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Letter from Berlin: Fahrenheit 451 Revisited

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BERLIN–Some things I take personally. This is one of them. That’s because I write books. So, whenever people burn books–whether it’s the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt going up in flames nearly two millennia in the past, or the 2003 torching of the National Library in Baghdad just five years ago, at the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq–I take offense. And it’s personal. When the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451, the degree at which paper burns, books like mine were and are reduced to ashes.

That flame-scorched history is why I was in Berlin’s August Bebel Platz on Saturday, May 10. It’s the site where, 75 years ago on that date in 1933, the most notorious book burning of the 20th century was ignited by the then recently-installed Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. Less than four months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Nazi students throughout the country were egged on by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels to purge the nation’s libraries of all thought of which the government didn’t approve.

The biggest of the nationwide bonfires took place in Berlin. Thousands of mostly young Nazis made their way up east Berlin’s famous showcase boulevard, Unter den Linden, on an evening in early May and assembled in the cobblestone plaza across the street from what is today’s Humboldt University and next door to the 17th century state opera house. A huge bonfire was lit and as many as 20,000 volumes were hurled into the flames.

The roster of writers whose works were declared verboten included most of the major German-language authors of the day as well as a prestigious sampling of international scribes. Consigned to the flames were books by playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, author of the Threepenny Opera as well as the anti-censorship play, Galileo; so were the novels of the brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, authors, respectively, of the Nobel Prize-winning The Magic Mountain and the text for Marlene Dietrich’s hit film, The Blue Angel. The same fate greeted the works of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud; and those of Alfred Doblin, who wrote the gritty modernist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz; as well as the anti-war writings of Erich Maria Remarque, author of the classic All Quiet on the Western Front.

International authors henceforth forbidden in Nazi Germany ranged from Jack London, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway to Russia’s Maxim Gorki, Andre Malraux of France, Jaroslav Hasek of Czechoslovakia, and of course the grandfathers of communism, Marx and Engels. The Nazis’ leading “social degenerate” target was Berlin’s gay sex researcher and psychiatrist Magnus Hirschfeld, whose research institute had been lately sacked by the brownshirts, and whose bust as well as his books provided fuel for the bonfire. Hirschfeld would soon find himself in exile in France, like many other prominent German and German-Jewish intellectuals of the 1930s who scattered to near and distant refuges, and at least avoided a harsher fate than that of those who stayed behind.

As the tongues of hungry flame lit up the night sky, Goebbels himself was on hand to put the government’s official stamp on the event. “My fellow students, German men and women, the era of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is now at an end,” the propaganda chief declared. He promised the mob that “the future German man will not just be a man of books.” The young would be educated “to repudiate the fear of death in order to gain again the respect for death. That is the mission of the young and therefore you do well at this late hour to entrust to the flames the intellectual garbage of the past.”

The prophecy that the 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine made in 1820 could be glimpsed in the fire: “Where they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” Although World War II was still a half dozen years away, those with a nose for the smoke of burned books could sense what was coming. Even in its so far brief grip on power, by May 1933 the Nazi regime had already taken the first steps to harass Jews and shut down Jewish businesses, had conducted a May Day round-up of trade union leaders and social democratic political opponents, and were now burning books.

The millions of incinerated bodies that would follow were only faintly on the horizon. Still, one of the seldom-discussed features of the Nazi regime is how early one could read the signs of what was to come, if only one paid attention. Few did, apart from authors like Christopher Isherwood, whose Goodbye to Berlin stories of the 1930s already anticipated the conflagration in waiting.

Admittedly, the burnt ashes of the past felt very far away as I sat in the mid-20 degree Saturday afternoon spring sunshine. The cobbled square, ringed by Humboldt University’s law faculty building, the opera house, and a domed church, is now named for August Bebel, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party (back in 1933, the square was simply known as Opernplatz). I was one of a couple hundred people scattered on spectators’ benches set before a makeshift stage where the modest program of commemorative speeches, readings, and music meandered through a lazy afternoon.

Present for the occasion was a smattering of local politicians, and some cultural representatives, mostly from Spain–since the event was being co-hosted by the Cervantes Institute along with Humboldt University and the city’s governing social democratic party. There were also a couple of diplomats, some academics, a well-known performer or two to read from the burned books, along with a few old codgers (yes, your reporter included), and the occasional, slightly disoriented, wandering tourist group, happy to have something to click their digital cameras at. And hovering over the whole bucolic scene, a giant advertisement from Yves Rocher cosmetics covers the façade of most of the law faculty building, currently under renovation. The cosmetic maker promises “Freedom, Equality, and Beauty for All.”

If one wants a more shudder-inducing, immediate sense of the event being remembered, it’s as close as your computer. The Nazis, obsessed with recording the triumphs of what they expected to be a Thousand Year Reich, scrupulously filmed the May 1933 book burning. There are the crackling flames, and there’s Goebbels, thundering away, in a film clip available at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website (http://www.ushmm.org/). When I later mildly complained to a friend that the commemoration was fairly unexciting, he quipped, “Well, what did you want them to do, burn some books?”

My own private way of marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi book burning was to re-read the week before Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science-fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451. (It was later made into a movie by director Francois Truffaut.) In Bradbury’s dystopian vision, books are forbidden and the job of the fire department is to raid houses where private libraries are hidden and to burn them down. In place of the banned books, Bradbury presciently imagines a dumbed-down population squatting in its living rooms, where all four walls are covered by giant TV screens and the imaginary on-screen “family” addresses the viewer by name and feels more like kin than your friends and blood relations.

Fahrenheit 451 is hardly a great novel, but Bradbury’s tale of a fireman named Montag, who gradually becomes a secret reader and eventually a hunted dissenter in his aliterate society, has a certain resonance even a half century after its original publication.

But there’s an even more effective, permanent reminder of the book burning right in the middle of Bebel Platz. It’s a memorial sculptural installation by Israeli artist Mischa Ullman, but it’s only really noticeable at night. It consists of a small square of glass set in the rough cobblestone surface of the plaza. At night, it emits a shaft of light from underground. When you edge up to it and look down, there’s a white room, and all four walls, from floor to ceiling, are bookshelves. Empty bookshelves. A nearby ground-level plaque quotes Heine’s line about “where they burn books…” and records that this is the site of the book burning in 1933.

In a city that probably, and appropriately, contains more memorials to the piled-up wreckage of history than any other city in the world, Ullman’s “The Empty Library” is Berlin’s most powerful marker of what has happened here. No matter how many times, on dozens of dark nights, that I’ve viewed the brightly lit subterranean empty white room, it retains its haunting poignancy.

There’s one other thing to say about book burning, reading, memory, and forgetting. When I first came to Berlin, almost two decades ago, and rode the subway, the first thing I noticed was that invariably about 80 per cent of the passengers were reading. Everything from weighty tomes to their day planners. Never had I seen a culture that was so visibly engaged in reading.

Between then and now, as we know, reading, especially book reading, has precipitously declined. Sure, when I ride the Berlin subway today, a few people besides myself may be perusing a book. But now there are news and advertising screens installed at each end of every subway car for riders to stare at; people are busy yattering into their cellphones (or “Handys” as they’re called here); and ubiquitous iPod earphones are delivering sounds into transit passengers’ youthful heads. It looks like we’ve found a more effective means to displace reading than the bonfires of the Nazis or Bradbury’s book-burning firemen. Why use violence when you can get people to forget about reading through sheer cultural indifference?

The glass panel in Ullman’s “Empty Library” was almost opaque in the spring sunshine, and the flowers that had been strewn across it had wilted in the heat. I walked down Unter den Linden a couple of blocks and stopped at a book and CD store on Friedrichstrasse. A friend had recommended that I read Steve Coll’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, a history of the CIA, Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. The store had a copy, so I bought it. Some people just never learn… to stop reading.

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Berlin, May 11, 2008. Stan Persky is the author of Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (New Star, 2007) and The Short Version: An ABC Book (New Star, 2005). He teaches philosophy at Capilano University.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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