First they burned books, then people: Lessons of the Nazis’ 1933 book blaze
One of Hitler's SA stormtroopers throws confiscated books into the flames during a public burning of "un-German" books in Berlin on May 10, 1933. | Public Domain

How can memorials powerfully remind us of past horrors? How can they keep the atrocities of the past alive and relevant? “The Empty Library,” Micha Ullmann’s Berlin memorial commemorating the fascist book blaze—when on May 10, 1933, some 20,000 works by a great number of German and international authors were devoured by the flames before an ecstatic crowd—fulfils these requirements.

Ullmann’s memorial is located on Berlin’s Bebelplatz, underneath it, to be precise. It is not visible from the street by day, but by dark, an eternal light illuminates it. The memorial is a seven-square-meter space, a good five meters high, plastered white, with empty white wooden shelves lining its sides. They could accommodate 20,000 books. Ullmann demonstrates loss—loss of knowledge, experience, art, pleasure. The emptiness reflects a cultural void.

The space can be viewed through a 1.20-square-meter pane set into the paving of the square. During the day, the sun, clouds and people, too, are reflected in the pane and it takes a certain effort and concentration to perceive the empty shelves through the small pane. However, this is part of the artistic concept. To approach history, to fully grasp it, takes effort.

‘The Empty Library,’ artist Micha Ullman’s memorial to the Berlin book burning of 1933.

The pane becomes an intersection of the present and the past—the Now is reflected in this glass plate, which at the same time becomes a transparent grave slab, allowing access to the past. The viewer almost feels dizzy/ faint, as the window appears fragile—could one fall into the past here?

This interface between history and the present also represents an interplay between the private sphere of a library and the public sphere of Berlin’s historic center, between inside and outside, between reality and the imagined, evoked by the memorial. Along with a grave, the empty library also associates a protected space. Apart from the obvious loss, the imagination refills the shelves with the burnt books and keeps them in a safe place, like a bunker, in the exact place where the inconceivable happened.

The eternal light functions doubly: It is the eternal light of remembrance, as well as a source of energy where shock can turn into insight and resistance.

Micha Ullmann’s family fled from Dorndorf in Thuringia to Palestine in 1933, where he was born in Tel Aviv in 1939. His basic idea for the Berlin memorial is grounded in a symbolism that is a leitmotif in the artist’s work. Another memorial based on the excavation of a pit is his first important work “Messer/Metzer” from 1972.

Together with young Palestinians and Israelis, Ullmann symbolically exchanged soil between the Arab village of Messer and the Jewish Kibbutz Metzer, neighboring villages whose names both mean the same thing in Arabic and Hebrew: Border. In both locations, pits of the same size were dug and filled with the soil of the other village. Here, too, there was hardly anything visible on the surface. Here, too, the viewers are challenged: They have to approach, see, and want to understand what is being presented.

The Berlin memorial importantly emphasizes the beginnings of fascism in the weeks after Hitler took power. The torching of books heralded the unimaginable. Very close to the memorial is a plaque, also set in the square’s plaster stones, with Heinrich Heine’s prophetic 1820 words from his tragedy, Almansor: “This was a prelude only, where you burn books, you will, in the end, burn people.”

It should not be forgotten that it was precisely the so-called intelligentsia that carried out the book burning—students and their professors, also librarians and the book trade. This act of book burning contributed significantly to preparing the intellectual ground for fascism. How quickly supposedly cultured and educated people lose their facade and reveal their true stripes.

This phenomenon is very evident again today. The fascist concept of Gleichschaltung (enforced conformity) may well be underway, where thinking independent of the establishment is suppressed and made punishable by law.

As fascism grew, almost all German writers left their home country—a step not taken lightly by those whose art lies in their native language. Very few authors stayed. The vast majority continued writing in exile, and German literature during the Nazi regime is a literature of exile.

The practice of condemning ‘un-German’ books to the blaze was a recurring feature of life under fascism. Here, Hitler Youth toss ‘Jewish-Marxist’ books into the flames in Salzburg, Austria, on April 30, 1938. | AP

Erich Kästner was one of the few who remained in Germany; Hans Fallada was another. Kästner was also the only author who witnessed the book burning in Berlin which engulfed his own work, including his novel Fabian (1931, The Story of a Moralist, in English translation).

Kästner’s Fabian is not actively involved in the political struggle. This novel, written before the Nazis seized power, is set during the last years of the Weimar Republic. Although Fabian distances himself from the rising German fascists and sees himself as a friend of the Communists, he counts on “decency” prevailing.

In his 1950 preface to a new edition of the novel, Kästner described his aim as pointing to the abyss towards which Germany was moving. The novel criticizes above all the passivity of those who recognize the dangerous deterioration in society but do nothing about it. This theme is of the greatest relevance today.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer and writer living in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is an associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.