A hundred years before the advent of Hitler, the German-Jewish poet,
Heinrich Heine, had declared: "Wherever books are burned, human beings
are destined to be burned too."
On the night of May 10, 1933, an event unseen in Europe since the Middle
Ages occurred as German students from universities once regarded as among
the finest in the world, gathered in Berlin to burn books with "unGerman"
The students, along with brownshirted storm troopers, tossed heaps of
books into a bonfire while giving the Hitler arm-salute and singing Nazi
anthems. Among the 20,000 volumes hurled into the flames were the writings
of Henri Barbusse, Franz Boas, John Dos Passos, Albert Einstein, Lion Feuchtwanger,
Friedrich Förster, Sigmund Freud, John
Galsworthy, André 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, Emilé
Zola, Arnold Zweig, and Stefan Zweig.
Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire
and declared: "The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at
an end...The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man
of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young
person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome
the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of
this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit
to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and
symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world
to know – Here the intellectual foundation of the November [Democratic]
Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of
a new spirit will triumphantly rise..."
Germany was now led by a self-educated, high school drop-out named Adolf
Hitler, who was by nature strongly anti-intellectual. For Hitler, the reawakening
of the long-dormant Germanic spirit, with its racial and militaristic qualities,
was far more important than any traditional notions of learning.
Before Hitler, German university towns had been counted among the world's
great centers of scientific innovation and literary scholarship. Under
Hitler, Germany's intellectual vitality quickly began to diminish. Truth,
rational thinking and objective knowledge, the foundation stones of Western
Civilization, were denounced by Nazified students and professors in favor
of mysticism, speculation and collective thinking toward a common goal – the pursuit of a glorious future for Germany.
The youth-oriented Nazi movement had always attracted a sizable following
among right-leaning university students. Even back in the 1920s they sensed
Nazism might be the wave of the future. They joined the National Socialist
German Students' League, put on swastika armbands and harassed any anti-Nazi
Now, many formerly reluctant professors were swept along by the outpouring
of student enthusiasm that followed Hitler's seizure of power. Most of
the professors eagerly surrendered their intellectual honesty and took
the required Nazi oath of allegiance. They also wanted to curry favor with
Nazi Party officials in order to grab one of the academic vacancies resulting
from the mass expulsion of Jewish professors and deans.
The entire teaching profession throughout Germany, from elementary schools
to university level, had been purged of Jewish instructors and anyone deemed
politically suspect, regardless of their proven teaching abilities or achievements,
including 20 past (and future) Nobel Prize winners. About ten percent of
Germany's university teaching force was sacked in 1933-34, with devastating
results for disciplines such as quantum physics and mathematics where Jews
had been prominent. The world's premier physicist, Albert Einstein, settled
in the United States along with many other intellectual refugees from Hitler's
Lovers of truth and freedom who remained behind in Germany only managed
to escape through the phenomenon of inner-emigration. The Nazis could never
actually know one's inner-most thoughts as long as one maintained a kind
of poker face and didn't reveal those private thoughts. However, this could
also be a dreadfully lonely existence.
Eventually, small groups of like-minded students and professors still
opposed to Nazism found each other. They sometimes held clandestine off-campus
discussions featuring a free exchange of ideas. One such group based at
the University of Munich became known as the White Rose and boldly distributed
leaflets demanding that Hitler "return to us the personal freedom
which is the most valuable possession of each German, and of which he has
cheated us in the lowest possible manner." Two members of the group,
Hans and Sophie Scholl, were arrested by the Gestapo for this and executed.
In the college classroom, professors gave lectures amid the nagging
fear they might be denounced by one of their students for any reason and
possibly wind up in a concentration camp. Politically ambitious teachers
sometimes kept secret dossiers on the utterances and activities of their
fellow educators which could be turned over to the Gestapo to further their
own careers. The widespread insecurity that resulted caused academic timidity
which further lowered educational standards.
Grammar schools and high schools throughout Germany now had National
Socialist teachers of questionable ability forming young minds in strict
adherence to the Party motto: "The supreme task of the schools is
the education of youth for the service of Volk and State in the National
Socialist spirit." They taught Nazi propaganda as truth and had their
young students recite it back from memory.
During the war years, the Hitler Youth organization gradually supplanted
the traditional elementary and secondary school system and became the main
force educating German children. And the quality of that education continually
worsened. Students emerging from the elite Adolf Hitler Schools were in
superb physical condition and thoroughly drilled in Nazi ideology, but
lacked basic skills in math and science.
Nazi scientists, educated before Hitler, complained they were hindered
in developing new super-weapons by the recruitment of graduates from the
Nazified school system. German Army leaders also complained that young
officer candidates displayed "a simply inconceivable lack of elementary
They didn't even know enough to capitalize the first letter of a proper
name. But for Hitler, these shortcomings really didn't matter. The school
system now produced what he needed – unquestioning young men ready to obediently
serve the Fatherland unto death amid Nazi slogans such as: Believe, Obey,
"My program for educating youth is hard," Hitler had once
"Weakness must be hammered away. In my Ordensburgen [special Nazi
colleges] a youth will grow up before which the world will tremble. I want
a brutal, domineering, fearless, cruel youth. Youth must be all that. It
must bear pain. There must be nothing weak and gentle about it. The free,
splendid beast of prey must once again flash from its eyes...That is how
I will eradicate thousands of years of human domestication...That is how
I will create the New Order."
And in this New Order, anyone refusing to conform was simply removed
from society and sent away for a special kind of re-education within the
confines of a concentration camp. There they would be broken physically,
mentally and spiritually until they either submitted completely or died.
The first such camp was Dachau located near Munich. It was so successful
that it became the model for all subsequent concentration camps, and there
would be hundreds of them.