Exhibit Sheds Light on Nazi Suppression Of Free Speech

By Ori Nir

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

WASHINGTON — For the past decade, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has focused on the Nazi campaign to persecute and murder Europe’s Jews. But this week, the museum marked its 10th anniversary by opening an exhibition on a topic that is not explicitly and specifically Jewish: Hitler’s war on free thought and free speech.

“I was a bit concerned about it,” said Stephen Goodell, the museum’s director of exhibitions and co-curator of the current show. “But as I worked through it, it became clear that this is actually very, very Jewish.”

While the connection between burning books and genocide may not be obvious, he said, the suppression of free speech in Hitler’s Germany was indeed linked to the later murder of millions of Jews.

“What does this have to do with the Holocaust?” Goodell asked at a press preview of the exhibition, titled “Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book-Burnings.”

“It is one milestone on the twisted road to Auschwitz,” Goodell said. “It’s the suppression of culture, the decapitation of the intellectuals, the forced uniformity that becomes the lock step, that becomes the goose step.”

“There are a lot of ways to understand the conditions that allowed the genocide of Jews,” Goodell added. “You don’t have to tell the story of the killing of Jews over and over again. You have to frame it and provide the context to it.”

Seventy years ago, in May 1933, only four months after the onset of the Nazi revolution, tens of thousands of German students gathered on college campuses across Germany. Carrying torches, they marched toward large bonfires, where they burned about 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books. The book-burnings, which were staged as media events on May 10, caused passionate public outrage worldwide, particularly among intellectuals.

In the United States, Nazi book-burnings became a symbol of America’s position as the land of intellectual freedom. Since then, book-burning has become broadly synonymous in the United States with intellectual intolerance, censorship and suppression of free thought. This American response to book-burning during the last 70 years receives nearly as much space in the exhibition as the Nazi anti-intellectual campaign itself. This is a part of the museum’s attempt to “de-parochialize” the Holocaust, Goodell said, to make the Holocaust relevant to Americans and broaden the way it is perceived.

“Fighting the Fires of Hate” starts with a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and ends with a photo of an American protester at a 2001 burning of Harry Potter books at a small-town church in New Mexico; the demonstrator is wearing a swastika and a Hitler-like mustache, holding a hand-painted sign that says “Heil ignorance.” “We wanted to show that symbolic book-burnings still take place today, whether it is Harry Potter or Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses,’” Goodell said.

Copies of memos sent to university campuses in April 1933 by the German Student Association, with detailed instructions for preparation of the upcoming book-burnings, are included in the exhibit. Also on display are portions of the list of 346 authors who had been blacklisted by May 1933 and thick lists — published semi-annually thereafter under the Nazi regime — of banned books.

The exhibition, which will travel throughout the United States later this year, strongly emphasizes the comprehensive media coverage of these events at the time, both in Germany and in the United States. Newsweek called the events a “holocaust of books” and Time magazine coined the term “bibliocaust.” Writers who blasted the book-burnings mentioned Heinrich Heine’s 19th-century prophetic warning that “where one burns books, one soon burns people.” One cartoonist drew books piled for burning next to a pile of people at the stake.

American coverage of the book-burnings was extensive. But when the systematic genocide at concentration camp crematoria became known in the United States several years later, it was not as well covered. Coverage of similar intensity, said Goodell and exhibition co-curator Guy Stern, could have changed the Nazi death campaign and saved many lives.

“Throughout the war, the government used book-burnings to help define the nature of the enemy to the American public,” said Sara Bloomfield, the museum’s director. “Unfortunately, the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews was not seen as a compelling case for fighting Nazism.”

Later this year, the museum will open two more major exhibitions to mark its 10th anniversary: one displaying the original writings of Anne Frank — for the first time in the United States — and one commemorating the Jewish children who were hidden and saved during the Holocaust.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.