Some years ago, a friend brought me to the Bebel Platz in Berlin’s city center to show me a new memorial site. “You care about German history and you love books so you’ll appreciate this Denkmal,” he told me as we walked along the wide Unter Den Linden Boulevard. “It commemorates the book burning Nazis carried out here on May 10, 1933.”
We’d been walking all morning and I was in the mood for a cold drink and the shade of trees in the Tiergarten. “I don’t see anything,” I grumbled, gazing across the expanse of paving stones. The large square, flanked by the Opera House and the Humboldt Library, was named after August Bebel, the socialist politician who helped found Germany’s Social Democratic Party in 1869.
“I told you, this memorial is different, not a big statue or anything.” My friend pointed. “It’s right over there.”
After a few more steps, I saw a window in the ground. Through the glass pane, I could make out an underground room lined with bookshelves. All the shelves were empty. Every shelf was white.
“Eerie,” I said after staring at the emptiness for a while. Then I saw the quote by Heinrich Heine, the well-known 19th century German Jewish poet, inscribed on a bronze plaque set in the paving stones.
Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort
wo man Bücher verbrennt,
verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.
This was only a prelude, where
People burn books
They will, in the end, also burn human beings.
Heine wrote this verse in 1820. I felt a chill.
Heinrich Heine’s books were among those burned by Hitler’s fervent followers: students, professors, uniformed SA men, and ordinary Germans. Thousands witnessed the fiery spectacle and listened to Goebbels incendiary speech. Altogether, more than 20,000 volumes from the Humboldt University library were burned in Berlin that night. Similar Bücherverbrennungen occurred in other German cities on the same evening. The book burning was a carefully planned propaganda event designed to consolidate Hitler’s power. It was supposed to destroy and eradicate all un-German Gedankengut (body of thought). Un-German was the shorthand for everything Jewish or politically contrary to National Socialism, including liberal or pacifist sentiments, ideas of humanism and enlightenment, even psychoanalytic theory. The list put together by Nazis included published works by poets and novelists, scientists, philosophers, historians, and artists. Ironically, most of the “un-German” authors were German citizens: Marx and Engels, Bertolt Brecht, Karl Liebknecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Anna Seghers, Erich Maria Remarque, Erich Kaestner (who actually witnessed the books going up in flames in Berlin and had to flee from the frenzied crowd).
In retrospect, of course, it is an honor to be among those whose books were burned by Hitler’s followers, a testament to progressive opinions and humanist ideals.
The Isreali artist Micha Ullman designed the “Empty Library” Memorial in Berlin without an entry to the subterranean room. All we can do is look through that window. That’s how history is, I thought, we can look back but we can’t undo any of it. We can’t retrieve the books that were burned, can’t put them back on the library shelves.
I returned to the memorial this summer, seventeen years after I first saw it. The Bebelplatz was empty and for a moment, I thought the Denkmal had been removed. There were no signs indicating its location. Then I saw it: the glass was dull and the room below was as if in a fog. No one else was standing there with me, even though the city was teeming with tourists.
This time I felt another layer of sadness. The bare shelves raised a new set of questions: do books even matter anymore? Who will be reading them in twenty years? I know kids who only use laptops in school, no books at all. For centuries, books had the power to be subversive because many people read them. Would a twenty-first century totalitarian government even bother with pulling books from libraries to burn them?
Looking down at those empty shelves under the glass, I wondered if books are a species on the verge of extinction.