In an effort to cleanse their culture of ideas deemed threatening to the German spirit or otherwise degenerate, students and Nazi party members carried out book burnings at universities throughout Germany on May 10, 1933. The conflagrations were organized by the German Students’ Corporation, which persuaded young people, professors, NSDAP units, and nationalist leagues to attend. The crowds watched as truckloads of books were thrown into the flames – the works of philosophers such as Marx, scientists such as Freud and Einstein, socialists such as playwright Bertolt Brecht, foreign writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, and poets such as Heinrich Heine.
Student leaders and professors made speeches maligning these authors and their works. At the bonfire in Berlin, 40,000 people gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels speak. He said that students had the “right to clean up the debris of the past.” The book burnings were meant to symbolize Germany’s cleansing of itself but also constituted an effort to remove Jewish influence from German culture and institutions.
Counter-demonstrations took place in some US cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Some journalists expressed dismay at this German assault on intellectual freedom, but others expressed amusement at what seemed like a display of juvenile zeal. Within Germany, opposition was almost non-existent, and authors whose works were spared rarely spoke out on behalf of those whose books were banned and destroyed. The Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, one of the writers whose books were consigned to the flames, eerily anticipated what was to come. “Where books are burned,” he wrote in 1821, “in the end people will be burned.”