We must think – Book burning

November 9–10, 1938, Fürth near Nuremberg.

I first saw this image today, 9 Nov – 84 years later. What have we learnt? [i] That you had to have a hat to be a Nazi, black boots were in. They are carrying Jewish texts to be burnt, and look more like librarians than executioners, more like bureaucrats than soldiers. I think it is an important image.

David Turner notes that the Nazis retained Weimar the bureaucracy of personnel and management, since bureaucracy is malleable: ‘The frictionless operation of the machinery of destruction required that the victims be dehumanized in the eyes of the perpetrators. This was achieved… by a bureaucratic mode of operation, in which depersonalized and dispassionate behaviour unprejudiced by human emotions was a fundamental and positive value of the civil service.’ [ii]

By coincidence, today I have been reading Donna Haraway’s enlarging of the Anthropocene to the Chthulucene. In a lecture, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble’, she says, ‘If ever there has been a time for the need seriously to think, it is now, and it has got to be the kind of thinking that Hannah Arendt accused [Adolph] Eichmann of being incapable of . . . The inability to confront the consequences of the worlding that one is in fact engaged in, and the limiting and thinking to functionality. The limiting of thinking to business as usual. Being smart, perhaps, being efficient, perhaps, but that Eichmann was incapable of thinking, and in that consisted the banality and ordinariness of evil. And I think among us, the question of whether we are Eichmanns is a very serious one.’[iii]

But not everyone thinks the banality of evil is accurate for the machinery of the holocaust. David Cesarani says, ‘She [Arendt] turned Eichmann’s personality into the kind of personality that she thought totalitarianism needed. And for that reason, she completely misunderstood him. She played down the elements of anti-Semitism, ideology—and the rather bizarre nature of his personality . . . In the mind of Adolf Eichmann, fantasy though it may be, that’s what he was doing. He was in a war against an enemy which had struck at the German people in 1918, betrayed them, stabbed them in the back during the war, and now the Germans were going to strike back. It may have been a fantasy, but it justified and legitimated what he did. It wasn’t a gut thing. It wasn’t a pathological hatred. It was something that he learned and imbibed. And I think in certain circumstances and societies every man and woman can achieve that ghastly thing.’ [iv]



Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass. Mobs of Germans and Austrians attacked, looted and burned Jewish shops and homes, destroyed 1,400 synagogues, killed 92 Jews and sent another 30,000 to concentration camps.

May 10 1933. German student organizations supported by Nazi Party members organised public rallies in 34 university towns and cities across Germany. They burnt books written by Jews, political opponents, and liberal intellectuals to ‘purify’ German libraries. Karl Marx, Thomas Mann, Max Brod, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller. They also burnt books by Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820–1821 play Almansor the famous warning, ‘Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.’

In the last few years, book burnings have occurred in Turkey and Egypt, among other countries.

Book burning has a rich tradition. ‘The Bonfire of the vanities’ refers to the bonfire of 7 February 1497, when supporters of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola collected and burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, Italy on the Shrove Tuesday festival. Botticelli came under his spell.



[i] Photograph donated to Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial by the family of a Jewish-American serviceman who obtained them in Germany.

[ii] David Turner, ‘Foundations of Holocaust: Eichmann, Bureaucracy and the depersonalization of annihilation’, Jerusalem Post, Feb14, 2013.—from-anti-judaism-to-anti-semitism/bureaucracy-and-the-machinery-of-murder-366039

[iii] Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble’, lecture by Donna Haraway in Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, 05/09/2014.

[iv] David Cesarani in conversation with Ramona Koval on ABC Big Ideas – Program 4 – 24 October 2004.

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