal Foreign Office and after that at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Presentations in Stuttgart (Town Hall) and on the island of Rügen (Prora) are also planned.
For me the fact that the “Burned Books” exhibition is being shown so close to the historic place where the book burning happened is an active contribution towards remembering the writers outlawed and persecuted by the Nazis. They mustn’t be forgotten. And that’s why we were happy to oblige when the Association asked if they could show the exhibition here.
With the image of burning books the dark day in May 1933 has become a warning of the threat to culture, but also a symbol that writers and thinkers must never accept humiliation, lawlessness or suppression.