Saturday, May 31, 2008

Book Burnings

Dear Reich Minister, Joseph Goebbels,

It has been 75 years hasn't it? Did you really think that you would stop the spread of ideas by burning books? Some people will always continue to think, you see. Some people will be undaunted and brave. You will run up against the Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Elisabeth von Thaddens of the world and be undone in the end. (Not to mention the Churchills and Roosevelts.)

But, perhaps you did succeed in slowing things down. Shame. What was it you were trying to do? Remove that which is "un-German" and immoral?

Your words at the bonfire at Opernplatz in Berlin are interesting ones, actually.
My fellow students . . . The triumph of the German revolution has cleared a path for the German way; and the future German man will not just be a man of books, but also a man of character and it is to this end we want to educate you. To have at an early age the courage to peer directly into the pitiless eyes of life. To repudiate the fear of death in order to gain again the respect for death. That is the mission of the young and therefore you do well at this late hour to entrust to the flames the intellectual garbage of the past. It is a strong, great and symbolic undertaking, an undertaking, which shall prove to all the world that the intellectual basis of the November Republic is here overturned; but that from its ruins will arise victorious the lord of a new spirit.
Some of your words could be attached to almost any heroic human endeavor of note, except for the part about entrusting "to the flames the intellectual garbage of the past." I was reading Hemingway the other day, The Old Man and the Sea. I haven't read it since high school. But it is an old person's book. I love the way the old man repudiates the fear of death in order to gain again the respect for death. But he gains again the respect for life too. Did you forget that? But then you didn't read Hemingway. You had your "little list", didn't you? (I wonder why you didn't ban Gilbert and Sullivan?) Banned Authors do have a way of biting you in the end, with the teeth of time and truth.

I got thinking about this subject after I got an email from a book seller, not Amazon, but AbeBooks. Their little newsletter spoke of your infamous event, now 75 years out and falling from memory. They provide online lists too. But from their lists, we buy books and they do create flames, yes, indeed, but they inflame our minds and set us afire with ideas. From John Dos Passos to Hemingway and Sigrid Undset, from Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels, from Lion Feuchtwanger to Marc Chagall and Paul Klee, from Thomas Mann to and Helen Keller we kindle and burn and are grateful.

You once said, perhaps shortly before you killed your family and committed suicide, "If the day should ever come when the nazis must go, if some day we are compelled to leave the scene of history, we will slam the door so hard that the universe will shake and mankind will stand back in stupification." But you have not shaken the universe. You, in fact, left the door ajar, for us to look back and see the error of your ways and your inability to look at life at all, only death, and with that knowledge and that which we gain in the study of great books, move forward enlightened.

Seventy-five years later, we look at you and pity.


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