70,000 people occupied the great Berlin Opera Square on May 10, 1933. University students transported more than 20,000 books to the square, works by authors such as Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque and Heinrich Heine. It was a great act of the National Socialist propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, in which tens of thousands of books were burned in bonfires. It was what their legitimate moral heirs today call the cancellation of everything that does not coincide with their totalitarian political culture.
Colors and symbols have changed. The totalitarian ideology on the rise is another. And to its National Socialist predecessors it gives the role of villains, while adopting their practices, adapting them to the present.
In 1933, the hatred of savages with university degrees stood out, such as the National Socialist student leader Herbert Gutjahr, who at the age of 23 shouted “We have directed our actions against the un-German spirit. I surrender everything that stands for it to the fire.” But, the multitudinous act at the Berlin Opera Square no longer belonged to the National Socialist students -and professors- who had initiated everything by persecuting -today their moral equivalents would say “canceling”- everything they didn’t want to hear in their campuses.
With the propaganda minister in charge of the scene -and ahead of Orwell, who did nothing but describe them and the Soviets and everything they had in common, through literary fiction- they called it a festival of culture, broadcast live on radio, to Germany and the world. It included simultaneous book burnings by students and professors all over Germany. In all German university cities, titles of authors declared undesirable by that totalitarianism were burned on May 10th.
It had all started with college students spontaneously stealing and destroying books of writers, poets and journalists they called undesirable from the shelves of public and university libraries. Not only books. Their efforts to expel professors and students who did not share their totalitarianism were notorious in the universities. But suddenly they were determined to make books disappear. They thought -because after all, they were university-educated savages- that this was the only way to really disappear the authors.
And it is important to note that their terror campaigns in the universities had long preceded National Socialism’s rise to power. Not without resistance, but with increasing success in crushing it. It cost the violent National Socialist fanatics at the schools more to defeat the violent Communist fanatics than it did to terrorize and neutralize faculty and academic authorities.
But the fact is that in January of that year the National Socialists had democratically come to power (it was the party with the most votes, but which until then, even if it was the party with the most votes, President Hindemburg had effectively maneuvered to prevent them from forming a government, until he finally gave in to the undeniable political reality and he made way for them.
Shortly afterwards, the Dutch Communist Marinus van der Lubbe, a firm believer in the dogmas of the other great totalitarianism in the fray at the time, planned and executed the burning of the Reichstag, believing that he was lighting the torch that would start the great proletarian revolution -Soviet style- that would spread from Germany to the rest of Europe. Yet the law of unintended consequences kick in. And van der Lubbe, who had worked alone and in secret – in the manner of the anarchists with whom he sympathized – surprised Communists and National Socialists alike.
The National Socialists could not believe that this was an isolated attempt. Attributing it to the Communists, they rushed into repression -later legalized by emergency decrees- which justified van der Lubbe’s attack. Goering dismissed the isolated terrorist thesis. He really believed in the non-existent Communist conspiracy -if he believed otherwise he would not have missed the opportunity to hold the Communists responsible and persecute them- and the imminent armed uprising of the KPD.
Although he had no immediate plans for any uprising, the KPD’s numerous armaments, munitions and explosives -almost completely seized by the speed that the misguided sense of urgency forced on Goering- convinced President Hindemburg of the imminence of the mythical Communist uprising. He therefore signed the emergency decree which Chancellor Hitler presented to him, through von Papen.
The German cCommunists also could not believe it was an isolated individual attack. They reasoned that if it had not been them, it must have been the National Socialists themselves, in order to accuse them and justify their repression.
In spite of the popularity that the conspiracy thesis still has, documents point to the fact that it was an isolated act, carefully planned and effectively executed by van der Lubbe but with the opposite effect to that intended. As historian Kurt Zentner explains: “For Hitler (…) the Reichstag fire was a magnificent propaganda springboard for the next elections (…) Hitler obtained in Germany, for the first time and for many years, a majority really capable of commanding.”
The NSDAP won 17,277,189 votes in the next election, against 7,181,620 for its closest contender, the SPD. The other NSDAP allies in turn won 3,136,760.
The propaganda minister was able to light his own big torch by supporting the totalitarian student movement from within the government. And at midnight, with his characteristic flair for the dramatic, Goebbels declared in Opera Square -and on radio stations all over Germany- “the era of Jewish intellectualism is coming to an end and the consecration of the German revolution has also given way to the German way,” even before Heinrich Heine had predicted.”Where books are burned, people are burned.”
He was not wrong. And where people are cancelled -whose ideas are censored- from academia, the press and the internet, they will end up in concentration camps. This is a lesson from history we may still have time to learn before it is too late. Because the night has already begun, and it will get dark.