Literature, along with art and music, suffered greatly in Nazi Germany. As with other aspects of culture, a very simple rule existed for literature: it was either acceptable to the Nazi state or it was not. As a result a number of internationally recognised authors left Nazi Germany for their own safety while the state gave prominence to authors who wrote about what the government expected them to: the glorification of war, the glorification of the Aryan ideal, the glorification of Adolf Hitler, the glorification of Nazi Germany etc.
When Hitler came to power on January 30th 1933, he was acutely aware of the power of authors – both within Nazi Germany and internationally. At that time Germany had a number of authors who had an international reputation: Erich Maria Remarque, Thomas Mann etc. Hitler knew that they had the power to undermine Germany abroad if they were allowed to write as they wished. As early as May 1933, Hitler took the decision that literary freedom had to be curbed at all costs and that authors only wrote in a manner that the government approved of. By 1939, over 2,500 authors had left Nazi Germany – either voluntarily or under duress. Those who remained would have been very aware of the consequences of writing anything that the state disapproved of.
“Whereas previously the works of German writers had been translated into many languages, scarcely a writer active in the Third Reich achieved a reputation beyond its borders.” (Louis Snyder)
On the night of May 10th 1933, the German public witnessed the first mass book burning ceremony organised by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Men from the SA heaped ‘unacceptable’ books into a pile on Unter den Linden opposite the University of Berlin. They then used the torches from their torchlight parade to set alight the books. The burned books included work by Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque and Albert Einstein. Non-German written books were also burned for being ‘un-German’ – work by Emile Zola, Jack London, H G Wells and Upton Sinclair. While the book burning was going on Goebbels addressed the crowd:
“Any book which acts subversively on our future (will be destroyed……………the soul of the German people can express itself again. These flames not only illuminate the end of an old era, they also light up a new.”
Thomas and Heinrich Mann left Germany as did Erich Maria Remarque. Thomas Mann had won the Nobel Prize for Literature while his brother had gained fame for his writings about social life in Germany. Remarque’s masterpiece ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was an international best-seller but Hitler considered it to be anti-war and greatly disapproved of its portrayal of young German men as haters of war. Hitler wanted German boys to be warlike and Remarque’s book did not fit this desire. The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht also left Germany. Brecht said after the first book burning ceremony:
“Where you burn books, you ultimately burn people.”
Some authors were not only tolerated by the Nazi regime, they were encouraged to write. However, all of them had to answer to Department VIII of the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. This supervisory department had full authority over 2,500 publishing houses, 3,000 authors and 23,000 bookshops. On average between January 1933 and September 1939, 20,000 new books were published each year. Each one of them had to be assessed by Department VIII to ensure that they were portraying the state as the state wished. Plays also had to go through the same process of acceptability. The department awarded 50 literary prizes each year. If you were caught up in the whole idea of Nazi Germany, these prizes were considered to be highly desirable. However, Department VIII’s most important task was to promote ‘Mein Kampf’ as the highest form of literature. It did its task well as by 1940, more than six million copies had been sold.
Authors who were acceptable to the Nazi state were allowed to write about four different topics.
The first was ‘Front Experience’. This was to promote the camaraderie and good times that would be found in time of war on the front line. The most famous author in this category was Werner Bumelburg.
The second category was ‘World View’. Books on this promoted the views of Hitler and Rosenberg. Hans Grimm wrote ‘People Without Space’ in 1926 and it was heavily publicised once the Nazis gained power. The book gave the Nazis one of their most famous slogans: “The Germans: the cleanest, most honest people, most efficient and most industrious.”
The third category was ‘Regional Novels’. These books emphasised the excellence of the various regions of Germany. The most famous authors in this category were Agnes Miegel, Rudolf Binding and Börries von Münchhausen.
The final category was ‘Racial Doctrine’. Books in this category emphasised the greatness of the Aryan race when compared to Jews, Slavs and anyone labelled ‘untermenschen’. The most famous author in this category was Gottfried Benn who based his work on the “ancestral vitality” of the German people.