Eighty years ago more than 30,000 books were burned in a bonfire in Berlin. Josef Goebbels spoke to the crowd of mostly students and celebrated the end of "Jewish intellectualism" in Germany ("Das Zeitalter eines überspitzten jüdischen Intellektualismus ist nun zu Ende",) In addition to the books of Marx, Engels and Freud, the novels of many of Germany's best writers were tossed into the flames. The crowd roared as the names of the writers were called out ( "Ich übergebe der Flamme die Schriften von Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeser, Erich Kästner.")
The bonfire in Berlin was just the culmination of a series of book-burnings that had already taken place in Kaiserlautern, Wuppertal and other cities. It was students and their professors who collected the books - often from their own private libraries - to assign to the fire.
Where were the intellectuals who spoke out against the book burning? Where was the debate? A few lonely voices beyond the borders of Germany expressed dismay. The Bavarian writer, Oskar Maria Graf, safely (temporarily ) in exile in Vienna exhorted the Nazis to burn his books as well (Verbrennt mich!).
But within Germany, the intellectuals were ecstatic as they watched the books turn to ashes. The Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn could barely contain his excitement in a letter to his friend:
"Die Revolution ist da, und die Geschichte spricht. Wer das nicht sieht, ist schwachsinnig .Dies ist die neue Epoche des geschichtlichen Seins, über ihren Wert oder Unwert zu reden, ist läppisch, sie ist da."
("The revolution has arrived and history has spoken. You have to be an idiot not to see this. We have entered a new epoch of historical being, and it's foolish to debate whether it is a good or bad thing. It simply is..")
Of course, the works of Heinrich Heine were thrown into the bonfire. It was Heine who predicted what would later happen: Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.( Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.)
Less than a decade later a group of leaders met a few miles away from where the bonfire had been set. Most of the participants had studied at the most prestigious German universities and had achieved the highest academic titles. The meeting later became known as the Wannsee Conference.