Harm­ful and Unde­sir­able: Book Cen­sor­ship in Nazi Germany

Guenter Lewy
  • Review
By – September 1, 2016

Read­ers may be famil­iar with the pho­to­graph of the Nazi-orches­trat­ed book burn­ing in front of a Ger­man uni­ver­si­ty in May, 1933. What is not wide­ly known is that Hitler’s gov­ern­ment estab­lished a rigid sys­tem of book cen­sor­ship and an index of unde­sir­able books that exist­ed until the end of the war. Inher­ent in Nazi ide­ol­o­gy was the claim to total dom­i­na­tion of the world of ideas. 

In his new book, Harm­ful and Unde­sir­able: Book Cen­sor­ship in Nazi Ger­many, Guenter Lewy informs us that 5,485 book titles were banned by the end of the war. The entire cen­sor­ship process was imple­ment­ed by a num­ber of com­pet­ing bureau­cra­cies, but main­ly the Reich Cham­ber of Lit­er­a­ture (RSK). The banned books includ­ed those of alleged moral cor­rup­tion, works of Marx­ism and paci­fism, books and arti­cles per­ceived as dam­ag­ing the mar­tial spir­it and morale of the Ger­man peo­ple and those prop­a­gat­ing Catholic or oth­er con­fes­sion­al ideas, and works that fell into the catch des­ig­na­tion of fail­ure to live up to what was to be expect­ed in the new Ger­many.” But what of books and pub­li­ca­tions by Jew­ish authors and pub­lish­ing companies?

Nazi pro­pa­gan­da had long equat­ed being Jew­ish with being un-Ger­man. But an unex­pect­ed com­pli­ca­tion came with ban­ning Jew­ish” books: after the Nurem­berg Laws were imple­ment­ed in 1935, it became increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to deter­mine which Jews” were to have their books banned — three-quar­ter Jews, half-Jews, quar­ter-Jews? There was also the dif­fi­cul­ty of Jew­ish pub­lish­ing firms. In the 1930s the Nazi gov­ern­ment was in des­per­ate need of for­eign cur­ren­cy, and clos­ing down Jew­ish owned pub­lish­ing hous­es meant a severe loss of essen­tial income. How­ev­er, Joseph Goebbels, the Min­is­ter of Pro­pa­gan­da, insist­ed that cul­ture trumped eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty; and so many Jew­ish-owned cul­tur­al enter­pris­es were Aryanized.” Goebbels argued that the peo­ple of the poets and thinkers had let their cul­ture be admin­is­tered by Semi­tes,” and claimed that 40 per­cent of all Ger­man authors had been Jews,” who had devel­oped their deca­dent and cor­ro­sive ver­sion of Ger­man lit­er­a­ture in order to sub­ju­gate the Ger­man peo­ple, a step in the Jew­ish con­spir­a­cy to rule the world.”

Until 1938, the strug­gle against Jew­ish books was focused on those writ­ten by assim­i­lat­ed Ger­man Jews. The list of banned Jew­ish authors includ­ed such writ­ers as Vicky Baum, Emil Lud­wig, Lion Feucht­wanger, Franz Kaf­ka, Arthur Schnit­zler, Kurt Tuchol­sky, Franz Wer­fel, and Arnold and Ste­fan Zweig. In addi­tion, the Min­istry of Pro­pa­gan­da warned the book trade that no men­tion was to be made any­where of the works of Hein­rich Heine. One Nazi jour­nal pro­nounced that Heine is not a poet, he is a Jew.” Once World War II start­ed in 1939, the works of Jew­ish authors world­wide were either banned or placed on an index of unde­sir­able books.

This is an impor­tant study of a some­times ignored aspect of Nazi Germany’s effort to elim­i­nate any crit­i­cism of the Third Reich — as well as use the ban­ning books by Jews as one weapon in its war against the Jew­ish people.

Relat­ed Content:

    Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

    Discussion Questions