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!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • 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.