In the May of 1933, German students gathered in universities to burn literature deemed “offensive” to the Third Reich. This is a vignette I wrote about this event.
The night wrapped its dark embrace around the students, enshrouding them despite the glowering flames. Their shouts pierced the crackle of the fire. Each shout and spark drove like a sharpened dagger in her ears. Her hands twitched and clutched at the slim volume between her fingers. The smoke of burning pages and leather threatened to smother.
All that year the students had been planning for this. Arranging for the destruction of “un German” works. How could Remarque, Heine, and Mann be against Germany?
Her heart twisted with the flames. Her eyes fixed on a curling page.
Goebbels roared from his stand, the blood red swastica flag only a shade or so darker than his face, and not a deep enough hue to contain the loath that spewed from his lips.
“For the national treason against our soldiers in the World War, we’re burning Hemingway’s books.”
Copies and copies flew from the arms of those around her. Arms of friends and of classmates. A Farewell to Arms flew from the hand of the boy she thought she had loved. Did he not recognize the significance of what he was reducing to rubble?
He looked over to her as he raised his hand in salute, “Heil Hitler.” He said. His eyes were alive, two smoldering blue coals. He nodded at the book in her hand.
She knew he wanted her to drop it in the ash heap where the fire greedily licked at the rest.
The heat of the flames flushed her face and blew its hot breath upon her. Ashes swirled in the air. Fragments of pages and words erased. Not erased from my memory, the thought came.
One foot stepped forward, the other followed. They took her to the university steps, those steps she had first stood on with the bright hope of knowledge and understanding swelling her soul.
They had flung water on those flames of passion.
He moved his head up, then down, encouraging her to hurl the book.
She glanced down at the copy of All Quiet On the Western Front. Goebbels had spit for Remarque seconds before. She could not throw it. Her arm would not do it. It was the most German, the most human, book she owned.
Her lips parted and quivered, her voice rose above the crackling roar of the flames.
“Life and death are in the power of the tongue. Words, the words of these books,” she held up her own, “have that power too. And what are we doing with this power? This power that changes us, that brings knowledge and compassion, that draws humans together? This power that brought us to this university?” She ignored the knot tying itself tighter and tighter in her stomach, the ocean like fluidity of her legs, and the officers advancing on her. She yelled, “What are we doing with it?”
The students, her friends, him, they all stared up at her, disdain marking their faces. There was no understanding in their eyes. Perhaps in a pair or two, remorse flickered.
She forced open her lips again for those two. “Books remind us of our humanity. They teach us to value each other and remind us we’re not alone.” She closed her eyes, the officers were only feet away, “Tonight you burn the works of Heine, a German like ourselves. A hundred years ago he said, ‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.’ ” Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people. “You must not – you cannot let yourselves do this! Let it stain your consciousness! If they’re willing to burn books,” she pointed at the advancing SS officers, “Then they are willing to burn people too. You cannot allow them to, you cannot allow yourselves to!”
They came on either side of her, squeezing her arms, their fingers pressing into her flesh. “You cannot!” She screamed.
They dragged her away, but not before they threw the book into the smoldering skins of words and words and words and words and laughed at her tears.
She found herself, months later, near Munich in a prison, where the words of Heine’s prophecy proved to be true.
She wept and knew heaven was crying too.
(Images from Pinterest.)
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