Interview with Matt Fishburn

Matt Fishburn is the author of Burning Books – his debut book due to be released this month. A rare bookseller in Sydney, Australia, Matt examines the impact of the 1933 book burnings in Germany, concentrating on the period between the Nazi outrages and the publication of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. Burning Books explores the myths around book burning and explains why they will continue.

Abe - Why are books burnt so often?
MF – “People love a celebratory bonfire, especially when it can symbolize a letting go of the past: burning old photos, marking a graduation by burning a hated textbook, or the like. This is one of the things that people I discuss my book with seem to implicitly understand, and indeed are often able to tell a similar story from their own past - just the other day someone told me that they had burned their provisional (driving) license once they properly graduated. Tellingly, in the US (and no doubt in other countries) many universities had an impromptu tradition of turning a blind eye to their graduating class burning their textbooks at the end of semester in a great bonfire. Indeed, when the Nazi fires were first reported in 1933, this was one of the most common comparisons made - the fires in Germany were, after all, organized by students and took place relatively early in the new regime. Nor is it idle to point out that such burnings are always a great spectacle. In Berlin there were marching bands, torchlight processions, group singing and college songs, parades, movie cameras, and members of the cultural elite.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“This is not meant to trivialize the impact of any such bonfire. Most officially sanctioned fires are designed to control, and to announce what they stand for and what will be accepted under their rule. Burnings like those of the Nazis have something in common with the early modern burning of books in Europe. They announced what would be acceptable in future, and in the process shaped the new public sphere. The book burnings are the symbol; the repressive legislation that came in its wake was what enforced it.”

Abe - Was the Nazi book burnings a well coordinated PR stunt?
MF – “Yes it was a propaganda stunt. It was organized by two national German student associations anxious to prove their allegiance to the new government. It was nonetheless given official approval, culminating in the propaganda minister Goebbels giving the keynote address in Berlin. It became part of the so-called ‘Gleichschaltung’ (the ‘co-ordination’) of culture in such a way as to have an official position on all arts.

“Interestingly, one of the things that the groups organizing the fires were often at great pains to stress was that the fires were not done in a haphazard or precipitate fashion. A photograph in the New York Times showed people sorting the books before the fire. Specialists and scholars were allowed some access to the material to make sure that nothing ‘valuable’ was destroyed.

“At the same time, people often brought their own books to burn, and it is simply impossible to guess what sort of things they supplied. Anecdotal evidence from later fires suggest that the people who turn up to fires are only rarely cultural warriors, and it is actually pretty common for them to bring any old tatty book just for the sake of having something to burn.

“Berlin, is the best recorded of the fires, and there is some consensus that many of the people who came to watch the fire were nonplussed by the whole event, while the light rain on the night meant that they did have to prime the fires with kerosene (books, ironically, are notoriously difficult to burn).

“So, the burnings were apparently conducted with respect and discernment, and with the idea of protecting the German people from the forces that had been trying to destabilize them. This rhetoric extended to the acts of more obviously wholesale destruction. In Berlin, one of the main targets was the sexual research institute of Magnus Hirschfeld, who was a pioneering sex researcher and might be compared with someone like the later Kinsey: Hirschfeld was committed to recording information rather than promoting a sexual norm. His Institute was closed in the days leading up to the fire, ransacked, damaging material confiscated, and everything else put aside to be burned. Students on May 10 paraded through the streets with the bronze sculpture of Hirschfeld they took from the Institute and he was burned in effigy (thankfully, Hirschfeld himself was out of the country when it happened).”

Abe - How many books were actually burnt on May 10?
MF – “Burnings were organized all over Germany and were not all held on May 10, although that was the favored date. Most were organized by the student associations, although a few were held by the Hitler Youth as well. Berlin was the centerpiece, and parts of the proceedings there were broadcast over the radio in some other cities. In Berlin, the accepted figure is 25,000, but this is just an estimate. Estimating how many books are in a pile is not an exact science, of course. Breslau was described as having a ‘wagon-load’ of books. In Hamburg, there were two fires. In Kaiserslautern, on March 26 1933, before any of the official planning, seven copies of All Quiet on the Western Front were stolen from the library and burnt.”

Abe - Did the Nazis actually endorse books?
MF – “Certainly the Nazi government endorsed books. It's important to remember the role of Mein Kampf in this context, which was handed out at almost every official event, and which was supposed to be in every household. About six million copies were said to be printed in Germany, and it was given to every couple when they married. It was the chief source of Hitler's private income. In a sense, this might be considered a reminder of how important the ‘book’ was considered in Germany. Nor should it necessarily be imagined that people actually read Mein Kampf (turgid rubbish that it is). The book became important in the most literally symbolic sense - this might be compared with the Little Red Book in China, first editions of which, ironically, now command five-figure sums.

Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong

“There was indeed a Book-of-the-Month style club. It was created by Goebbels in late 1934 and promoted ‘good’ German writers like Alfred Rosenberg. The New York Times commented it had the frankly startling motto: ‘books are good companions’. There were ‘gold’ lists to counter the black ones, and they did commit a lot of money to community libraries, even if it was evidently part of their controls of information. There's a tone of palpable envy in many of the reports about conditions in Germany written by international librarians who visited or studied the country. I haven't studied the later fates of these books closely, but I am willing to bet they are not well received any more. The endless array of children's literature produced during the Nazi regime lies unregarded.”

Abe - Does the Nazi book burnings rank as the most infamous in history?
MF – “They have become a cultural benchmark, a popular analogy, a common insult (to burn a book is to be ‘fascist’), and even now, anyone caught burning books must expect comparisons with the regime. Certainly, the combination of the determined censorship of the Nazis with the depth of their oppression of first the German cultural sphere, and later with the unimaginably savage repressions in the occupied countries, means that they have become a benchmark for modern oppression.

“But are they the worst in history? I am not keen to make a league table of burnings. In terms of strict censorship, the efforts in the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1920s, would certainly make the most obvious comparison. In my experience, the most well-known book fires, in no particular order, are: the burning/burnings of the Library at Alexandria; the burning of the Library of Congress by the British; the loss of Louvain Library in the German advance of 1914; the attacks on Salman Rushdie; and the recent artillery bombardment of the library in Sarajevo. This list might easily be added to.”