No books burned this time in Berlin despite ominous parallels
A woman is carried away by police officers during a pro-Palestinian demonstration by the group "Student Coalition Berlin" in the theater courtyard of the 'Freie Universitat Berlin' university in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Pro-Palestinian activists occupied a courtyard of the Free University in Berlin on Tuesday. | Markus Schreiber/AP

BERLIN – It was May 10 in Germany’s terrible year, 1933. Hitler had been in power for hardly three months, when students and staff emptied the university libraries of forbidden books and threw them, an estimated 20,000 books by over a hundred authors, into the flames of a giant bonfire.

Most authors were German-Jewish, atheist, liberal, and leftist, Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers, Sigmund Freud, and  Magnus Hirschfeld, but also some foreign works were thrown into the flames – Maxim Gorki, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Dos Passos.

Ninety-one years later, this May 3, just across Berlin’s famous Unter-den-Linden Blvd. and in the same university courtyard where those books had once been dragged from, some of today’s students – courageous, determined, the total opposite of the Nazis of 1933 – were forcibly hauled away to waiting police vans. The students of 1933 were advocating murder, preparing for the genocide which was to follow. These students of 2024 are protesting against murder and genocide.

The mayor, and the authorities, claimed that forbidden Hamas slogans were called out, justifying their brutal cuffing and arrests. It is possible that some participants, emotionally moved by the news and the pictures from Gaza, may have generalized these feelings. Who knows? And does it matter?

This group was not anti-Semitic; it also included Jewish students, a few of them Israeli exiles. The spirit of these first three hundred demonstrators, as in similar scenes at other colleges and universities in Germany and other countries – and so very courageously all over the US – was directed against destruction worse than any since 1945, of homes, mosques, churches, libraries, schools and universities in Gaza. The protests were also directed against the killing of over 35,000 human beings, a majority of them women and children, and the maiming of so many more.

But these demonstrations, now growing rapidly in number, were more than that. For many, they also expressed protest at the entire scene now engulfing Germany, and not only Germany.

Hatred is in the air, with century-old feelings of superiority over “inferior” people. There is growing pressure to build ever more destructive weapons and prepare to use them. The justification is always “self-defense,” whether it is regarding Gaza, Lithuania, or Estonia. The horror also includes blockades against human beings at frontiers in Texas, Arizona, and along Mediterranean seashores.

And with this hatred, there are mounting pressures for conformity. Don’t rock the boat – or else! Such trends are gaining strength, aiming at the accession of total power, and not only with the obviously far-right groups! Too many of the proper, accepted leaders have ties with the billionaire profiteers thrilled at new conflicts and more mansions, jets, and yachts.

It is the new spirit of protest against these trends, the hunt for new answers, which has dominant circles worried, even fearsome. That is why they send police into Hind’s Hall or the courtyard of Humboldt University.

Sometimes they prevail and can break resistance, sometimes local victories can be won. But it is the long-awaited movement which counts, and its match-up with equally courageous workers at auto plants, at Walmart or Starbucks shops, or in Central Africa and Central America.

There is an added irony; the site of Friday’s protest was the courtyard of Humboldt University in East Berlin, given that name soon after the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of Berlin by the Red Army on May 8 in 1945. Looking down upon today’s fighters is the statue of Alexander von Humboldt, a great scientist and explorer, who ardently opposed the slavery he saw in Latin America and the US in the 1820s – and oppression everywhere. A worthy patron.

And inside the handsome building (where Albert Einstein once taught) and despite many changes in the university’s character over the years, one sentence has been saved, in golden letters above a wide central staircase. It was written by another famous man, who once studied here, and it might also be considered as very relevant. The author was none other than Karl Marx. The words were: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

Perhaps it is fear of the revival of such a spirit which has caused the mayor and many politicians to become so angry and worried and to send in the police. Let us hope the better analogies are models, not the frightening ones!

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Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.