First They Came for the Books and I Did Not Speak Out

In America and much of the world today, individuals have unlimited access to many forms of media, be they online social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Instagram, or more traditional media such as books and magazines. A person’s thoughts can be seen on the World Wide Web instantaneously without any external oversight.

Today, many in the world (but not all) may find it difficult to imagine a society in which all forms of media are controlled and forced to comply with strict governmental criteria. Jan-Pieter Barbian’s The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany: Books in the Media Dictatorship offers insight into one such society by documenting the Nazi destruction of the German book industry from 1933 through 1945. Under Nazism, publishers, writers, and readers were stripped of their right to engage freely with any type of media—whether books, films, newspapers, or music—causing Germany, which had once been the center of intellectual life in Europe, to transform suddenly into a propagandistic anti-intellectual dictatorship.

Barbian’s comprehensive tome explores the ways that the Nazis dominated all aspects of the book industry. It examines the destruction and re-creation of the industry that placed the Nazi regime in control of retail, lending, public, and research libraries. The Nazis dictated the roles of wholesalers, publishers, owners of new and secondhand bookstores, and librarians. It refashioned the school system to reflect its ideology and inspired the war effort through books. In order to promote its ideology, the Nazi Party strictly controlled what could be published and promoted books that expressed its philosophy.

Barbian documents this transformation of the book industry in minute detail. He traces the pivotal shift that changed Germany from a modern free state under the Weimar Republic into a book “media dictatorship” under Nazism after the 4 February 1933 “Decree of the Protection of the German People” (12; 59). This decree repealed the Weimar Constitution, which “guaranteed the right of free expression of opinion through ‘word,’ writing, imprint, image; or in any other manner” (14), and prohibited any publication that “endanger[ed] [the] public security or order” (13).

Once this happened, individuals and groups that opposed the Nazis (e.g., Communists) were subject to arrest. The first book burning in Germany occurred in May 1933 (24). Barbian emphasizes the extent of the Nazis’ effort to force its ideology on publishing industry. Hitler entrusted this effort with Max Amann, who “succeeded in building the Franz Eher publishing company… into one of [the] Reich’s most politically and economically important enterprises. He controlled Party periodical publications,” and “all publishers and publishing directors of official printable materials were answerable to him” (34). Jewish publishing companies like Ulstein, which was valued at 50-60 million Reichsmark in 1933–1944, were forced to sell for much less than their value—12 million Reichsmark in the case of Ulstein (35).

Barbian also discusses the restrictions placed on the library system. For example, the public libraries were centralized, forcing them to loose their “independence regarding library holdings” and “the professional association rights to self-regulation” (50). With the Laws for Restoration of the Professional Civil Service of April 1933, librarians who could not provide “proof of ‘Aryan descent’” were removed from employment (51), and all librarians had to attend some form of mandatory political training (52-53). Research libraries removed close to 100 Jewish librarians by the end of 1935 (55).

Barbian explores the manner in which the Nazis tried to control the minds of the public through the book industry. The Party Examination Commission, which was created to secure National Socialist writing, banned any materials that opposed the Nazi ideal, including doctoral dissertations. It went on to exert control over the almanacs and “important” German Encyclopedias to make sure they were consistent with Nazism and finally developed educational materials for schools (132-133). For example, a reader entitled Kamf Um Deutschland (The Struggle for Germany) was made mandatory reading for fifth grade through high school.

Another means of censorship was the distribution of paper, which gave higher priority to “scientific and technical literature” and to “quality entertainment literature.” The latter genre was viewed as “important to the war effort by Hitler and Gobbels in fall 1943” (217). Barbian explains that bookstore owners were under great pressure to enforce Nazi control over the general public by selling the right books. As of 1935, there were efforts to get rid of “non-Aryan” work in retail stores and even secondhand bookstores (231). The Nazi party encouraged people to send acceptable books to their friends and family as part of the propaganda campaign. The Nazi regime wanted books to be read on its terms.

One of the major reasons the Nazis took such extreme efforts to control the book industry, according to Barbian, was to eliminate the large Jewish presence from the media. By the end of 1939, “18,914 of the 26,263 Jewish-owned companies in Austria, including publishers and booksellers, had been liquidated” (177). Jews were permitted to sell “solely ‘Jewish literature’” to Jews as long as the material was not banned (179). Indeed “from the beginning of 1939 until 1942, Jewish book production in the German Reich were restricted to Verlag des Jüdischen Kulturbundes a publishing house of the Cultural League of German Jews” (179).

However, the “‘harmful and undesirable literature’ ordinance was revised on 15 April 1940, so that publications ‘contrary to the cultural and political objectives of the national Social state’ could not only not be published, sold, distributed, lent, rented out, displayed, advertised or otherwise offered to the public, but must not even be stored” (201). In 1941, when German Jews were deported, “their public libraries, including large numbers of banned books, flowed into the secondhand book trade, especially in big cities” (238), and the Nazi party had to make sure all of the potential Jewish or Marxist writings were removed (238).

Eventually, “Jewish writers, sales representatives, and book trade employees were banned from working” (373). Barbian’s description of the Jewish exclusion from the book industry offers yet another example of the many ways Nazi Germany utilized a book media dictatorship to suppress the Jewish population.

Barbian provides numerous examples of how the Nazis rearranged and created their new propaganda system through book industry. He emphasizes that most in the book industry were receptive to this campaign. “Nazism had not burst into their world ‘like an alien force’; rather, the majority of them abetted it through ‘their desire for a purification of German art and for an authoritarian political order” (379).

Barbian leaves the reader with the haunting idea that the destruction of the book industry was not simply the fault of the Nazi party’s effort to control media, but also of those who were complicit with Nazism.

RATING 8 / 10