Book-burning: Censorship, ideology, and dissent

– is the perfectly good title my Chair Karen invented for my contribution (in April) to the local library’s “Fighting the Fires of Hate” events associated with a traveling exhibit from the Holocaust Museum. I’m to talk, roughly speaking, about Nazi banned / burned books, which is not what we’d call an area of expertise for me. What to do, what to do.

Well, at the moment we’re in the part of the evening semester where our students in the ‘bad writing’ class are leading discussion on genres of bad writing they selected and researched. (Assigning ~50 ideally genre-representative pages for class reading, which has been an adventure.) Last night, the group that picked Nazi banned / burned books (yes, I prompted, but gently) was up. They picked Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) as the focus of discussion, and assigned the first 50 pages. Missing the points of ‘genre’, ‘representation’, and ‘selection’ a little, but it’s a work in progress.

After about five minutes of show-and-tell that was beginning to wind down into mumbling and paper shuffling, Patrick and I sprang into action to encourage a practice and salvage a learning situation. We zeroed in on the scene right at the beginning where the soldiers are getting double rations because about half of them died that day, and started to play the ‘so what?’ game. Why might Hitler have thought that was bad? “Well, it depicts the realities of war!” What realities? “Lots of guys die and supplies are sometimes scarce!” Yes. So what? Does anyone dispute that? Lots of French guys died too, but they won the war and didn’t produce a famous banned book on the subject. “But the men are miserable!” Yes. So what? “The war sucks and they know it!” Yes. So what? “This scene might cause readers to think critically and question the war.” Yes. So what?

Things were moving along, but the analysis was sticking on the idea that this was a starkly realistic and sensible portrayal of the war, and that was the problem. So we said, let’s take context seriously and accept for a moment that this was banned at a time (right away, 1933) when every adult knew already how tough war was. Millions of people died in the Great War less than 20 years earlier, nearly a million at Verdun alone. Hitler knew it, the Nazis knew it, Remarque knew it and everyone else knew it, many because they lived through it, if nothing else because they lost some relatives. Everyone did. There was absolutely no news in the losses and privations of war. So, what’s the problem? … Anyone?

OK, let’s notice that we agree with Remarque’s soldiers, and his implied perspective. We take for granted that war is factually hell, that lots of casualties are factually a problem, that supply breakdowns are factually a hardship. We sympathize with the soldiers’ bleak stoicism and opportunistic appetites. So instead, let’s imagine Hitler writing that scene, using the same facts. Half the guys die, the other half pig out on the extra supplies. What’s his take on this? How’s he feel about German soldiers whining about food and wolfing down the rations of the honored dead?

I swear that the room echoed with an audible click.

So we went through another round of ‘so whats’ that got us to something like an accurate account of Nazi ideology re: glory, honor, sacrifice, striving, progress, the Fatherland, in the process of which we drew in the next section of the text, in which ignorance, the hectoring of Kantorek the schoolmaster, and the pressure of peers and social expectations account for all those young ‘volunteers’, not a heroic sense of duty and indomitable Aryan will. So clearly Hitler and the Nazis were all about propaganda – all about clouding the minds of the young with high-sounding lies. All that work and we’re back to what everyone knows already about those Nazi scum, that they were ruthless, self-serving con artists and bullies.

Back to context. Before class I’d pulled up on my tablet the University of Arizona’s Banned Books, 1932-1939 page (#4 on the Google search of ‘nazi banned books’ and found, but not used, by our student presenters). When it became clear that the analysis had gotten stuck again I read from “12 Theses Against the Un-German Spirit: A Propaganda Campaign of the German Students’ Association (Twelve Book-burning Slogans), as printed in the Voelkischer Beobachter, April 14, 1933:”

6. We wish to eradicate lies, we want to denounce treason, we want for us students, institutions of discipline and political education, not mindlessness….

8. We demand of the German students the desire and capability for independent knowledge and decisions.

So, we have a hypothesis that the Nazis were busily spreading lies and eradicating mindfulness, independent knowledge and decisionmaking. And we have a passionate Nazi demand to eradicate lies and spread mindfulness, independent knowledge and decisionmaking. Is the hypothesis supported? Should we at least consider the possibility that the Nazis actually believed they were in possession of a truth that any mindful, independent thinker would freely embrace, and that it was their opponents who were the ruthless, self-serving con artists and bullies? Whose books were not just conveniently, but righteously burned?

There was more, but that’s the gist. And thanks to my students I now know, I think, what I’m going to be doing at my library talk.


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