“Don't join the book burners. Don't think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.”—President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Remarks at the Dartmouth College Commencement Exercises, Hanover, New Hampshire,” June 14, 1953
A quarter century before Dwight Eisenhower warned Dartmouth graduates against book burners, the practice would have been regarded as a throwback to the witch-burnings of the Middle Ages. But on this date in 1933, German counterparts to Dartmouth—the finest their country had produced—gathered in university towns to incinerate approximately 25,000 books for propagating“un-German” ideas.
The authors whose works were burned that day form an indelible part of the modern era: Henri Barbusse, Franz Boas, John Dos Passos, Albert Einstein, Lion Feuchtwanger, Friedrich Forster, Sigmund Freud, John Galsworthy, Andre Gide, Ernst Glaeser, Maxim Gorki, Werner Hegemann, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Kästner, Helen Keller, Alfred Kerr, Jack London, Emil Ludwig, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Hugo Preuss, Marcel Proust, Erich Maria Remarque, Walther Rathenau, Margaret Sanger, Arthur Schnitzler, Upton Sinclair, Kurt Tucholsky, Jakob Wassermann, H.G. Wells, Theodor Wolff, Emile Zola, Arnold Zweig, and Stefan Zweig.
High Nazi officials, along with professors, university rectors, and university student leader,s addressed the mass audiences at the awful ceremonies, in which the books were heaped onto bonfires attended by band playing and “fire oaths.”
It was only less than half a year since Adolf Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, but he had already provided an extraordinarily vivid symbol of how fast he would move against enemies—not just those he could see, but those whose thoughts he wished to suppress.
Only two months before Eisenhower spoke, Senator Joseph McCarthy had demonstrated that the same
thing could happen here—or, rather, in United States Information Service (USIS) posts in Western Europe, many of whose libraries felt pressured by the senator’s bumptious young aides Roy Cohn and David Schine to remove books by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Steinbeck, Herman Melville, and Henry Thoreau.
When American forces came upon Nazi concentration camps at the end of WWII, General Eisenhower had members of Congress and journalists visit the gruesome sites so that the horror of what occurred would be seen, understood and documented. He knew, as well as anyone, that it was but a short step from burning books to burning people. Privately, he had grown to loathe McCarthy for his bullying. But concern about looking undignified—his vow not to "get into a pissing contest with that skunk"—led him to issue only veiled warnings such as the one at Dartmouth. Onlyy when “Tailgunner Joe” went after the institution to which Ike gave his best years, the U.S. Army, did the President finally determine that this modern-day know-nothing needed to be destroyed--and even then, his hand remained, publicly, largely hidden from the controversy.
(The image accompanying this post, of the May 10, 1933 book burning in Berlin, comes from the U.S. National Archives.)