On May 10, 1933, trucks loaded with 25,000 books from public, state, and university libraries rolled into the Opernplatz in Berlin. Members of the Sturm Abteilung and Nazi Student Groups placed the books on wooden pallets and proceeded to set them on fire. It was considered a “funeral pyre of the intellect.”
Across Germany, Nazi youth held similar ceremonies, clearing books out of libraries, temples, and churches. Eventually, the German Student Association created a list — Zwölf Thesen wider den undeutschen Geist – consisting of twelve criteria they thought needed to be met for acceptable German literature.
During the Opernplatz burnings, Goebbels gave a short speech to the gathered crowd:
The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism has come to an end and the German revolution has again opened the way for the true essence of being German. This revolution was not started at the top, it burst forth from the bottom, upwards. It is, therefore, in the very best sense of the word, the expression of the will of the Volk. There stands the worker next to the bourgeois, student next to soldier and young worker, here stand the intellectuals next to the proletariat.
During the past fourteen years while you, students, had to suffer in silent shame the humiliations of the November Republic, your libraries were inundated with the trash and filth of Jewish “asphalt” literati.
Therefore, you are doing the right thing as you, at this midnight hour, surrender to the flames the evil spirit of the past. There the intellectual basis of the November Republic is crushed to the ground. But from the rubble will arise victoriously the Phoenix of a new spirit, a spirit that we carry forth, that we nourish and to which we give decisive weight.
Among the authors that eventually made the Student Association’s list was Helen Keller. In an open letter to the students, she wrote:
History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.
You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds. I gave all the royalties of my books for all time to the German soldiers blinded in the World War with no thought in my heart but love and compassion for the German people
I deplore the injustice and unwisdom of passing on to unborn generations the stigma of your deeds.
The thirst to silence ideas continues today. In 2005, there were 405 attempts to remove books from libraries, and it’s estimated that only one in five challenges actually gets reported to the ALA. A dim reminder that even as we take a stand for freedom and democracy in other people’s country, we continue to struggle with the most basic of liberties in our own.