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Film of Germans Burning Books

Germans burn books.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the Sherman Grinberg Film Library

In the first years of Nazi rule, public book burning ceremonies became one of the most recognizable symbols of Nazi censorship. Banning and burning books was one way that the regime and its supporters tried to "purge" German culture while reshaping Germany to fit Nazi ideas about race and national unity. 

Sponsored and led by Nazi student activists, the book burnings took place as part of the Nazi regime’s campaign of "Gleichschaltung" (German for “coordination”), begun in 1933. By taking over Germany’s political, social, and cultural organizations, the Nazi Party hoped to extend its control into all areas of German life. Many Germans were pushed out and excluded as Nazi propaganda and official Nazi policies defined who could belong to the Nazi "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft") and who could not.

In early 1933, Nazi student activists complained that German universities and their curricula were not aligned enough with Nazi ideology. Nazi student groups, professors, and librarians began creating lists of “un-German” books to ban. These lists included works by Jewish authors as well as books on political or social subjects that Nazi ideology opposed—such as Communism, pacifism, or same-sex relationships.1 Student activists soon organized a series of public book burnings in towns and cities across Germany.2 German students led these events, but they were also officially embraced as propaganda by the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.

The featured American newsreel film was produced by the Paramount News company.3 It shows how the Nazi regime created a propaganda event out of the public book burning ceremony held in the center of Berlin on the night of May 10, 1933. The camera shows men selecting confiscated books to be burned, students throwing the books into the fire, and large crowds of participants and onlookers.4 Large floodlights dramatically light the square. Although it is unclear where the original footage used in the newsreel came from, the camera operator seems to have had privileged access to the events.

One close-up shot shows a publication co-authored by Magnus Hirschfeld, whose pioneering Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin was ransacked and vandalized days earlier by Nazi student activists and members of the SA. Hirschfeld’s institute was the first library in Berlin that was targeted and attacked by Nazi forces. During the May 10 book burning in Berlin, thousands of the institute’s confiscated books were destroyed. A stolen bronze bust of Hirschfeld was also paraded around on a stick before being thrown onto the bonfire.5

By participating in the burning of books that Nazi ideology labeled “un-German,” Nazi supporters could publicly demonstrate their own loyalty to the regime—while identifying and intimidating those people whom they felt did not belong to the Nazis’ new “national community.”6

To learn more about Nazi efforts to destroy books about topics Nazi ideology opposed, see Leonidas E. Hill, "The Nazi Attack on 'Un-German' Literature, 1933–1945," in The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation, edited by Jonathan Rose (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001): 9-46. For more on Nazi attitudes toward same-sex romantic and sexual relationships, see the related Experiencing History collection, Sexuality, Gender, and Nazi Persecution.

The Nazi regime and its supporters held many public propaganda events in order to promote the false idea that all Germans were united in support for Nazi goals. These events included rallies, speeches, memorial services, parades, and public book burning ceremonies. For example, see the related Experiencing History item, German Newsreel Clip on Hitler after the Defeat of France 1940.

To learn more about the use of newsreels in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and Europe, see Joseph Clark, News Parade: The American Newsreel and the World as Spectacle (Minneapolis: the University of Minnesota Press, 2020); and Siegried Kracauer, "The Conquest of Europe on the Screen: The Nazi Newsreel, 1939-40," Social Research 82, no. 1 (2015): 153–174.

In addition to Nazi student activists, the book burning was also attended by members of the SA, the SS, and the Hitler Youth. Curious citizens also looked on, and at least one author watched his own books being burned at the square in Berlin. To learn more, see J. M. Ritchie, "The Nazi Book-Burning," The Modern Language Review 83, no. 3 (July 1988), 630.

To learn more about the Nazi attack on the Institute of Sexual Science, see Rebecca Knuth, "National Socialism and the Destruction of Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science, 1933," in Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction (Westport, CT & London: Praeger, 2006): 101–120.

For more primary sources related to the Nazi regime's use of public events and rituals as propaganda, see the Experiencing History collection, Nazi Propaganda and National Unity.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the Sherman Grinberg Film Library
Accession Number 2002.543.1
RG Number RG-60.3436
Source Number 2639
Date Created
Duration 00:02:31
Sound Yes
Videographer / Creator
Paramount News
Berlin, Germany
United States
Moving Image Type Newsreel
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